Frank Gehry may have created a new architecture known for its expressionistic and sculptural forms, but he also knows when to design more restrained spaces that foreground the work of other artists. For the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gehry has completed a master plan that will vastly expand gallery space and improve circulation, all of which will be largely invisible on the exterior of the imposing Beaux Arts edifice.
A temple of high culture immortalized in the popular imagination by the Rocky movies, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most recognizable and beloved museums in the country. Completed in 1908, the building was designed by Horace Trumbauer and Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary. Set atop a hill at the edge of the Schuylkill River overlooking Center City via the grand axis of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the museum is an object in the round, making an exterior addition undesirable to the museum.
“Frank Gehry is a wonderful architect, but perhaps what people don’t know is that he is a brilliant planner,” said Timothy Rub, director of the museum. In 2006, the Philadelphia Museum of Art officials selected Gehry based on his firm’s work on an interior renovation for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, completed in 1999.
“We began by studying the character of this wonderful building—its DNA, so to speak. It is rare to have the bones of the existing building show you the way to expand it,” said Gehry in a statement. “From there, we used the significant assets that the original architects gave us to create a strong entry sequence and circulation pattern that connects the new galleries to the existing building in a way that makes the new galleries seem like they have always been there.”
The master plan calls for a major expansion below the museum’s grand East Terrace, adding approximately 55,000 square feet of space for special exhibitions. In the design, a series of skylights follow the paving patterns of the terrace, bringing light into the new galleries. Just below the Great Stair Hall a new grand interior space called the Forum leads to the new galleries and opens up a new east/west axis through the museum.
The design removes the existing auditorium to allow access to the new galleries, and adds a new 299-seat auditorium under the northwest terrace and a new public entrance facing Kelly Drive. It also reopens for the first time since the 1970s a monumental, 640-foot-long vaulted corridor running from the north to the south side of the building. A pair of fire stairs, discreetly concealed within sandstone towers, is one of the only augmentations of the exterior. The project also includes upgrades to the museum’s mechanical and environmental control systems.
“We’ve been impressed with Gehry and his partners’ sensitivity to this Beaux Arts Building. They have really come to understand how it works,” said Rub. The museum expects the project, which will be broken into at least two phases, to cost approximately $165 million. The first phase, primarily infrastructural and mechanical upgrades, should be complete within four to five years. The entire project could take 10 to 15 years to complete.