Monday, May 19, 2014

Don't Mess With the Rocky Steps

When modern meets historic, I'm typically a fan. I. M. Pei's pyramid in front of the Louvre is astounding. But you know what's just as astounding? The giant staircase leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And I'm not speaking from the standpoint of Rocky nostalgia. The wide, tall staircase that imposes itself in front of Philadelphia's grand Parthenon of art was a deliberate architectural element, one meant to be as dramatic as the edifice itself.

From City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands atop the site of the city's old reservoir like a temple to the gods, but the truly humbling experience begins at the foot of her steps on Eakins Oval. It really isn't that tall and climbing the stairs isn't a feat reserved for the most physically fit. It's an optical illusion, one designed specifically to convince visitors that they have reached greatness at its summit, reflecting similar design elements at the Parthenon itself.

Frank Gehry has been working with the PMA to complete the world renowned museum nearly a century later, adding modern art space beneath its great steps. Frank Gehry has his fans and foes, but unlike I. M. Pei who indulged in modernism when it was unpopular, Gehry was one of the world's first Starchitects. For a city to have a building, even a space, designed by Gehry is a status symbol. But like leasing a Mercedes you can't afford, status symbols and the products of Starchitects are occasionally relevant in name only.

I think it's great that Gehry is designing the modern art space for the PMA, but that's because Gehry's best work is indoors. Outside, at best, his buildings echo a ball of foil, which would have been unique if he'd done it once. But he's done it over and over again because more and more cities demanded a Gehry.

But his exterior plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art display a man falling flat on his face when it comes to integrating history.

He plans to carve Philadelphia's Great Steps in half at the second tier, opening them to a flat entrance to the new museum of modern art. In what is likely an attempt to respect the history of the building, the entrance is dull and unadorned. But considering the significance of these steps both architecturally and popularly, subtlety is the last thing a redesign warrants.

This could never happen again.

If Philadelphia is going to allow 1/6 of this iconic landmark to be obliterated, give us the pyramid at the Louvre. Give us something even more exciting than the steps we have.

Or better yet, give us nothing at all. These steps should be preserved: historically, architecturally, and culturally. Perhaps the fault lies in hiring a Starchitect to redesign a building true to a city. As a Philadelphian, Horace Trumbauer understood what the Philadelphia Museum of Art meant to Philadelphia. Frank Gehry clearly does not.

1 comment:

  1. Wes…I'm with you on this. Thanks for posting!