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Frank Gehry exhibit shows redesign of Philadelphia Art Museum, yields more space, better light

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PHILADELPHIA - Traditionalists can rest easy knowing architect Frank Gehry's vision for the Philadelphia Museum of Art does not include wrapping the neoclassical building in his trademark chunky silver swooshes.

But he just might take a chunk out of the famed "Rocky" steps.

Gehry was not the obvious choice to design an expansion for the elegant Beaux Arts institution, which is marked by grand columns and golden sandstone. Yet museum officials say they are elated with his proposal to create badly needed gallery space without radically altering the structure.

A new exhibit, "Making a Classic Modern," details Gehry's master plan through several scaled models of the facility and grounds, with cross-sections that look like intricate dollhouses.

"The DNA of this building is so powerful," Gehry said during a preview last month. "I think we're doing something pretty exciting."

Gehry, 85, is known for creating the modern, metallic exteriors of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In Philadelphia, he focused on a massive interior renovation that will allow for more art displays, an education centre and amenities like a new cafe.

His blueprint creates underground galleries lit by skylights embedded in the museum's terrace. It relocates the auditorium to open up the building's core, which officials say will improve sight lines and give visitors a better sense of orientation.

The plan also reopens a street-level vaulted walkway that once served as a public entrance but has been closed for about 50 years so staff could use it as a loading area.

The goal was to create more room for a collection that has grown about 20-fold since the museum opened in 1928, said director and CEO Timothy Rub. Officials wanted to expand displays of Asian, American and contemporary art in particular, all while making the building more navigable and letting in more natural light.

The graceful hilltop edifice is an architectural and cultural landmark in the city, beloved for its outer beauty, the art inside and its role as a civic gathering place. So for esthetic and geographical reasons, the challenge was "to find the future within the building itself," Rub said.

Officials are seeking public and private funds for the initial five years of the project, which Rub said would begin soon and cost about $156 million. Implementing the entire master plan could take a decade, he said, and would add 169,000 square feet of exhibition space.

And what about the museum's famous steps? The outdoor staircase, featured in the movie "Rocky," is ascended countless times each day by joggers, tourists and even wedding parties for its breathtaking skyline view.

Gehry's idea: Build a sunken seating area in the middle of the steps with a window peeking into the art galleries. Museum-goers can look out at the city, and stair climbers can look in.

"It invites people into the museum," president Gail Harrity said. But she stressed it's only a suggestion right now and is not included in the first phase of renovations.

The Gehry exhibit runs through Sept. 1.

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Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson

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