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

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

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.’

frank gehry philadelphia museum
descending stairs from the great stair hall to lenfest hall, level one. on view – generation, 1988, by martin puryear | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

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 philadelphia museum
the williams forum, facing west | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

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.

frank gehry philadelphia museum
view of the williams forum from level one, looking west to lenfest hall | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

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.

frank gehry's philadelphia museum of art renovation is 'a reconstruction to the values of the original architect'
detail of the williams forum stairs seen from level one | image by steve hall © hall + merrick

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.