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A modest and elegant corrective

Wing smooths out institute's architecture, adds blockbuster space.

"Shimmer Wall" by California artist Ned Kahn is at the pavilion's Race Street entrance. An assembly of 12,500 hinged aluminum panels that move in the wind, it is designed to create a visual representation of the sky, wind, and other natural elements. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)
"Shimmer Wall" by California artist Ned Kahn is at the pavilion's Race Street entrance. An assembly of 12,500 hinged aluminum panels that move in the wind, it is designed to create a visual representation of the sky, wind, and other natural elements. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)Read more

Despite the odds against predicting the future correctly, it's always been the goal of science museums to stay a step ahead of the latest thinking. But they're lucky if they can just keep from falling too far behind.

The Franklin Institute knows all too well how hard it is to stay current. By the time its neoclassical palazzo opened on Logan Square in 1934, the groundbreaking, international-style PSFS tower on Market Street had been reaping accolades for two years. The Franklin's exterior looked fusty and outdated, hardly a match for its forward-thinking exhibits about technology and innovation.

It would take half a century before the museum could add a modern wing. But the Mandell Futures Center, as it was called in 1990, got old quick, and the interior had to be reconfigured before the debt was paid off. The word futures was quietly dropped from its name a few years ago.

This history may explain why the Franklin proceeded with extreme caution in the creation of its newest wing, the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion, which opens Saturday. Designed by SaylorGregg Architects, a firm that specializes in doctoring problematic museums, it's an infill addition with just a single visible facade, rather than a full wing. Its mission was similarly modest: Untangle the Franklin's Rube Goldberg arrangement of galleries and provide flexible space for special exhibits and events.

SaylorGregg's design makes no big architectural statement. It does not attempt to nudge the science museum genre in a new direction. The 53,000-square-foot addition simply corrects the weaknesses of the Franklin's building with modesty and low-key elegance.

That's no small thing, of course. In making the fixes, the $41 million pavilion puts the Franklin on par with its competitors in newer buildings, which offer warehouse-size galleries that can handle the more experiential, blockbuster exhibits that are now a staple of science museums.

Founded in 1824, the Franklin dates to the Pleistocene era of science museums, when these institutions were just figuring out how to distinguish themselves from art museums. Early science museums were static collections of objects, so-called wonder cabinets, and included sizable research departments. This was especially true of places like the Academy of Natural Sciences, which were focused on the rigorous categorization of plant and animal specimens.

But in response to the Industrial Revolution, a different kind of science museum began to emerge, celebrating technology and the scientific process. How that information was presented changed drastically with the opening of Munich's Deutsches Museum in 1906.

Unlike the cabinet museums, the innovative Deutsches presented hands-on exhibits that let visitors explore scientific concepts themselves - how gears and levers work, how a generator creates an electric current, how heavy objects can be lofted in flight. Inspired by the new approach, the Franklin decided to leave its cramped space on Seventh Street and build a spacious new home on Logan Square.

The move was beset by the usual Philadelphia problems: It took longer than expected to raise funds to construct the building. The designer, John T. Windrim, had envisioned a full-block museum, done up in a flatter, more modern version of classical architecture. But he faced opposition from architect-planner Paul Philippe Cret, who conceived Logan Square as an ensemble of columned classical buildings. By the end, the Franklin could only afford two wings, on the north and east sides.

The Franklin's classicism proved to be pretty wan stuff, devoid of any exterior sculpture. All the money was put into an immense domed hall, modeled on Rome's Pantheon, that houses James Earle Fraser's 20-foot-high sculpture of Ben Franklin, now a national memorial. While impressive, it consumes a lot of space without housing any exhibits.

Science museums underwent a sea change again in the 1960s when San Francisco's Exploratorium opened. It offered exhibits that were larger and even more experiential. The Franklin responded with its own version, the Giant Heart. It was such a sensation that I can remember being bused from my Long Island summer camp to see it. I don't think we bothered to visit the Liberty Bell.

While famous for its Heart, the Franklin's own arteries were notoriously clogged. The Mandell, designed by GBQC in the then-popular postmodern style, was supposed to improve circulation. Instead, officials complain, it divided the museum into two islands.

Because the addition, on the west side, didn't provide a single large space for traveling shows, exhibits were split between galleries, one in Mandell, one in the '30s building. The trek across the museum was so complicated, said Marsha R. Perelman, the Franklin's former board chair, that "I don't think I ever figured my way around."

The Karabots Pavilion adds just two new galleries, roughly 8,500 square feet apiece, but now blockbusters can be staged in adjacent rooms. Plain boxes, the galleries are outfitted with the latest museum technology, including humidity controls. Their location, at the midpoint between Mandell and the original building, enabled SaylorGregg to establish a seamless circulation pathway through the museum.

As part of the addition, the Franklin added a spacious new conference center on the ground floor that doubles as an events space for revenue-generating parties. It includes a small garden, landscaped by Andropogon. The only off-note is the mix of fencing along the south side - a stainless-steel section, a weird blue plexiglass portion, and the existing ornamental black metal barrier.

You might not notice the enclosure, though, so mesmerizing is artist Ned Kahn's Shimmer Wall sculpture on the new facade. The slightest breeze sends ripples of color and pattern across the surface, a veil of metal shingles. In a time when digital screens have become ubiquitous, this analog exhibit demonstrates a basic scientific principle as effortlessly and elegantly as the hands-on exhibits in the Franklin's original galleries, proving that old ideas are sometimes the most modern of all.