Frank Gehry’s Philly museum design takes on the “Rocky” steps

Architect Frank Gehry's long-term master plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art involves going underground: burrowing under the museum's broad terrace to create additional gallery space that would be illuminated by skylight.
(Gehry Partners / Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Look at Frank Gehry’s plan for the renovation and expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and you’ll see little of the Gehry we’ve all come to know. There are no billowing sheets of titanium, à la Guggenheim Bilbao or Walt Disney Concert Hall; no craggy icebergs like the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which is set to open in Paris this fall.

Instead, the architect has gone inside and underground, carving out space from within and underneath the institution’s guts. He also makes a suggested (potentially sacrilegious) change to the museum’s world-famous “Rocky” steps, where Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, once ran triumphantly. All of the changes, however, stay true to the building’s neo-classical limestone look.

Gehry’s master plan is the focus of an exhibition that went on view at the museum earlier this week, “Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.” The show for the first time reveals to the public design concepts that Gehry has worked on for almost eight years.

Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia museum, says that the institution, known for its collection of American art, is long overdue for a refresher.


“The building has been in continuous use since it was built in 1928,” he explains. “It is in dire need of renovations. A lot of work needs to be done to update it. There is deferred maintenance and some of it is the replacing of antiquated building systems.”

The museum — which was designed by Horace Trumbauer, C. Clarke Zantzinger and Charles L. Borie Jr. in the1920s — has long been a Philadelphia icon, a temple on a hill on the eastern bank of the Schuykill River.

But that’s on the outside. The inside, as long as I’ve known it, has always been a bit of a hot mess: Visitors start at a dimly lit grand staircase that leads to a warren of uninspiring pathways, some neon-lit, some of which lead to dead ends.

“For a building that reads so monumentally on the outside, when you get into the galleries, they’re really small and chopped up,” says Rub. “That sense of scale is not carried through. The intention of this plan is to restore some of that space.”

As part of this proposal, Gehry is suggesting all kinds of changes. First off: Eliminate an auditorium under the grand staircase that blocks east-west traffic in the museum. He would turn this area into an open foyer that the literature describes as a “Forum.”

Secondly, Gehry intends to restore the museum’s northern entrance, which leads into a pretty fantastic vaulted archway, but which, for the past half century, has been used as a back-of-house staging area and loading dock.

And, lastly, there is the expansion: the long-term plan calls for tunneling beneath the museum’s eastern terrace to create a whole new suite of galleries and possibly — if it doesn’t cause riots — bust a window through the famed “Rocky” steps.

That last idea has gotten Philly’s attention. “Let’s say it’s a subject of great discussion,” says Rub. But he thinks it’s a good one, since the community is considering the problems facing a building that local culture writers have dubbed the “Greek garage.”


(For what it’s worth, 55% of respondents to a Curbed Philadelphia poll are OK with cutting a window out of the steps. But I’d hazard a guess that all the tourists who like to jog up the steps and re-create the “Rocky” pose haven’t taken the poll.)

Most interestingly, the clean, Classical look of the design represents a bit of a departure from Gehry’s recent practice, one that is more associated with buoyant, rippling forms. The architect, however, has said that it was a challenge he nonetheless found intriguing.

“My mission was to preserve the appearance of the exterior,” Gehry told the Philadelphia Inquirer late last week. “Anything I’d do to put my signature on the building would be trivial.”

It may come as a surprise that the architect most identified with the phenomenon of icon-making “starchitecture” is working in such a quiet manner.


It shouldn’t be, says Rub. “He is a good and thoughtful planner and that’s been the case throughout his career.”

Rub cites Gehry’s work on Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum in the late 1990s as an example of this: “I think what he did there was introduce a classical order to the experience of the galleries that didn’t exist before.”

Before Gehry laid his hands on that structure, the Norton Simon was a curator’s nightmare of curved walls and other bizarre architectural embellishments (as William Poundstone notes in this terrific piece).

Though critics have been wary of the starchitecture phenomenon in recent years, especially when applied to museums, Gehry’s Philadelphia design concept has drawn praise. And some of the most noteworthy acclaim has come from Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.


If the museum can raise the money, she writes, “the golden temple will emerge both more dignified and more approachable than it is now.”

Of course, it will all boil down to the money. Rub estimates that the first phase of construction will cost $150 million to $160 million. This phase will include tearing out the auditorium and rehabilitating the northern entrance, among other changes.

Some critics question whether this is indeed a good idea, especially during a time when museums have been hurt by extravagant building projects.

But Rub says that roughly 65% of the cost consists of retrofits and renovations that the museum is going to have to undertake at some point soon, regardless. This involves making needed upgrades to the building’s systems, including electrical, ventilation, security and handicap access.


“All the exterior windows are actually single-pane glass,” he says. “There is weatherproofing and upgrading we can do to make it more energy efficient.”

Right now, fundraising is in the quiet stages, since a capital campaign has not yet been formally launched. Rub wouldn’t reveal how much the museum has raised thus far, but he’s confident that the project will move forward as planned.

“This week we begin the production of the construction drawings,” he says. “It’s our hope to get the first phase completed within the next five years.”

After that, the museum can then decide if it wants (and is financially able) to continue to the second phase and tunnel underneath its eastern terrace and cut into the “Rocky” steps.


But that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. “This is a long-term blueprint,” says Rub. “We can revise it. We can do it in a different order or we can do it simultaneously.”

Which means would-be Rockys will have plenty of time for triumphant poses while Philly debates the fate of its beloved museum steps.