The architect designing Philadelphia Contemporary’s first building just won a national award

Architect Sharon Johnston is designing a building for Philadelphia Contemporary. (Johnston Marklee)

Architect Sharon Johnston is designing a building for Philadelphia Contemporary. (Johnston Marklee)

Let the [Architectural] Record show: in a field largely dominated by males, Sharon Johnston is a rising star.

Her designs, marked by expressive lines and original forms, are already scattered across the globe. Pretty soon, they’ll be in Philly, too.

At the beginning of this month, Architectural Record announced the five 2019 recipients of its Women in Architecture Awards, which recognize and promote women’s leadership in the field. One of the five was Johnston, winner of the New Generation Leader distinction. The announcement cited Johnston’s work on the Menil Drawing Center in Houston, TX and the newly opened The UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios in Culver City, CA, as well as her teaching at Harvard GSD and co-direction of the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. 

Philadelphians might be more interested in a Johnston design that’s a bit closer to home. 

Her LA-based firm, Johnston Marklee, was selected by a juried process in October to design the very first permanent home for Philadelphia Contemporary.  The three-year-old arts nonprofit is known for a hyper cross-disciplinary approach to art and eclectic body of work including everything from poetry-infused digital mix-tapes to public dance performances in historic churches and other pop-up exhibits.

Johnston herself is the lead architect on the building’s design. Last fall, she told Curbed Philly that she envisions the space as “a model for the twenty-first-century museum wherein there are no boundaries between art and the public.”

What’s that no-boundaries model entail?

Harry Philbrick, founding director and CEO of Philadelphia Contemporary, said his team visualizes a sky-lit, column-free gallery of about 8,000 square feet.  

“A large-scale space like that for temporary exhibitions doesn’t really exist in Philadelphia so far,” said Philbrick, who founded Philadelphia Contemporary after five years at the helm of the Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, housed in Frank Furness and George Hewitt’s North Broad Street landmark.

Philbrick imagines the new building as a place for people to gather and not only for openings or exhibits. 

In addition to galleries, the design will include outdoor display space, an education center where all-ages classes and hands-on programming can happen, and an area where local businesses can display and sell their products. That space will replace a more traditional gift shop. There will also be a cafe open to the public on the ground floor, he said.

It’s no easy task to design a permanent exhibition space for a nonprofit that’s made its name creating art in temporary ones. But Philbrick’s excited about working with Johnston Marklee. 

“They really truly love contemporary art and are very knowledgeable about it,” he said. That combined knowledge and enthusiasm was what drew the jury to Johnston Marklee in the first place, he says, and it’s shaped their interactions since. “Our dynamic with them is very good, and we’re excited to be working with them as people.”

Philadelphia Contemporary aims to open its new building to the public in fall 2022. When it does, Johnston will join the ranks of female architects who have left their marks on the city — Elizabeth Fleisher, Georgina Yeatman, and Anne Tyng. That’s not to mention the slew of women at Philly-based design firms following in their footsteps, a group that includes ISA’s Deb Katz, Kieran Timberlake’s Billie Faircloth, EwingCole’s Sara Eastman, and VSBA’s Denise Scott Brown.

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