An art palace well suited to Philadelphia

The Perelman addition, meant to relieve the pressure on the museum’s overstuffed main building, takes modesty and restraint to a level rarely seen in major art venues.

Posted: September 09, 2007

A version of this article appeared in last Sunday's Inquirer.

In the Art Museum's new Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, Philadelphia has at last acquired a modern civic building that is a true Philadelphian.

It matters little that the architect, Richard Gluckman, hails from a certain big city 90 miles north of here. His conversion of an opulent Roaring Twenties office building into a safe house for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's most fragile collections reflects this town's essential verities: its commitment to craft over splash, substance over surface, and architecture with a strong work ethic.

We live in a time of competitive museum-building, when cities unveil new wings at the same pace Target opens superstores, and each new temple of art strives to be more glamorous than the last. But Philadelphia tends to cast a suspicious eye on ostentation. The Perelman addition, meant to relieve the pressure on the museum's overstuffed main building, takes modesty and restraint to a level rarely seen in major art venues.

Rather than dazzling us with peacock architecture, the city's newest museum, which will open to the public Saturday, devotes itself to the care, handling and reverent display of art. The Perelman contains a mere five public galleries - six if you insist on counting an alcove off the lobby. Even the gift shop, which assumes pride of place in many museums, barely gets a corner to itself.

The only new structure built for the Perelman, which took over the art deco headquarters of the defunct Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Co. on Pennsylvania Avenue, is a windowless two-story box made from concrete block.

OK, so Gluckman employed two kinds of block, split and ground face, but it's still something you might see used - much less elegantly - on a big-box store. Gluckman pulls this little treasure house of galleries together like a Japanese ink painting, with a few minimalist strokes. He makes a lot out of almost nothing.

One reason for such frugality is that the bulk of the Perelman's $90 million budget was poured into what museum people call connoisseurship, the essential workaday business of ensuring that the museum's patrimony looks good for future generations of art lovers.

More than two-thirds of the Perelman is consumed by conservation labs, workshops, climate-controlled storage, study rooms, a library, and offices. In our icon- and image-obsessed culture, it takes tremendous self-confidence to spend money so sensibly.

Fortunately, today's art lovers shouldn't leave the Perelman disappointed. Gluckman, an accomplished museum designer, has adapted the onetime offices to their new tasks impeccably and without fuss. Doors and window frames have been restored by the Philadelphia firm Kelly/Maiello to their original color, a riveting royal blue. Meanwhile, Gluckman's extension, appended to the back of the insurance building, reveals a deeply refined sensibility, honed from years of working on Manhattan's toniest white-box art galleries.

The word understatement inevitably comes to mind. But understated should not be confused with staid.

The procession through the insurance company's soaring arched portal - lavished with art deco reliefs by sculptor Lee Lawrie - to a new atrium fuses two radically different styles. Gluckman makes the transition between deco and minimalism feel not just natural, but compelling.

The extension beckons visitors with light, which falls in torrents through the narrow, glass-roofed atrium that unites the old and new buildings. That light dances off the new wall of creamy rusticated concrete bricks, drawing you irresistibly toward a sequence of three ground-level galleries.

The light isn't the only magnet tugging you into the new space. Gluckman, a friend and admirer of sculptor Richard Serra's, fashioned his wall so it gradually torques, recalling one of Serra's curving steel installations.

Gluckman's wall begins to press down at the point where visitors enter the Perelman atrium. Just when you start to wonder if the bricks might fall on your head, the wall twists up and bursts out a side window. Its pointed prow stops just short of crashing into the old insurance building.

That's it. One wall. One theatrical swoop. One perfect brushstroke. But that single gesture rules Gluckman's entire composition.

The torquing wall gives shape to the ground-floor galleries, turning them into off-kilter rhomboids. Given their plainness and their absence of windows, this slight eccentricity saves them from being generic white boxes. Because you must exit each gallery into the atrium before proceeding to the next room, you always return to the light.

The angled wall also turns the gallery doors into deep-set rhomboids that resemble the entrances of Egyptian tombs. That reference ties the new galleries back to the Egyptian-inspired sculpture that adorns the old Fidelity building. In turn, the Fidelity links back to the main museum because its architects, Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, had a hand in designing that temple on the Fairmount hill, with its own vaguely Egyptian moments.

The other advantage of Gluckman's twisted wall is that it narrows the atrium as it heads to its grand finale, a two-story glass wall overlooking 25th Street. A classic trick of perspective, the narrowing draws your gaze toward the lighted endpoint. But it is also where Gluckman made his biggest mistake.

Instead of views of the lovely Fairmount neighborhood, your eye runs smack into a blank wall. For reasons that defy understanding, Gluckman punctuated the atrium's terminus with a large, ugly ventilation chimney.

Obviously, the Perelman's state-of-the-art labs have tremendous air-handling needs. But why put the stack there? In blocking the only window facing the street, Gluckman denies passersby the enjoyment and excitement of glimpsing museum activity.

As it is, the exterior walls of the treasure box are less than satisfying. The concrete block that was used to such sparkling effect in the atrium loses its personality in the harsh light of day, especially alongside the warm brick of the old Fidelity building. Perhaps this is a case of Philadelphia modesty going too far. One wonders why cities with less impressive collections than the Philadelphia Museum of Art's can come up with the money for luxe materials.

Still, the exterior walls aren't nearly as overbearing as some neighbors claim. Yes, they are big and solid, but Gluckman has invested them with texture and relief, and he has taken care to break down the scale along 25th Street so that the large museum settles gradually into the rowhouse neighborhood.

It's hard to spend time at the Perelman without thinking of the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia's failed stab at creating an iconic civic building. The two venues strike me as dueling alter egos: the red-brick Kimmel versus the white Perelman.

While the Kimmel's atrium is gargantuan and under-detailed, the Perelman's is a sliver of finely calibrated design. With Rafael Vinoly's Kimmel, the city was momentarily seduced into spending great sums for a most un-Philadelphia flashiness, only to discover that the building doesn't function so well. The more humble Perelman promises to serve the Art Museum dutifully for a long time.

The building's assignment is to house and protect the museum's most light-sensitive collections, including textiles and costume, prints, drawings, photographs and design objects.

Only one exhibit room, the Exhibition Gallery, which is to be devoted exclusively to sculpture, is graced with windows - stunning, arch-shaped, brass-trimmed ones. While lovely light pours in, the room's modest dimensions don't easily lend themselves to the gargantuan scale of contemporary sculpture, such as the Serra pieces displayed this summer at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Yet smaller works seem to swim in the space.

Gluckman was chosen for the Perelman because he is said to be a master at making architecture that is subservient to the art. That doesn't quite do his work justice.

During the last days of construction, when the Perelman was empty of artwork, it did appear to be a neutral vessel that could be assigned any task. Then curators wheeled in John Chamberlain's Glossalia Adagio, a sculpture made of crayon-colored crushed car bodies, placing it in front of the torqued brick wall.

And instantly, both art and architecture burst into life.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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