The Philadelphia Museum of Art and its grounds are a facsimile of the Acropolis of Athens: a flat-topped mini-mountain with temples sprouting forth. The museum building sits astride a rocky promontory named Faire Mount, once topped by an earthen-walled reservoir that held the city’s water supply; aptly called the “Parthenon on the Parkway,” the Greek-inspired structure and its site offer dramatic bird’s-eye views – one side looks down on the Champs-Elysees-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and from the opposite side, the flowing waters, elegant dam and sinuous valley of the Schuylkill. Over the past two years, in a project almost as massive an undertaking as the original 1815 reservoir, there has been an excavation of parts of the bluff for a parking facility and an accompanying designed reuse of the ground above, actually a green roof, for a sculpture garden. The opening for this welcome open-air addition was in September, but we explored it on a quieter day.
First, it feels odd to be inhabiting space on the grounds (formerly a rock and grass cliff face) where you couldn’t go before – so, it is like visiting unknown territory surrounded by the familiar. The landscape plan, by Olin, utilizes the changes in grade to create terraces and garden rooms (but with views both in and out, above and below and, as we’ll see, through). The Museum itself calls this a “gallery without walls,” but many of the terraces do have walls, only they are glass. Despite the amount of plate glass a city-dweller passes by every day, not much of it is freestanding, so there is something strange about its presence in the landscape, generally, and its use as exterior fencing, specifically. However, the surreality aside, using glass as a frame and railing around the terrace edges has the dual ability of being not only a transparent, discrete and nondisruptive border but also a palpable design presence in the greater environment – there, and yet not there. Of course, the plantings are new, so the “garden” part seems sparse and small in relation to the open space, which is magnified even more by the elevation of the site, creating a kind of natural pedestal for the artwork and for the viewer. The vistas out to the Schuylkill, its west bank rolling hills, the tree-lined parkway and its background of Fairmount Park, and the increasing density of high rises as the view heads east – all is hugely entertaining and encompassing. The question is: Can the sculpture garden compete in such a setting?
The inaugural exhibition in the garden is of stone works by Isamu Noguchi, whose pieces are diverse enough to make one think that this might be a group show – except that the sensibility is familiar in all. One particularly fortuitous pairing is of a Brancusi-like column standing against a backdrop of The Philadelphian apartments – both having a sameness in patterning and color, with their grey and white striping, the one undulating totemic form and the other massive edifice, in a stand-off conversation across the Parkway.
In answer to the question posed above – yes, the sculpture garden can compete. This is a bit of the Tuileries with a penthouse command, made up of contrasting colored gravel paths, green knolls, geometrically aligned trees and captivating captured scenic panoramas. Stylish in and of itself, it coexists with the surrounding beauty of the river as well as the nearby built environment, blending the two and mixing them up in an unfolding of defined spaces with both hard and soft edges and plenty of vantage points – for the garden rooms themselves, for the larger environment and for the sculptures that will inhabit the lofty perches created.