Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Making a Classic Modern

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has finally released Frank Gehry's master plan for renovations to the world renowned art museum. In "Making a Classic Modern," the PMA displays Frank Gehry's indoor renovations gracefully complementing the catacombs formerly unseen by guests while downplaying what Gehry intends to do with perhaps the museum's most visited, free attraction: the steps.

Ironically Gehry, an architect known for bending metal like Magneto, hasn't executed his signature style on his exterior elements at the PMA. Instead, perhaps in an effort to respect the reverence of the building, dumbs his exterior renovations down to a picture window wedged in one sixth of the Great Steps.

Of course modern is relative, particularly in terms of an architect who's been practicing his craft since 1962. His most iconic works, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, were designed in the late 90s, both completed more than ten years ago. 

Gehry's relevance as a modernist is only in the sense that he's still building. What we're left with is a Starchitect recognizable in name only, one who has chosen to reinvent his unique, metallic curvatures with a sunken picture window desecrating one of Philadelphia's most visited attractions. 

If the PMA were less concerned with pomp and more concerned with preserving its place in history, we might see what a truly modern firm could do with this space. After all, history will remember what it looks like, not an architect's status in 2014.

Strategically, no rendering of what this will look like from Eakins Oval is available. 

When I. M. Pei completed his Pyramid at the Louvre in 1989 it was not without contention. Many still revile the structure as a scar upon Paris. While the large plaza facing the Louve shares some of the architectural elements as the vast steps facing the Philadelphia Museum of Art - namely, the humbling nature of vast and subtle architectural intentions - the steps of the PMA add a humbling journey one must embark upon before reaching greatness.

It is truly Philadelphia's Acropolis.

"Making a Classic Modern" is not just irrelevant, it's irresponsible. The cohesive collection of architecture that makes up the Philadelphia Museum of Art is about as astounding and godly as one can get. Deliberate or not, Horace Trumbauer and other architects created one of the most spiritual places on earth.

After the daunting task of tacking the steps, an optical illusion created by the width and curvature of each individual step, visitors are cleared of mind, body, and spirit, cleansed of the world they left behind at Eakins Oval to truly embrace the collections they are about to experience.

Afterwards, they can explore the nature that awaits them along the Shuylkill River, the eclectic architecture comprised within the Waterworks, Boathouse Row, and the winding trails leading them through the rocks on which our Parthenon sits, contemplating the spiritual and artistic journey they just took.

Inadvertent as this collection of architecture may be, what we have is rare. If Gehry intends to alter that experience in any way, he needs to compliment that journey.

The Great Steps are where our journey begins. This is where we embark on our quest for solitude and spirituality through art. For the same reason that Central Park was never developed, the Great Steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art are a place for contemplation, not clutter. 

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