Heller: “If You’re Going to Hire Gehry, Let’s Do Gehry”

art museum plan

East Terrace Aerial Mockup. Image via the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Greg Heller, author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, knows something about the planning and evolution of Philadelphia’s Parkway. Aside from Inga Saffron, there are few people I can think of more qualified to offer an opinion on Frank Gehry’s plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), now on view there in “Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

While other critics have basically said, “Thank god Gehry’s plans for the museum don’t seem very Gehry-ish” — in other words, he’s kept himself in check in our rather conservative, Quaker city — Heller finds himself disappointed by the absence of Gehry’s flamboyance:

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.

Heller knew it wasn’t going to be Bilbao — after all, the design is primarily underground, as he notes — but he thought we might get something “iconic and visionary—perhaps our own version of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, but Gehryesque.” Instead, he says, Gehry has offered a pallid plan for an “amazingly boring” museum expansion.

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Recommended Fall Books: ‘Ed Bacon’ by Gregory L. Heller


It was 49 years ago this week when the late Ed Bacon, Philadelphia’s most (only?) famous city planner graced the cover of Time magazine. Philadelphia was the anchor city for an issue about urban renewal, and Bacon served as the city’s cover boy. But as Gregory L. Heller makes clear in his excellent new book — subtitled “Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia” — the notion of Bacon as a Robert Moses-styled guiding light who reinvented Society Hill armed only with his tenacity isn’t the whole story. It’s not even a sliver of it.

The mercurial Bacon (now known by a new generation as the father of actor Kevin Bacon) is still referred to as the city’s trailblazing city planner, which — while technically true for 21 years — underestimates Bacon’s real role (and his strength), according to Heller: that of political entrepreneur. In addition to conceiving bold urban designs, Bacon had a keen understanding of how such ideas became reality. In a historic city like Philadelphia, often resistant to change and with an entrenched political machine, this was invaluable.

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