Changing Skyline: Exclusive look at Philadelphia Museum of Art design

The Philadelphia Museum of Art Expansion Plan. Museum officials declined to submit renderings or allow photos of the models.

It's not every client who can get the celebrated architect Frank O. Gehry to show up at the groundbreaking for a loading dock. But when the Philadelphia Museum of Art assembled a crowd last week to cheer the start of its modest improvement, there was the snowy-haired, 81-year-old designer, gamely hoisting a shovel and doing his bit to advance a more glamorous project that seems - to outsiders anyway - to be moving according to geologic time.

Gehry's star turn was the first time he has shown his face to the general public here since the museum hired him to design a major addition in 2006 - a full four years ago. In the typical course of such things, the signing of big-name talent would be followed, after a year or two, by the public release of architectural renderings. Yet, other than the design for the loading dock, the marriage between Gehry and the museum has produced no issue.

That doesn't mean they haven't been working on it. Gehry's Los Angeles office has built dozens of scale models demonstrating how he could embed new galleries below the museum's front terrace. Several table-size versions occupy the better part of a room in the bowels of the museum, offering a good idea of what Gehry has been cooking up these last four years. The museum recently gave me an exclusive peek at the design in progress.

The museum's two top executives, director Timothy Rub and president Gail Harrity, stressed that they are still a long way from a final design. There is no price tag attached to the project yet, no funding, and no schedule. But the museum's board has given a thumbs-up to Gehry's concept by authorizing him to develop the design in greater detail. Gehry told me he has eight people working full time on the project.

Because the design is evolving, museum officials declined to provide renderings or let The Inquirer photograph the models. So, readers, you will have to make do with words. Pull out the museum's floor plan and listen carefully.

Ever since the museum hired Gehry, people have been scratching their heads. He is best known for his swirling, sculptural exteriors, like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What was the point, they wondered, of having a master blob-maker like Gehry design an addition that will be invisible from the street?

It's too bad that the popularity of Gehry's expressive forms often overshadows his other strengths. In the museum world, his Guggenheim is admired as much for its beautifully proportioned galleries as for its dazzling titanium skin. When the Art Museum's late director, Anne d'Harnoncourt, explained why Gehry had been hired, she always cited one of his least-known projects, Pasadena's elegant Norton Simon Museum, for the way he snuck natural light into its submerged galleries.

That's important because, in Philadelphia, Gehry would carve out the area under the terrace to create a new suite of high-ceilinged galleries for the museum's extensive contemporary art collection. The rooms in the historic beaux arts building simply aren't tall enough for the likes of Joseph Beuys' famous Lightning With Stag in its Glare, a sculpture that has been on loan to MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., for years.

Gehry's plan, however, goes beyond merely solving the problem of bringing sun into that forgotten realm. He would completely reconfigure the way visitors move through the museum, establishing a cross-axial pathway that would enable them to navigate more intuitively through its vast halls.

The museum's U-shaped building has always confused people because its two entrances are located on different levels. If you climb the so-called Rocky steps at Eakins Oval, you arrive on the second level, which the museum unhelpfully calls the first floor. From the west side, you enter the first level, known as the ground floor.

Right now, there isn't much art to see on the ground floor. You can shop in the bookstore, eat in the cafeteria, or attend a lecture in the Van Pelt Auditorium.

That auditorium, a later addition to the 1920s museum, occupies the very heart of the building, blocking up its arteries like a big wad of plaque. Gehry would rip it out.

He also would remove the wall where Chagall's glowing theater backdrop, A Wheatfield on a Summer's Afternoon, now hangs, as well as the side stairs that take visitors to the Great Hall on the first floor.

In their place, he would establish a direct route from the west entrance, through Lenfest Hall, to the cavern under the front terrace. That space is below the existing ground floor, so Gehry would have to design a new staircase - perhaps a snaking coil like the one he created recently for the Art Gallery of Ontario. Elevators already exist.

The museum estimates it could add 68,000 square feet for contemporary art under the terrace, which is at grade with Eakins Oval. Skylights would be embedded to bring in natural light.

Besides providing space to liberate the modern works now in storage, the addition would free up galleries in the museum's north wing. That would allow the cramped American art collection to expand. There would also be room in Gehry's new galleries for the museum to show off its renowned Asian art collection.

Just as important, the new east-west route through the contemporary art galleries would intersect with an existing corridor that runs north-south. Closed in 1975, the corridor is a gorgeous vaulted space that feels like a medieval catacomb.

At its north end, the corridor terminates at a great arched door facing Kelly Drive. It is the only place where you can enter the building at street level. The entrance also lines up perfectly with the door to the Perelman Building, on the opposite side of the drive.

If all this sounds like sensible planning, it is. But the question remains, what can an architect like Gehry add?

The models I saw only hinted at the possible poetry that he might contribute. The museum will need new stairs to connect the contemporary art galleries with the ground floor, and another set to connect the ground and first floors.

Gehry's most controversial idea involves putting his signature on the museum exterior. Because of the museum's U shape, the sequence of galleries terminates at the building walls facing Eakins Oval. Visitors must double back to get to their next destination.

Gehry wants to break open those solid, classical end walls and attach a tumbling stack of glass cubes. They would house a staircase enabling visitors to move up and down between floors. Not only is the intervention likely to cause a riot among preservationists, it could interfere with the museum's period rooms, especially the Japanese tea garden. The daring gesture already seems like a nonstarter.

Meanwhile, time is passing. It could take another year for Gehry and the museum to finalize the design, and two or three more to raise enough money to start construction. By then, as Gehry himself noted, he'll be 85 and the museum's prime benefactor, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest will be 84.

Since announcing its 10-year master plan in 2005, the museum has been shifting many back-of-house operations to prepare for its big gallery expansion. It opened the Perelman Building in 2007 and began moving parking off its terrace, and into a new garage, in 2009. The loading dock is intended to create access to the vaulted corridor, which will become an important entrance to the new galleries.

For five years, every move the museum has made has been thoughtful and practical. Now, as it finally embarks on the main show - the new galleries - Philadelphia is ready to see something that comes from the heart.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or