The Philadelphia Museum of Art finally unveiled its monumental Core Project, a two decades long odyssey in planning and re-imagining the space around the Museum’s West End entrance.
Ground was broken in 2017 for the architect Frank Gehry designed ‘Core Project.’ At that time, Gehry noted that his team was about to unclog the museum’s arteries, clarify the roofs and spaces in order to make the ‘circulation’ of the building much more understandable. “The pièce de résistance,” Gehry said then, “is to create wonderful galleries that are much needed to complete the story that was started here in Philadelphia."
The project, slated for completion in the spring of 2020, was put on hold by the pandemic.
The reconfiguration included the removal of the museum’s auditorium and its replacement by a space known as the Forum with a grand staircase leading up to two new galleries.
At the time of the March 2017 groundbreaking ceremony for the museum’s ‘Core Project,’ architect Frank Gehry could hardly be called a young man. The project seemed so vast in scope that some in attendance wondered if the architect would be around to see the project’s completion.
But Gehry’s robust vision and energy proved stronger than the pull of statistical age.
Though he was not at the museum for last week’s press opening, Gehry appeared in the virtual presentation offered earlier in the day where he made a few comments and spoke about how the whole idea of the ‘Core’ Project came about.
He said it was in 2006 when he was walking through the museum with Ellsworth Kelly when Anne d’Harnoncourt walked up to him and mentioned a building that he had done from scratch in Bilbao that was above ground, sculptural and exciting. Annie then asked Gehry if he could imagine doing a building completely underground, “a building that would result in an outpouring of love and admiration from the public?”
Gehry said he had no idea that ‘Annie’ was serious, although her seriousness would be made known to him during the following months when ‘Annie’ would “continue to call me.”
Then the unexpected happened. Anne d’Haroncourt died on June 1, 2008.
“We didn’t have Annie. She left us,” Gehry said. The project, however, took flight under another string of commanders, namely Timothy Rub, who became PMA’s Director and CEO, and Gail Harrity, PMA’s President and CEO.
The ‘Core’ Project was given new life.
Several times during the virtual presentation, Gehry mentioned Rub’s “strong point of view,” but added that Rub’s view often agreed with his own views.
Gehry mentioned that during the long project he and Rub “were fighting and supporting every inch of the Horace Trumbauer [original] while at other times he said he was trying to “respect Trumbauer’s work as he were alive,”
Gail Harrity reminded virtual viewers that when ground was broken for the museum in 1919 the city was just coming out of a pandemic.
The Core project added 11,500 square feet of exhibition space and 67,000 square feet of public areas within the existing structure. The museum’s restaurant was replaced by two new galleries, a space devoted to contemporary art but the most spectacular gallery being the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Galleries of early American art.
Kathleen A. Foster, Senior Curator of American Art, pointed out in her presentation the exceptional new editions to the gallery, such as the French Bedstead of Joseph Bonaparte (1825-35), a mahogany, tulip poplar and brass masterpiece made in Philadelphia. In addition, viewers were able to glimpse a bit of the conservation process of The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) by Charles Wilson Peale. (This iconic work has never fails to fascinate student tour groups as they make their way through the museum’s galleries.)
The Williams Forum in Lenfest Hall is crowned with two new glass and stone staircases that lead up to the traditional Great Stair Hall. The Kasota stone staircases are also framed in glass and capped with patinated bronze. The cantilevering stair design is captivating and fun to walk on. The immense Forum, billed as a “lively public space,” evokes interstellar communication with its skyward vastness that harmonizes beautifully with the Vaulted Walkway on the ground level. This future exhibition and program space looks a little bare right now and could use its own imposing sculptural Diana, perhaps a multi-storied likeness of the shepard Endymion.
The Forum is indeed a testament to Timothy Rub’s observation that, “Gehry knows the way buildings work and how to organize sequences of spaces.”
After the virtual presentation members of the press were invited to tour the facilities individually.
There are two new gift shops of note at the top of the great staircase.
Christine Doobinin, Director of Retail at PMA, offered me a private tour of the two shops which specialize in Philadelphia made crafts, from brooms and exquisite wooden stools to interesting jewelry. The highly personable Ms. Doobinin, who has a passion for the new retail outlets, pointed out many items of interest as if they were small objects of art and as valuable as anything in the museum’s collection.
The new retail outlets were also modeled on the best museum shops in Europe, where Ms. Doobinin says she was able to study after she was hired by PMA.
Architecture critic and Frank Gehry biographer, Paul Goldberger, wrote that Gehry is in many ways a very traditional architect.
“He believes in one-of-a-kind buildings that create unique experiences in real physical space and which are material form arranged in a particular way. It is very possible that technology will make that whole idea obsolete at some point.” Goldberger then notes, “And if architectural culture passes him by, it will be as much for that reason as anything else. He is of the belief that the better way to use technology is not endless replication, but to make economical the creation of unique objects.”
Frank Gehry, despite random criticisms about his “deconstructivist” designs (such as the house that he designed for himself in Santa Monica, California), has definitely created a unique core object at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.