Is Frank Gehry Really “Apollo Creed-Level Bad for Philadelphia”?

Them's fighting words. Literally.

Art Museum and expansion, seen in section. (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

In a City Lab piece titled “Philly: Let’s Talk About Frank Gehry,” Kriston Capps writes that Gehry “might be Apollo Creed-level bad for Philadelphia.” Them’s fighting words. Literally.

Capps’ commentary coincides with today’s opening of Gehry’s exhibit at the Art Museum that shows the architect’s plans for his expansion (renderings below), which includes a reworking of the famous “Rocky” steps. So far, the reaction to the expansion has been muted; if anything, it seems to be a relief that we won’t be getting some kind of crazy glass octagonal, pyramidal, Pythagorean, cut-glass, sharp-edged bean pod. Gehry’s interior changes sound — from Inga Saffron’s review of the plans — like they’ll make navigation of the museum and access to the artwork better.

In fact, Capps agrees that even Gehry haters “may find plenty to admire in his plans for the Art Museum. Frankly, it’s not very Gehry.”

So it’s not the architecture per se that engenders this comparison to Apollo Creed. It’s the role Gehry has been chosen to play within what Capps sees as a problematic context. He writes: “Cultural expansions aren’t necessarily a great investment for a city in 2014, and this one almost certainly isn’t.”

This contention derives primarily from research done between 1994 and 2008, which concerns me. It’s a big statement, but things are different today; I don’t think the same conditions apply. Speaking of equivalencies, a former article by Capps on the topic of the futility of cultural building employs the example of the Kimmel Center. But there’s a significant difference between building a brand new performance arts center and expanding on an established institution like the Art Museum.

“Cities have a lot to gain when they land major cultural landmarks. Cities have just as much to lose when a cultural project goes wrong,” Capps writes. In this case, we’re not landing a major cultural landmark. It’s already there. Even if this expansion isn’t what people expect when it’s completed in 2028, the Art Museum will still hold its august place in the city and in the international art world. It ain’t no Kimmel Center, in other words.

Additionally, the expansion has been in the works since 2005, and as Capps points out, was endorsed by late museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt, who was not known for making specious investment decisions. Capps cites the fact that d’Harnoncourt passed away as warranting “a deep breath,” but doesn’t follow through, simply saying the plans were dialed back after her death, but are still bold. It’s a non-sequiter. If there’s an actual reason for caution due to her absence, it’s that she’s no longer here to shepherd the project.

Capps does use statistics to back the claim that cultural expansions are a bad investment, but I’m not sure correlation is causation in the numbers he uses for Philadelphia.

Between 1994 and 2008, the Philadelphia metropolitan statistical area (which includes Camden in New Jersey and Wilmington in Delaware) spent just under half a billion dollars ($449,726,754 in 2005 dollars) on cultural building projects, at an average cost of $38 million per project. That’s almost $10 million more per project than the nationwide average over this time. Meanwhile, employment in the Philadelphia MSA declined 1.4 percent between 2001 and 2011, and the region made up ground only recently.

Emphasis mine. Does the fact “that Philadelphia spent wildly on museums,” as Capps put it, truly account for or even relate to an employment decline during a catastrophic nationwide recession? If anything, the chart Capps includes is simply a depressing reminder of how hard the city was hit, but not, I should think, because of museum building in the 14 years leading up to the recession.

At any rate, the target completion date for the Art Museum expansion is 2028. The issue of whether investment will be worthwhile or damaging depends where the investment comes from (hello, private donors!), and on the particularities of Philadelphia. I think Capps’ real concern—appropriately—is Gehry’s dominance within the cultural sphere, and Philly just happens to be the latest example of that.

So. Moving on to a broader discussion of Gehry:

The more frequent complaint about Frank Gehry these days is that he ruined everything—the Bilbao Effect is named after his signature museum, after all. While Bilbao is still flying high.…the saddest story in the U.S. might be the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, whose Gehry-designed, five-building campus in Biloxi, Mississippi, was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina a little more than a year out from its planned opening. Once it finally did open—5 years later—it continued to struggle.

(It should be noted that Katrina was not Gehry’s fault, no matter what you think of him.)

For starters, the 2006 selection of Gehry [for the Art Museum] smacks of dubious thinking, coming at the height of ’00s enthusiasm for starchitect-led projects.

Unlike Biloxi or Bilbao, or basically any other building Gehry has ever designed, the Art Museum expansion would be built below the surface, penned in not just by the design of the original Parthenon on the Parkway but by the physical structure itself. Why would anyone commission Gehry—an architect whose work can be disputed and even despised, but cannot be denied—and put him underground?

“I feel like I’m collaborating through time with [museum architects] Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele,” he told Saffron at the Inky. And maybe he is. Maybe d’Harnoncourt had the vision to see what a muted Gehry project could be…

But with a cost falling in the $350–500 million range, does it make sense to build a Gehry project that won’t look like a Gehry?…

Now for some caveats of my own: I haven’t seen the exhibit yet. The design has won over Inga Saffron, and you won’t find a critic better in tune with Philly’s architectural needs.

Finally, Capps quotes Gehry as telling Saffron that the Art Museum expansion could change Philadelphia, just the way the Guggenheim changed Bilbao. “And that might be reason to worry,” Capps writes.

Perhaps it is reason for Capps to worry. But here’s one thing Philadelphians don’t have reason to worry about: a cultural building expansion that would bring more visitors and revenue to the city’s jewel in our art-world crown.

Now, you want to worry about an expansion that tanked? Let’s talk about the Please Touch Museum

(Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gehry Partners)

Philly: Let’s Talk About Frank Gehry [City Lab]