frank gehry's philadelphia museum of art renovation is 'a reconstruction to the values of the original architect'

May 06, 2021

frank gehry has completed the renovation and expansion of the philadelphia museum of art, a major overhaul that has resulted in new galleries and public spaces. after two decades of planning and design, and four years of construction, the project opens to the public on may 7, 2021. leaving the exterior of the 1928 landmark almost untouched, the ‘core project’, as it is known, instead focuses on the renewal of the museum’s infrastructure and interiors, while opening up the heart of the institution.

‘the building is such an icon of philadelphia, it would be outrageous to think of trying to remodel the exterior of it,’ said frank gehry during the project’s virtual press preview, attended by designboom. ‘without starting over again, you would lose the battle, you wouldn’t be able to do it. anything you do would be discouraged — and it should be.’

the scope of the philadelphia museum of art’s renovation comprises nearly 90,000 square feet (approx. 8,350 sqm) of re-imagined and newly created space within its main building. it includes a re-built west terrace with integrated ramps to facilitate access for all visitors, as well as a renovated lenfest hall, which has long served as the principal entrance to the museum. the project also involved removing the previously existing auditorium to make room for the williams forum. this new public space now serves as the setting for a wide range of activities, while connecting the ground floor of the museum to its upper levels. elsewhere, the vaulted walkway on the ground level takes visitors across the building’s entire length from north to south.

frank gehry began by reviewing the building’s original plans from the 1920s by horace trumbauer and african american architect julian abele. ‘I studied the assets of trumbauer and abele and it was clear that the original building had a lot to offer, but it was clogged up,’ gehry explains, before discussing the decision to transform the museum’s auditorium into the williams forum. ‘this was the hardest thing to grapple with, because it turns out that they built the auditorium right in the most crucial intersection of all the circulation from the existing building. they blocked it from all sides. it was a crucial part of the program, and nobody wanted to tear it out. but if you took it out, you could reconnect all the greatest parts of the existing design, and make them assets for the future collections of the museum.’ a new auditorium will be built as part of the institution’s next phase of development.

in addition, areas once devoted to offices, the museum’s restaurant, and retail operation have been converted into two new suites of galleries. one of these, the robert l. mcneil, jr. galleries, is devoted to telling a broader and more inclusive narrative of the development of early american art centered on the prominent role played by philadelphia in this story. the other, the daniel w. dietrich II galleries, focusing on the creative spirit of philadelphia today, presents an exhibition of the work of 25 contemporary artists with ties to the city and speaks to many of the most pressing issues of our time.

the museum’s uppermost public stories have remained largely untouched, with gehry instead focusing on the lower levels. the team opened up long-closed or underutilized back-of-house spaces on the first floor and ground level, and returned them, fully restored and re-envisioned, to public use. an early result of this plan was revealed in 2019, when the north entrance opened for the first time in decades. the lower level, where the building’s electrical and mechanical systems are housed, has also been extensively renovated.

the williams forum, facing west toward lenfest hall | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

from the outset, gehry and the museum were determined to honor the building’s original architectural language and materials. notably, they used the same golden-hued kasota limestone throughout — sourced from the same quarries in a small town in southern minnesota that supplied it for the construction of the 1928 building. ‘the goal in all of our work at the philadelphia museum of art has been to let the museum guide our hand,’ says gehry. ‘the brilliant architects who came before us created a strong and intelligent design that we have tried to respect, and in some cases accentuate. our overarching goal has been to create spaces for art and for people.’

while the project renovations feature new galleries and a dramatic multistory ‘forum’ space, they also reveal more of the work of the building’s original architects: horace trumbauer, julian abele, and their partner firm of zantzinger, borie, and medary. ‘there were times when we were aggressively supporting every inch of trumbauer and abele, and then there were times when we were fighting against them,’ gehry continues. ‘I probably erred on the side of being too respectful. it’s a reconstruction to the values of the original architect. the only thing that bothered me was taking out robert venturi’s entry desk, because bob was a close friend. I apologized to him before he left us, but it probably had to go. I think I would understand that, if somebody had to do that with one of my buildings in the future.’

‘what we have achieved through the completion of the core project represents the work of many hands, from architects and engineers to steel workers and stonemasons,’ adds timothy rub, the museum’s george d. widener director and chief executive officer. ‘our deepest thanks go to everyone involved with the construction, to our dedicated staff and volunteers, to the many public officials who have assisted us with this work, and to our donors. the value of frank gehry’s brilliant plan for the renewal and improvement of this great building will be clear for everyone to see and appreciate. it both honors the past, respecting the character of this great building, and at the same time offers a compelling vision of the future.’

‘I’ve studied architectural history a lot,’ concludes gehry, reflecting on the relationship between art and architecture. ‘jim ackerman was a close friend and also irving lavin (architecture and art historians respectively). we traveled together and looked at historic buildings — our history is pretty powerful and profound. all the great painters, like giotto, ultimately became architects. so the transition from painter to architect, way back then, was inevitable. architecture shouldn’t be dismissed. it is part of the art world. it is an art, and I’ve always thought of it that way.’ the museum, including gehry’s renovation and expansion, opens to the public on friday may 7, 2021.

the north vaulted walkway, facing north | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

west portico, now accessible from the lenfest hall balconies | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

west portico, looking up toward original polychromed floral and geometric details | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

vista of the schuylkill river and fairmount park from the west portico | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

lenfest hall, facing east toward the forum (below), the great stair hall (above) - on view- generation, 1988, martin puryear | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

view of the williams forum, facing east. on view - fire (united states of the americas), 2017;2020, by teresita fernández

detail of fire (united states of the americas), 2017;2020, by teresita fernández

view from level one, looking across the williams forum stairs | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

the main store, viewed from the north entrance lobby | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

the north vaulted walkway, facing north | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

view to the north lobby from the vaulted walkway | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

detail of steel framing for skylight | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

vaulted walkway guastavino tiles | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

elevator exterior door detail | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

stir restaurant | image by jeffrey totaro

north entrance exterior detail | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

the north entrance | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

project info:

name: the core project  location: philadelphia museum of art, philadelphia, PA architecture: frank gehry

public opening: may 7th, 2021