Philadelphia Museum of Art reopens to reveal Frank Gehry's Core Project

The transformation of the 1928 main building by Frank Gehry, in a 20-year-long project, is a careful reconstruction of the values of the original architects and not just their design.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : May 17, 2021

After close to two decades of planning, designing and construction, The Philadelphia Museum of Art was finally revealed to the public in early May. The 90,000 square feet of the landmark structure, which was built in 1928, was reimagined while new spaces were created within the building in an attempt to make the building more energy-efficient and accessible. Undertaken by Frank Gehry, the entire renovation was given the title of the Core Project. The title speaks to the central focus of the renewal project, which was to enhance the museum's infrastructure and to bring its visual experience into the contemporary space. As opposed to Gehry's iconic facades, the scope of work, in this case, was to preserve the building’s temple-like exterior and setting, while transforming the core.

Core Project Cross-Section of Philadelphia Museum of Art - Architectural rendering, 2016 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
Core Project Cross-Section of Philadelphia Museum of Art - Architectural rendering, 2016 Image: Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

The main facade of the building has been left largely untouched. However, a few subtle changes were incorporated including accessibility ramps, material changes, improved lighting and digital signage. The interior of the museum required a much more compelling overhaul, which was carried out without shutting the day-to-day functioning of the institution. This was carefully orchestrated through the museum’s Facilities Master Plan, which was approved as far back as 2004. Planned and designed as a comprehensive, multi-phased proposal, the restoration was carried out in stages based on available resources. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain gave rise to the use of the phrase the ‘Bilbao effect’ and continues to inspire the construction of iconic cultural buildings globally. Unlike the monumentality, Gehry is famous for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is a careful reconstruction of the interiors.

Signage from a bygone era appears on the walls of the restored Vaulted Walkway; the 24 ft. ceiling is clad with Guastavino tiles, restored in 2019. The Walkway is illuminated with natural skylight and bronze-encased LED lighting | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
Signage from a bygone era appears on the walls of the restored Vaulted Walkway; the 24 ft. ceiling is clad with Guastavino tiles, restored in 2019. The Walkway is illuminated with natural skylight and bronze-encased LED lighting Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021

Speaking of the stark distinction in a digital press conference on May 6, Gehry recalled the first encounter that led to the renovation project. He recounted being at an exhibition with artist Ellsworth Kelly and engaging with Anne d’Harnoncourt, the Philadelphia Museum’s then Director and CEO, in a discussion about the renovation. He recounted being asked if he could imagine doing something that was completely underground in an existing building where he would not be seen. The conversation mused if a reconstruction like that could result in the same kind of outpouring of love and accolades as the Bilbao. His response may explain his more restraint approach, as he said “All the Bilbao stuff was already driving me nuts and I said God that would be wonderful”.

  • Before Core Project - Forum looking west 2016 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    Before Core Project - Forum looking west 2016 Image: Elizabeth Leitzell, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • The Williams Forum, facing west toward Lenfest Hall | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    The Williams Forum, facing west toward Lenfest Hall Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • View from level one, looking west down into the Williams Forum | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    View from level one, looking west down into the Williams Forum Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • View from level one, looking west down into the Williams Forum | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    View from level one, looking west down into the Williams Forum Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021

While studying architecture and planning of the original building, Gehry noted that, "The building had a lot to offer but it was clogged up. This was the hardest thing to grapple with because it turns out that the architects had built the auditorium right at the most crucial intersection of all the circulation for the existing building. So, it locked it in from all sides”. The auditorium was not part of the original design, and was added to the structure in the 1950s. This is one of the main interventions of this renovation. By taking out the auditorium and inserting a new iconic staircase connecting various parts of the building, Gehry has given the museum a new public space, called the Williams Forum, which will serve as the location for numerous activities and will connect the ground floor of the museum to its upper level.

  • Before Core Project- South Hall 2016 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    Before Core Project- South Hall 2016 Image: Elizabeth Leitzell, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • After Core Project- South Hall | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    After Core Project- South Hall Image: Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

Some of the other major renovations include two new galleries across 20,000 square feet, which now take the place of what used to be offices, the museum’s restaurant, and retail operation. Of the two new galleries, Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Galleries is devoted to telling a broader and more inclusive narrative of the development of early American art centred on the prominent role played by Philadelphia in this story. The inclusivity is particularly significant to this structure itself, as one of the architects that worked on the build was Julian Abele, the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program, he was a senior designer at Trumbauer’s firm. The second gallery, Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries, focuses on the contemporary creative spirit of Philadelphia.

  • Before Core Project- North entrance lobby 2016 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    Before Core Project- North entrance lobby 2016 Image: Elizabeth Leitzell, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • The North Lobby, facing south toward the Vaulted Walkway. At right, a new retail store is adorned by restored Tiffany doors | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    The North Lobby, facing south toward the Vaulted Walkway. At right, a new retail store is adorned by restored Tiffany doors Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021

Other parts of the museum saw more subtle changes. The West Terrace, now called the Robbi and Bruce Toll Terrace, was retrofitted with ramps to facilitate access. The 640-foot long Vaulted Walkway that spans the entire breadth of the building has now been made accessible to the public after nearly 50 years. The Lenfest Hall, which has long served as the principal entrance to the museum, was widened and looks unrecognisable. When discussing all the changes and interventions, Gehry expressed his regret concerning a single aspect, which was Robert Venturi’s entrance desk, as he said, “The only thing that bothered me was - because Bob Venturi was a close friend - taking out his entry desk. I felt a little bad about that and I did apologise to him before (he passed away). But it probably had to go and I think I would understand that if somebody had to do it to one of my buildings in the future”.

  • Before Core Project- North entrance 2016 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    Before Core Project- North entrance 2016 Image: Elizabeth Leitzell, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021
  • The North Entrance, for the first time in decades, was restored to public use in 2019 | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    The North Entrance, for the first time in decades, was restored to public use in 2019 Image: Steve Hall © Hall + Merrick Photographers, 2019, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021

Having completed a large part of the restructuring, the museum intends to pause before it undertakes the next phases of the Facilities Master Plan, which calls for the construction of a new auditorium among other things. The entire renovation does bring to one's attention the shifting role of the museum. It has become a pivotal discussion across theory, research and academia. The first role that comes to mind is that of the museum as an archive or a receptacle of knowledge. However, there are also questions about how this role changes based on fiduciary concerns, and who is guiding the conversation. One could look at the internal reformatting of the museum as a conscious approach to rethinking the relationship between the display and viewer, and making the architecture of the structure a reflection of the evolving role of these institutions.

Stir, a restaurant designed by Gehry Partners, with “Pasqualina'' seating by Grassi & Bianchi Studio | The Philadelphia Museum of Art | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
Stir, a restaurant designed by Gehry Partners, with “Pasqualina” seating by Grassi & Bianchi Studio Image: Jeffrey Totaro, 2018, Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021

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