How Frank Gehry Plans to Remake the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The $196 million project aims to dramatically upgrade the museum, creating new galleries, new circulation paths, and 67,000 square feet of new public space.

Philadelphia Museum Renovation Frank Gehry
The Forum, a new space being created as part of the Gehry-led renovation of the museum. Seen here looking toward Lenfest Hall, The Forum will be one of the most highly trafficked and recognizable areas created during the project. This volume will welcome guests, serve as a gathering space, and host performances and events.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“I’ve been coming to the museum for 40 years and still love getting lost in the galleries,” says Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This was Rub’s gently honest way of describing the 600,000-square-foot museum, which currently suffers from a lack of clear wayfinding and circulation. Built from 1919 to 1928, the dolomitic limestone–clad, Greek Revival structure has been modified countless times over the decades. In fact, most of its interior was an empty shell upon the building’s “completion.” Galleries were added piecemeal, with the shell finally filled in by the 1950s.

The incoherence that resulted from this ad-hoc approach has never been resolved. Major design upgrades, courtesy of Gehry Partners and constituting the Core Project, promise to clarify the situation.

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Philadelphia Museum Renovation Frank Gehry
The $196 million Gehry-designed revamp will all occur within the museum’s existing landmarked exterior. The renovations are part of a broader $525 million campaign (of which, $347 million has been raised) to grow the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s endowment and launch other initiatives. To be executed in stages, the project will be complete by Fall 2020. This cross-section view shows the changes to the existing interior spaces (the “Core Project”) and a future expansion that will extend beneath the museum’s grand steps.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art broke ground on these upgrades in March. On a recent press tour of the $196 million renovation, Rub explained the project’s scope and intentions, describing the alterations—which will add 23,000 square feet of gallery space—as long overdue. He was quick to add, however, that they’re “being done in a way that respects the character of the Main Building both in plan and in style.”

The changes range from imperceptible tweaks to the occasional grand gesture. On the subtler end, the museum is replacing the building’s heating/cooling systems, 225 original single-pane windows (to be swapped with more energy-efficient double-paned windows), and halogen and incandescent lights (to be replaced with LEDs). But the biggest modifications will introduce new gathering spaces, circulation paths, and galleries.

The museum’s confusing circulation is due in large part to the simple fact that its two main entrances (the former faces the iconic Rocky steps) are located on different levels. As a result, the building’s grand lobbies—The Great Stairs Hall to the east and Lenfest Hall to the west—are visually disconnected from each other, causing a stark lack of legibility within the otherwise clear Beaux Arts axial layout. New glass walls will create clear sightlines between the two spaces.

Additionally, a 1950s auditorium built adjacent to the West Entrance and not part of the museum’s original plan, will be ripped out. In its place, the architects have placed a large volume that will house a central gathering space and circulation hub, to be named the “Forum.” Guests entering through the re-opened North Entrance (closed since 1975) will cross through the Forum and ascend a new staircase designed by Gehry’s team to directly reach Lenfest Hall. From that stair’s upper landing, visitors will also be able to easily reach the Great Stairs Hall located just above them.

“It was clear that the stair shouldn’t overwhelm or contrast with the Forum, but rather emerge out of the end wall of the room allowing the programming of the space for art or events to take a priority,” Gehry Partners says.

Philadelphia Museum Renovation Frank Gehry
The North Entrance–whose new lobby is rendered here–is located at the northern edge of hill upon which the museum sits. An underground Vaulted Walkway will connect the entrance to the Forum.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Re-lighting the museum was a major part of the Core Project, as any new type of illumination introduced into the interiors could drastically change their appearance and character (in particular the earthy yellow hues and detailed surfaces). It was important to Gehry Partners that the large halls were “as bright as possible to make them feel lighter, airier, and friendlier.” Seeking to maximize natural light went hand-in-hand with leveraging outside views to help orient visitors, explain the architects. “When access to the exterior was not available, we made design moves to borrow light from other spaces creating vistas to windows beyond. Overall, we used the different light levels as an opportunity to distinguish each space and create its unique identity within the museum.”

Meanwhile, the museum has been slowly relocating its non-patron facing functions (such as administrative offices and storage) outside the Main Building in order to free up space for more galleries, much of which will be divided between American and Contemporary Art. The museum is also renovating its food services, gift shop, and expanding its educational facilities. All of these upgrades—the Forum, galleries, meeting room, restaurant, retail, etc.—will create 67,000 square feet of new visitor space.

Philadelphia Museum Renovation Frank Gehry
Gehry Partners laid the groundwork for these upgrades with a new Facilities Master Plan that was commissioned in 2006. Seen here is another view of the Forum, as viewed from a landing adjacent Lenfest Hall. The artwork is a Sol LeWitt drawing selected by the museum.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

These surgical changes—punching out select walls, emphasizing outside views, removing the auditorium—were by no means obvious at the start of the project. According to Gehry Partners, they were the result of many trial-and-error iterations. “We were trying to work around the museum’s existing assets, but at the same time push against existing elements and spaces which were limiting the ability to simplify how the building would work for visitors,” the firm said. Costs, complexities, and trade-offs had to be weighed against each decision. “Some of the moves in the building are very transformative but intended to look like a light touch deferring to the historic persona of the museum. Ultimately, we followed the DNA of the existing building and used that as the roadmap to make interventions.”

While ambitious, the Core Project lays the foundation for an even bigger expansion, also designed by Frank Gehry. The Philadelphia Museum of Art plans to build an entire swathe of new galleries underneath the grand steps leading to the museum’s East Entrance. If completed as currently designed, visitors would be able to see straight through the museum, from its West Entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, all the way to City Hall. Many of those new spaces would “plug in” to the revamped Core Project rooms, as Rub explained, such as the Vaulted Walkway and the Forum. However, those designs have not been formally approved by the City of Philadelphia and funds have yet to be raised.

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