inside the core: a first look at frank gehry's philadelphia museum of art overhaul
 

inside the core: a first look at frank gehry's philadelphia museum of art overhaul

in 1895 a competition was launched to design a new building for the philadelphia museum of art. the institution would be sited on top of a recently decommissioned water reservoir, and would anchor one end of the benjamin franklin parkway — a boulevard modeled on paris’ champs-élysées. in total, the vast building — designed by horace trumbauer and zantzinger, borie & medary — took ten years to complete. however, when it opened on march 26, 1928, much of its interior was vacant. over the last nine decades, the museum’s internationally-renowned collection has slowly grown to comprise more than 240,000 objects, spanning 4,000 years. today, the institution attracts an average of 800,000 visitors each year — a number that has led to a demand for more gallery space. consequently, over a decade ago, frank gehry was tasked with overhauling the entire museum to modernize it for its second century.


designboom’s CEO massimo mini and editor-in-chief birgit lohmann touring the philadelphia museum

 

 

designboom was invited on an exclusive visit to philadelphia, where we took a closer look at the museum and its ambitious plans for the future. as part of the tour, we spoke with timothy rub — the 13th director of the philadelphia museum of art — who explained more about gehry’s design and the goals of the renovated institution.

 

 

designboom takes an inside look at the museum’s subterranean construction site
video © designboom

 

 

frank gehry was first commissioned to expand the philadelphia museum of art in 2006. ‘after we finished the masterplan in 2011, we spent a couple of years in design development before we unveiled it to the public in 2014,’ museum director timothy rub told designboom at the exclusive media preview. ‘since then, we’ve been going fairly quickly and raising money to implement the masterplan. now we’re just at the start of perhaps the most complicated phase, and that involves working inside the museum itself. everything that were are doing right now is within the four walls of the museum.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
before: the van pelt auditorium is being demolished (image by elizabeth leitzell)
after: the forum, looking west and up to lenfest hall (image by gehry partners, LLP and KX-L)

 

 

on march 30, 2017, the museum officially broke ground on the ‘core project’ — the current phase of gehry’s plan, which will continue through the spring of 2020. this stage of the masterplan will see the west terrace entirely rebuilt, providing greater accessibility, while lenfest hall will also undergo significant renovation. meanwhile, the existing auditorium will be replaced with ‘the forum’ — a new public space that will open up circulation and provide visual connections throughout the complex. importantly, new galleries for american and contemporary art will also be added, alongside newly designed meeting rooms and eateries.

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
before: staircase from lenfest hall to the art café and great stair hall (image by elizabeth leitzell)
after: the staircase has been transformed with new sightlines (image by gehry partners, LLP and KX-L)

 

 

‘the ‘core project’ is combination of several things,’ continues timothy rub, who began his current role in 2009. ‘firstly, because the building is designated as a city and federal landmark, what we do has to be carefully considered in terms of the historic designations. that responsibility is complicated by the fact that the building is part of a larger civic composition along benjamin franklin parkway. it’s also pretty complicated when you think about the renovation because there is not a logical place for the museum to expand on the surface.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
before: inside the north entrance, looking south (image by elizabeth leitzell)
after: archways provide access to the vaulted walkway (image by gehry partners, LLP and KX-L)

 

 

‘the building was sorely in need of a very significant renewal of its building systems: electrical, plumbing, major utilities, and safety,’ says rub. ‘for example, we have more than 220 windows and each of them have bronze frames with single panes. so there are energy conservation issues that needed to be addressed. a lot of basic work needs to be done to bring the building and its systems up to date. it was estimated 15 years ago, and it remains true today, that 65 cents from every dollar spent on this building would be spent on infrastructure.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
before: the north end of the vaulted walkway (image by elizabeth leitzell)
after: the gallery includes the vaulted walkway and the forum (image by gehry partners, LLP and KX-L)

 

 

however, the masterplan is a lot more than a technical upgrade. as the museum was designed in the 1910s, its configuration and layout also needed addressing. ‘the way it is organized in terms of the distribution of functions dates to 1910 and that’s something that needed to be reconsidered. what museums do today is very different to what they had to do in 1910. the plan addresses this issue by rezoning the building internally and moving some things around. this provides a great deal of space, around 16,000 square feet, for education — which we’ve never had before. by removing offices and back of house functions we are trying to dedicate as much space as possible to to what I call ‘public facing activity’ — such as education, public space, or circulation. that’s very very important.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
before: the south end of the vaulted walkway (image by elizabeth leitzell)
after: the light-filled space will feature installations of contemporary art (image by gehry partners, LLP and KX-L)

 

 

in contrast to some of gehry’s other museum projects, where the emphasis has been on instant visual identity, the masterplan has been developed with a refined and calculated methodology that works with the building’s existing architecture. ‘when I came here as director in 2009, I said that I’d been coming to the philadelphia museum of art for 30 years and I still love getting lost in it — and people do!’, continues rub. ‘it’s a confusing building to navigate, and that needed to be addressed without draining it of its spirit. people ask me ‘where is gehry in the masterplan?’ and my response is that he’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time — he has respected and extended the language of the original building.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
construction work got underway in march 2017
image © designboom

 

 

once finalized, the masterplan will increase gallery space by almost half — a particularly impressive achievement considering that, from the outside at least, the building’s appearance will remain much the same. ‘we’re finding more space to show the collection,’ concludes timothy rub. ‘here’s the interesting thing: when we’re done with the masterplan we will have added 78,000 square feet of new gallery space, including temporary exhibitions. that will represent a 47% increase in gallery space without adding anything on the outside. to me, that’s a remarkable thing.’

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
the overhaul will increase gallery space by 47 percent
image © designboom

 

 

‘I walked through the building and I saw that all you had to do was follow the yellow brick road, so to speak,’ explained frank gehry, when the ‘core project’ was first unveiled. ‘it was all there, and it showed you what you could do.’

 

the first results of the project will be seen in 2019, before additional spaces open in stages throughout 2019 and 2020. the final phase of the masterplan will include the construction of a new auditorium, additional galleries, and expanded educational facilities. see designboom’s previous coverage of the renovation here.

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
the building’s original architecture will be incorporated in the redesign
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
much of the expansion is taking place below grade
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
the renewal of the vaulted walkway is critical to the construction of future galleries
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
a scale model of the ambitious plans
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
the museum’s surroundings will also be landscaped as part of the masterplan
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
work on the ‘core project’ is scheduled to complete in 2020
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
a sectional view of the model, indicating the scheme’s spatial configuration
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
new sightlines will offer views of lenfest hall to help orient visitors
image © designboom

philadelphia museum of art frank gehry
timothy rub, director of the philadelphia museum of art, explaining the major expansion plans
image © designboom

 

 

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  • fabulous presentation

    dbkii says:
  • Is this renovation an improvement? That it’s dramatic, and the work of a starchitect, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Had you compared images of how the spaces will look, with how they had looked in, say, 1940, rather than when they’re under construction, we might have been able to make that call. Good as Frank Gehry can be — and let’s keep in mind the original architect Horace Trumbauer was pretty good too –this project looks more like an enormous, upscale shopping mall than a great museum. It adds millions of square feet that can be rented out for parties, provides additional “eateries,” as you call them, and the necessary circulation for vast crowds, but I can’t help but wonder where the art comes in, or if the experience of viewing it will be improved — or diminished.

    Louis Bofferding says:

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