New Calder museum plans revealed for the Parkway

A rendering shows the Vestige Garden at Calder Gardens, a proposed museum dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder, to be located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Herzog & de Meuron)

A rendering shows the Vestige Garden at Calder Gardens, a proposed museum dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder, to be located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Herzog & de Meuron)

Architectural plans have been released for a new museum coming to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway dedicated to a single artist: Alexander “Sandy” Calder.

The $70 million Calder Gardens will be built opposite the Barnes Foundation, featuring a low-profile museum surrounded by extensive, landscaped gardens. The Calder Foundation hired the Pritzker-winning architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, and Dutch landscape architect Piet Ouldof to build a space specifically tailored to the work of the Modernist artist known for his kinetic mobiles.

Compared to the soaring skylight of the Barnes Foundation across the street and the stately grandeur of the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art raised high on a hill, the low roofline of the Calder Gardens will appear relatively modest from the street.

A rendering shows Calder Gardens, a museum planned for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder. (Herzog & de Meuron)
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The 1.5-acre site will be occupied by a 4,700 square foot structure, about the footprint of a large suburban home. It will be just 16 feet high.

That ground floor is just the tip of the iceberg. Once inside the space goes downward. Enormous, high-ceiling spaces open up underground, giving ample room for Calder’s mobiles whose shapes delicately turn in the air. The subgrade floor will be almost three times larger than the ground floor above it.

A rendering shows the Open Plan Gallery at Calder Gardens, a new museum planned for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which will be dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder. (Herzog & de Meuron)

The museum will have sunken gardens — landscaped areas level with the below-grade galleries — which will bring daylight underground and enable the artwork to be seen in concert with natural elements.

Similar in scope to a cathedral, Calder’s grandson, Alexander Rower, initially described the planned space as a “sanctuary.”

“Our intention for Calder Gardens is not only to create the ideal environment for the public to encounter my grandfather’s work but also to elevate personal contemplation and reflection,” said Rower, president of the Calder Foundation.

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A rendering shows the Sunken Garden at Calder Gardens, a proposed museum dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder, to be located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Herzog & de Meuron)

Calder, who died in 1976, was a Philadelphia native and the scion of the Calder sculptural dynasty. His grandfather Alexander Milne Calder made the towering figure of William Penn atop City Hall. His father Alexander Stirling Calder designed the Swann Fountain in the middle of Logan Square, in front of the Free Library.

“Sandy” Calder is a major American artist in his own right, with work in collections of museums around the world. His 1964 mobile “Ghost” is permanently installed above the Grand Staircase in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The architects designed the Calder museum in an atypical way. Rather than large, boxy spaces to be filled with art, Herzog & de Meuron developed unusual niches where art has the ability to surprise.

“We were looking for space to present Calder’s work in a new and unprecedented way,” said Jacques Herzog. “Not only galleries in the classical sense, but every corner and angle, every stair and corridor should be offering itself up as a place to put art.”

A rendering shows the Highway and Tall Gallery, which will be part of a new museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder. (Herzog & de Meuron)

Surrounding the building will be a large landscaped meadow with trees through which visitors stroll as they approach the entrance. Similar in concept to the Barnes Foundation, where there is no straight route to the front door, visitors must meander among natural elements meant to mentally wash off the city as they approach the galleries.

The Calder Gardens is partnering with its neighbor the Barnes Foundation, which will provide administrative and programming support to the new museum.

“Calder’s work lends itself naturally to Barnes’s original approach to teaching about art, which is grounded in pure visual engagement with the object,” a Barnes spokesperson said in a statement. “We are excited by the myriad new educational opportunities we’ll be able to offer as a result of this collaboration.”

A rendering shows the Apse Gallery at Calder Gardens, a museum dedicated to the works of Alexander Calder, to be located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Herzog & de Meuron)

The Calder Gardens landscaping will be maintained and operated by its neighbor the Barnes Foundation, in keeping with the Barnes’ original horticultural mission.

In his lifetime Calder was resistant to explain his own art, preferring his works to generate an experience with the viewer that evokes a subjective response. The forthcoming museum is designed to foster those kinds of experiences.

“The esthetic value of these objects cannot be arrived at by reasoning,” Calder once wrote in 1933. “Familiarization is necessary.”

Construction of the Calder Gardens is expected to begin next year, opening sometime in 2024.

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