Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gehry Disappointing

Yesterday I visited the Frank Gehry exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (hereafter PMA). Underwhelming would be an understatement. The exhibit showcases the results of a design process that has been going on since 2006—seriously, that’s eight years of planning by one of the top architects of our time, famous for massive, ambitious, bizarrely shaped, twisted sculptures of metal that (like them or not) become a permanent and recognizable fixture in their cities’ urban landscapes. Even if I didn’t like the proposed renovation design, I figured at least it would be ambitious and interesting. It was neither.

Entering the exhibit I had visions of the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. dancing in my head. In fact, the PMA exhibit equates its own renovation to those and other Gehry landmarks. I knew the PMA project was in-large-part underground, but still I hoped for something iconic and visionary—perhaps our own version of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, but Gehryesque. After all, Pei and Gehry share the distinction of being extremely successful corporate architects who can still do pretty awesome things when given the opportunity.

Unfortunately Philly will have no such luck. Whether the issue has to do with the architect, the client, the City’s Art Commission, lack of funds, or whatever, for some reason the design for PMA’s expansion is amazingly boring and unambitious. It is essentially just a gallery expansion project, repurposing some parts of the museum that have been underutilized, creating additional gallery and educational space, opening up some skylights and windows. Really pretty dull stuff.

In addition, I feel compelled to add that the exhibit itself was weak on content and poorly curated. This could have been a great chance to get visitors to understand the inner workings and history of the museum, to express Gehry’s vision, to help people gain an appreciation of the enormous collection that remains in storage (I didn’t realize PMA had 227,000 objects until I Googled it for this article). Instead the exhibit included a few historic photos of the museum, several models, and some brief wall text. It was really a missed opportunity.

It was also weirdly defensive in a Philadelphia-inferiority-complex type of way. Instead of talking about how amazing the renovation will be and how transformative it could be for the city, the exhibition seemed to immediately assume that the public would hate the design. It seemed like a major objective of the show was to defend some of the more controversial (but really, not that controversial) design aspects. The exhibit was also very small and felt slapped together. There wasn’t even any interesting Gehry kitsch for sale in the gift shop.

I’m sure at the end of the day the renovation will create some nice, well-lit, and properly temperature controlled galleries, but in terms of changing the museum’s perception in our city or creating any iconic architectural statement for the Parkway, it’s a big let down. Even the “controversial” option—written up in Artnet News and The Guardian—that removes half of the Rocky steps to create a new outdoor atrium is still pretty blasé as a work of architecture. PMA’s whole approach to his project has been weird. Why has it taken this long to get such an astoundingly boring design with so little fanfare?

Look, I realize Gehry is not for everybody and there are a number of bold architects out there with distinctive styles. But if you’re going to hire Gehry, then c’mon let’s do Gehry. Let’s have big sinewy metal sculptural elements flying around the historic museum, creating a real past-meets-present statement that will change the face and image of our museum forever. Otherwise what’s the point?

The other thing that seemed strange was that much of the proposed renovation is focused on drawing the public into the museum. A nearby curator sauntered over and explained, “people see the museum building but think it’s a bank or something” (really?). It’s true that a huge number of people come to the top of the museum stairs, gaze at the skyline and/or stick their fists in the air, and then go back down without venturing inside PMA. But I question 1) whether this is actually a result of people thinking the museum is a bank, 2) how many of those Rocky wannabes would actually want to stop and see art, and 3) whether those who do want to see art are at all dissuaded by the $20 ticket price.

As I left the exhibit today, the whole situation made me sad. I have experienced this same feeling of Philly letdown periodically through the years, disappointed by each big civic opportunity slipping by before our eyes. Remember in the early 2000s when it looked like Philadelphia could join the ranks of cities with downtown sports stadiums? Instead we ended up building our new stadiums in the parking-lot wastelands of South Philly. Meanwhile I travel to places like Denver, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore with stadiums that pulse with downtown vitality. Many of these stadia are complemented by restaurants, apartments, riverfront parks, and other urban spaces. Philly lost out big time, and by-and-large our populace seems to have gotten over it far too quickly.

Back to PMA, there are several problems with our world-class museum and its architectural treasure of a building. First (the architectural historians are going to kill me for this one) is the fact that PMA is at the end of the Parkway and not downtown. I will note that Jane Jacobs made this same criticism, so I’m in good company here. Imagine how much more successful the museum would be if it were on the Avenue of the Arts or just about anywhere in Center City, rather than a hike and a half away from the heart of town. It is true that tourists magically seem to materialize at the foot of the PMA steps (see statement below about dearth of tourists on the Parkway), but they come despite the museum’s location, not because of it.

Secondly, the Parkway itself is pretty much a failure (comment above about art historians redux with heightened vitriol). Look, getting the Barnes to the Parkway was a coup (that was big and visionary); Café Cret and Sister Cities Plaza turned out great, and Center City District has had other plans over the years that would have helped. Still, what we have today is a wide highway that is unfriendly to pedestrians and does not have enough destinations to make it worth the trip. Many compare the Parkway to Champs-Élysées. I finally made it to Paris last fall and, well… the Parkway is no Champs. The Parkway is lined with far-flung museums and a smattering of pedestrians; C-E is jam packed with stylish department stores and restaurants and is so dense with people you can hardly stay on the sidewalk.

I say all of this to explain that it’s not the current leadership of PMA’s fault that they inherited a world-class art collection and a beautiful museum (that maybe does or doesn’t look like a bank) at the end of a failed boulevard. Yet here we are, and so PMA brought in Frank Gehry and I got my hopes up that we could have something spectacular at the end of the Parkway that could make a statement like Bilbao. And if PMA did that—strode boldly forward with an ambitious design—sure we would have some controversy around it. But let’s face it, there’s no way to have more controversy than Pei had with his pyramid at the Louvre, and that got built.

I had hopes that PMA was willing to be bold, forge ahead with their hand-picked starchitect and emerge with a big, new metallic icon gleaming in the sun, built from resolve, despite whatever roadblocks stood in the way. The face of Philadelphia would be changed forever, the northern end of the Parkway transformed, and the zeitgeist of our city shifted in a more courageous direction. But sadly, none of this can be found in the mediocrity of PMA’s proposed design. And the thing is, it’s all just disappointing and sad and boring and complacent—the whole mess of it.

I feel bad writing this because I know people who work for PMA and they are smart, good people. And I want to support PMA. I’ve been a member twice in my life but didn’t renew after a year went by with hardly anything new and of interest at the museum. PMA’s collection is great; I love spending time at the Japanese teahouse and puzzling over the Duchamps (one of my college architecture projects was a gallery I designed for Duchamp’s The Large Glass).

But all that civic pride and support doesn’t redeem the museum’s lack of vision/courage. If the museum wants to do something big and bold for the city, it needs to give Frank Gehry the freedom to do something really amazing and ambitious. The thing is, each time Philly can do something truly great, a bit of our inferiority and staid complacency wears away. And as we chip away at that veneer, we reveal a bit more of the aspirational city where I, and I dare say a great many other Philadelphians, really want to live.

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