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Exhibition unveils new master plan designed by Frank Gehry for the Philadelphia Museum of Art
A cross-section view showing the changes to existing interior spaces and the new underground galleries. Rendering © Gehry Partners, LLP.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- The Philadelphia Museum of Art has unveiled the comprehensive plan that Frank Gehry has created for the renovation and expansion of its main building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The exhibition Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers a first look at a design that renews one of Philadelphia’s greatest landmarks. The plan reorganizes and expands the building, adding more than 169,000 square feet of exhibition space. The project will ultimately transform the interior of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, enabling the Museum to display much more of its world-renowned collection.

After almost ninety years of use, the building is in need of substantial reorganization and expansion to meet future needs. Included in this exhibition are large-scale models, site plans, sections, and renderings that introduce visitors to the ways in which Frank Gehry and his creative team have addressed the challenges and opportunities of updating this historic facility. Architectural drawings and photographs enable visitors to explore the history of the building. The exhibition features works from the collections of Asian, American, and modern and contemporary art, largely acquired within the last decade. New galleries are among the most prominent features of Gehry’s plan.

The Master Plan encompasses the full breadth of the Museum, from the East Entrance with its iconic “Rocky steps” facing Center City to the West Entrance overlooking the Schuylkill River. Although he is best known for the expressive, sculptural forms of buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Gehry has taken an approach to this project that is dramatically different and virtually unique.

Adhering to the Museum’s call to preserve the architectural integrity of the building and make it more welcoming for visitors and easier to navigate, Gehry’s design focuses on such spaces as the Great Stair Hall and how visitors will enter and move through the building. The design also creates significant new space for the display of the Museum’s extensive holdings of art in galleries created both within the existing building and underneath the East Terrace, and for expanded educational activities.

Constance H. Williams, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, stated: “The Board of Trustees is delighted to share this Master Plan with the public. This vision representing our future is closely aligned with our strategic objectives to ensure that the Museum continues to serve our community and visitors from around the world.”

Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “Gehry’s carefully detailed design is the embodiment of creative stewardship. The approach that Frank and his staff took to solving this challenging program reflects a deep sympathy for one of Philadelphia’s most widely admired landmarks. The design was also informed by a sophisticated understanding of how this facility needs to be changed. It is an inspiring blueprint for the future of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All of this will be accomplished in a way that honors and preserves the fabric of the iconic building and will hardly be evident on the exterior.”

Frank Gehry said: “We began by studying the character of this wonderful building—its DNA. It is rare to have the bones of the existing building show you the way to expand it. 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. My goal is to make the building feel like one coherent design statement.”

Minimal changes have been proposed for the exterior by Gehry Partners and OLIN, the noted Philadelphia firm specializing in landscape architecture, planning, and urban design. These changes include the redesign of the plaza in front of the West Entrance and the landscaping of a substantial portion of the area now used for parking on this side of the building; the integration of skylights and sunken gardens into the East Terrace to bring natural light into the new galleries that have been proposed; and the addition on the northeast and southeast corners of the building of stair enclosures that will be simple in form and clad in the same sandstone used on the exterior to make them as unobtrusive as possible.

By contrast, many significant alterations have been proposed for the interior, yielding an increase of 124,000 square feet of public space, including 78,000 square feet of gallery space throughout the building. Other design elements address access and circulation through the facility. At present, visitors enter the Museum on the first floor through the East Entrance and the Great Stair Hall or on the slightly lower floor through the West Entrance and Lenfest Hall.

The interior changes include:

• The renovation of the two principal public entrance spaces in the Museum: Lenfest Hall and the Great Stair Hall.

• The creation of a new public space, or Forum, immediately below the Great Stair Hall in the center of the U-shaped Museum building. The Forum will dramatically improve circulation on this floor and open up the east-west axis at the center of the building, enabling visitors to reach the new galleries and adjacent public spaces that Gehry Partners have proposed be built below the East Terrace.

• The relocation of a variety of back-office functions to add nearly 23,000 square feet of new gallery space within the existing building; the creation of a new 10,000-square-foot Learning Center; and the development of new visitor amenities, including a restaurant, café, and spaces for the Museum Store.

• The creation of 55,000 square feet of new space for the presentation of special exhibitions and works from the collection in galleries underneath the East Terrace. Ranging in height from 24 to 28 feet, with a vaulted ceiling supported on slender columns, these new galleries will be among the largest and most spacious in the entire Museum. Open in plan and filled with natural light, they will provide an ideal setting for the display of modern and contemporary art.

• The reopening of a public entrance on the north side of the Museum. Closed to the public for decades, this monumental arched entrance adjacent to Kelly Drive will be renovated to provide access to a grand vaulted corridor—part of the original design of the building—that runs 640 feet from the north to the south side of the building. This walkway will provide access to the new galleries through a long, vaulted arcade and will intersect with the Forum directly below the Great Stair Hall, thus providing access to the entire building for visitors entering on this level.

• A new, 299-seat auditorium equipped for lectures, performances, and public events, to be located underneath the northwest terrace of the main building and directly accessible from the new Kelly Drive entrance.

• The adaptation of the center portion of the top floor of the U-shaped Museum building to create meeting and event spaces, and the replacement of the brick in the pediments with glass to provide dramatic views of the city and Fairmount Park.

Gail Harrity, the Museum’s President and Chief Operating Officer, said: “Given the ambitious scope of the plan, it has been designed in separate phases that can be implemented as funds become available. This work must begin with—and be sustained by—an inspiring and persuasive vision of the future, recognizing that it will take years to implement the brilliant plan.”

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