Philly: Let's Talk About Frank Gehry

A Philadelphia Museum of Art expansion tests whether building a Frank Gehry design is always good for a city. Especially when it doesn't look very Frank Gehry.

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Gehry Partners/Philadelphia Museum of Art

Ten years in the making, the expansion plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, known everywhere simply as the Art Museum, may take Philadelphians by surprise. Not because the plans are by Frank Gehry: No, the best-known architect on the planet isn't planning to do any of those things that have made him so notorious. Gehry's plans to expand the museum, which are being revealed for the first time in an exhibit that opens today, put the new wing mostly out of sight. Building new galleries underneath the Art Museum seems modest by Gehry's standards.

What's bound to bother Philadelphians most are Gehry's plans to alter the steps of the east terrace—the so-called "Rocky steps," named for a fictional encounter that took place there in 1976. There is little doubt that whatever controversy that comes of Gehry's plans for the Art Museum will start on Rocky's steps. (Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, has said as much already.) By carving a window into the east terrace stairs, Gehry may be compromising a memory that the city has cherished for nearly four decades: a moment in the fabricated life of an unlikely, and not-real, sports hero.

Art Museum and expansion, seen in section. (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

Putting aside Rocky—though that's hard to do these days—there's a bigger problem looming over Gehry's expansion plans. That problem is Gehry. Not for all the reasons that Gehry's critics like to cite, chapter and verse, about why he doesn't deserve to be an ambassador for cool architecture. In fact, Gehry's critics may find plenty to admire in his plans for the Art Museum. Frankly, it's not very Gehry. 

Rather, the problem lies with the role the Art Museum plays in Philadelphia, the role the expansion plays within the Art Museum, and the role that Gehry plays in the expansion. Although it's a problem peculiar to Philadelphia right now, it's one that city and cultural leaders everywhere should watch as it plays out. Cultural expansions aren't necessarily a great investment for a city in 2014, and this one almost certainly isn't. Gehry might be very bad for Philadelphia. In fact, Gehry might be Apollo Creed-level bad for Philadelphia.

The Forum Gallery. (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

For the case against Gehry, there's no better place to start than the epic dragon-slaying quest that Geoff Manaugh mounted for Gizmodo back in February. It's a great essay that deserves all the praise it earned, but not without some big caveats. Manaugh is wrong that Gehry is a bad architect in any technical sense; his longtime collaboration with metals fabricator Bill Zahner, on projects like Seattle's Experience Music Center, is easily the most profitable relationship in the last 30 years of material culture. Manaugh is dead trolling when he says that Gehry is the "world's worst living architect." He then enlists an eclectic cast in his takedown of the man who made the Guggenheim Bilbao, including C.C. DeVille, Guy Fieri, M. Night Shyamalan, Phyllis Diller, and more. But a public defense of Gehry calls on just as lively a bunch: 8 Spruce Street, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, the IAC Building, the best parts of Millennium Park, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The more frequent complaint about Frank Gehry these days is that he ruined everything—the Bilbao Effect is named after his signature museum, after all. While Bilbao is still flying high, other cities and cultural institutions that went all in on major building projects designed by name-brand architects have crashed to earth. The saddest story in the U.S. might be the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, whose Gehry-designed, five-building campus in Biloxi, Mississippi, was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina a little more than a year out from its planned opening. Once it finally did open—5 years later—it continued to struggle. If there is an Ohr-O'Keefe Effect, be assured that its a bad one.

Underground galleries lit by a skylight in the East Terrace. (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

In 2014, though, we know better. With the benefit of hindsight—and thanks to research on the spate of new museum construction between 1994 and 2008—it's possible to see cultural expansion in U.S. cities as a manifestation of a broader irrational building spree that spanned several bubbles. (And, therefore, not entirely the fault of architects.) In a new book titled Cultural Organizations: Building Arts Facilities in U.S. Communities  due out in early 2015 from Routledge, researchers found no evidence for a Bilbao Effect, which confirms what many cities have learned already. More often than not, cultural expansions drew in less revenue than they predicted and registered higher costs than they expected.  

This research also found that Philadelphia spent wildly on museums. Between 1994 and 2008, the Philadelphia metropolitan statistical area (which includes Camden in New Jersey and Wilmington in Delaware) spent just under half a billion dollars ($449,726,754 in 2005 dollars) on cultural building projects, at an average cost of $38 million per project. That's almost $10 million more per project than the nationwide average over this time. Meanwhile, employment in the Philadelphia MSA declined 1.4 percent between 2001 and 2011, and the region made up ground only recently. 

BLS

All of these factors might suggest caution on the part of the Art Museum, which charges $20 per ticket today (after raising prices by 25 percent in 2012). Other factors warrant a deep breath, too: Anne d'Harnoncourt, the great Art Museum director who brought Gehry on board for the $500 million expansion back in 2006, died in 2008, leading some to question whether the expansion would happen at all. It's possible that the museum has in fact dialed back its plans somewhat: The Philadelphia Inquirer cites a $350 million price tag for the expansion, less than predicted at the height of the bubble.

But the Art Museum's expansion plans are far from cautious.

For starters, the 2006 selection of Gehry smacks of dubious thinking, coming at the height of '00s enthusiasm for starchitect-led projects. (Note: That's not a word you want to use around Gehry. Don't mention The Simpsons, either.) Unlike the schemes cooked up in Biloxi or Bilbao, though, a museum expansion was never going to put Philadelphia on the map, so to speak. But Philadelphia is very much on the map already! Rocky was filmed there, you know. 

Unlike Biloxi or Bilbao, or basically any other building Gehry has ever designed, the Art Museum expansion would be built below the surface, penned in not just by the design of the original Parthenon on the Parkway but by the physical structure itself. Why would anyone commission Gehry—an architect whose work can be disputed and even despised, but cannot be denied—and put him underground?

"I feel like I'm collaborating through time with [museum architects] Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele," he told Saffron at the InkyAnd maybe he is. Maybe d'Harnoncourt had the vision to see what a muted Gehry project could be. The critic Charles Jencks used the term "double-coding" to describe architecture that could be read by visitors as fun and cool, yet still win over the critics. Hiring Gehry to extend a very classical building almost sounds like a variation on that theme: hiring a major name (great for fundraising!) despite building a conservative project (one that viewers won't read as modern).

The vaulted walkway will be reopened under Gehry's renovation and expansion plans. (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners) 

But with a cost falling in the $350–500 million range, does it make sense to build a Gehry project that won't look like a Gehry? (That's assuming that design costs don't run over, the way they did for 80 percent of the projects assessed for Cultural Organizations.) There are firms that may be better suited to subtle, invisible, almost surgical architecture, namely Davis Brody Bond, the firm designing the delicate expansion for the Frick Collection and responsible for the belowground 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Now for some caveats of my own: I haven't seen the exhibit yet. The design has won over Inga Saffron, and you won't find a critic better in tune with Philly's architectural needs. Still, the price is staggering, the logic escapes me, and the research on recent cultural building just isn't encouraging

Fortunately, the Art Museum managed to avoid building a Gehry expansion during the recession, when it might well have failed. Now, museum leaders are planning to complete the expansion by 2028, the same year the building celebrates its 100th birthday. Philadelphians have to hope it goes better than the museum's first birthday: Back in the early Roaring Twenties, newspapers lit up with scandals over the museum's costs, which soared from $3.5 million to more than $13 million. 

Cities have a lot to gain when they land major cultural landmarks. Cities have just as much to lose when a cultural project goes wrong. Given the plan's costs, logic, and precedent, there's more at stake than the integrity of the Rocky steps if the expansion doesn't go just as the Art Museum plans. 

"Bilbao was a sleepy little town before the Guggenheim came along," Gehry told Saffron. "This is going to change Philadelphia."

And that might be reason to worry.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.