Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial spiral design for the Guggenheim Museum changed the historic relationship between museum form and function and made architects and architecture objects of media attention.

Summary of Event

In the 1930’s, Solomon R. Guggenheim stopped buying the old-master paintings popular with his fellow millionaires. Inspired by the German artist and curator Hilla Rebay, he began to collect contemporary art. Guggenheim and Rebay focused on nonrepresentational painting and sculpture by avant-garde Europeans such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, whose work was fueled by utopian beliefs. Spurred by Rebay’s conviction that abstract art and art education could change the world, Guggenheim decided to found a museum. In 1939, Rebay installed much of Guggenheim’s collection in a temporary space on East Fifty-fourth Street in New York City called the Museum of Non-Objective Art Museum of Non-Objective Art[Museum of Nonobjective Art] . In 1943, Guggenheim signed a contract with Frank Lloyd Wright to design a permanent home for the museum. Guggenheim Museum Museums Architecture;Frank Lloyd Wright[Wright] [kw]Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens (Oct. 21, 1959)[Wright Designed Guggenheim] [kw]Guggenheim Museum Opens, Wright-Designed (Oct. 21, 1959) [kw]Museum Opens, Wright-Designed Guggenheim (Oct. 21, 1959) Guggenheim Museum Museums Architecture;Frank Lloyd Wright[Wright] [g]North America;Oct. 21, 1959: Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens[06210] [g]United States;Oct. 21, 1959: Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens[06210] [c]Arts;Oct. 21, 1959: Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens[06210] [c]Architecture;Oct. 21, 1959: Wright-Designed Guggenheim Museum Opens[06210] Wright, Frank Lloyd Guggenheim, Solomon R. Rebay, Hilla Sweeney, James Johnson

Wright was then America’s premier architect, known as much for his flamboyant private life as for his revolutionary house and office designs. Rebay chose him over European practitioners of the International Style (for which Wright’s early work had been important), among them Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius. Wright’s “organic” architecture used natural forms and aimed for unity of all parts; Rebay thought it the architectural analogue to Guggenheim’s collection. Wright’s comparative inexperience with urban building and museum design mattered less to Rebay than his spirituality. The Guggenheim, sixteen years in the making, was Wright’s first major New York commission, and his only museum.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened on October 21, 1959, at 1071 Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park. Public and critics were primed. City newspapers had followed Wright’s battles with civic authorities over building codes and with Rebay, her successor as director, James Johnson Sweeney, and the Guggenheim trustees over museum matters. (Guggenheim had died in 1949.) There had been difficulties, too, with financing and with finding a site. Wright died in April, 1959, six months before the museum’s completion. At the opening, debate about the building and its architect overshadowed discussion of Guggenheim and his landmark collection.

No one had seen any buildings, let alone any museums, remotely like Wright’s giant cast-concrete spiral set on a low, horizontal base. While praising Wright’s genius, observers and critics groped for comparisons. The Guggenheim was likened to natural forms, to machine-made objects, to food: a monstrous mushroom, a snailshell, a just-landed spaceship, a corkscrew, a washing machine, an ice-cream freezer, an overturned cereal bowl. One critic suggested that the building was intended as a monument to the architect’s ego. Much commentary centered on the Guggenheim’s essential character and on its relationship to its site. It was an insult, some said, to its decorous neighbors on the upper East Side’s Museum Mile and to Central Park across the street. It was vital, modern, fast, and American, others asserted, like an automobile or a Jackson Pollock painting.

The inaugural exhibition showed the cream of the Guggenheim collection, much expanded during Sweeney’s tenure. (Rebay had been forced to retire in 1952.) In addition to paintings by Kandinsky and Mondrian, there were works by important modernists, including Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat, and by newcomers such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning De Kooning, Willem[Dekooning, Willem] . Critics acknowledged the collection’s scope, but it was Wright’s interior that fascinated them.

The visitor, fresh from the experience of the great spiral outside, entered the museum through a low-ceilinged space and looked up into a vast central core (Wright called it a “seedpod”). There were no conventional galleries hung with pictures. Instead, a cantilevered ramp enclosed the core and wound for a quarter of a mile and up ninety-two feet to a sky-lit dome. The paintings were displayed on the ramp itself.

Unique in appearance, the Guggenheim was typically Wrightian in its theme and architectural elements. Unity, key for Wright, was provided by the central light well, by interpenetrating forms, and by the interior’s mirroring of the spiral exterior. The continuous ramp ensured that visitors experienced architecture and art simultaneously while walking along as they might have on a mountain trail. Wright had meant to prop the paintings against the ramp walls, as if on a gigantic easel. This “natural” solution was rejected by Sweeney, who suspended the paintings on nearly invisible bars, so that they were given a measure of protection while seeming to float in space. The circular forms, the wish to “break the box” of traditional architecture, the ascending ramp, and the exterior massing of forms all had precedents in earlier and nearly contemporary works by Wright. Notable among these were the Larkin Building in Buffalo (1904-1906), the Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin (1936-1939), the V. C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco (1946-1948), and the David Wright house in Phoenix (1948-1950).

Many contemporary reviews, even those well disposed to the Guggenheim’s unusual exterior, criticized the interior for its functional failures. Wright’s egotism (another signature theme, it was said) led him to ignore the needs of museum staff and artists, to favor form over function. Such criticism had preceded the museum’s opening. In 1957, a number of prominent artists, alarmed by newspaper reports of Wright’s intentions for the exhibition spaces, had presented a petition to the Guggenheim trustees asking that the building’s design be changed to better serve the works of art. Among the signers were Milton Avery Avery, Milton , Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell Motherwell, Robert .

Particularly objectionable was the curved spiral ramp, which was seen as the wrong “frame” for rectangular paintings and as an instance of Wright’s contempt for artists. (Wright had gone on record as saying that the Guggenheim interior itself was the perfect frame.) The ramp was also seen by some critics as a show of contempt for museum visitors, who, one writer claimed, were deprived of their freedom of choice, rushed up the one path and through the museum, and then spit out. Even observers who found Wright’s interior deficient as an exhibition space, however, seemed struck by its beauty and its force. Critics used adjectives such as “Shakespearean,” “glorious,” and “majestic” to describe the space. Some noted its other-worldly qualities, finding them appropriate to the museum’s spiritually charged collection. (Wright, surely not by accident, had labeled an early drawing for the museum “ziggurat,” in allusion to ancient Near Eastern temples with squared, skyward paths.)

The Guggenheim is a bold statement of Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture. The abstract composition in three dimensions looks Wrightian, but as built, it was not the Guggenheim Wright designed. Rebay persuaded Wright to compromise on display, Guggenheim refused to finance the lush marble exterior Wright had envisaged (they settled on the use of painted concrete), and Sweeney and the trustees imposed many other changes in lighting, color, and design, largely against Wright’s will. Objects of controversy during the sixteen years of planning and construction, the Guggenheim and its architect became yet more famous and controversial upon the museum’s official opening.

Significance

On June 28, 1992, the Guggenheim Museum reopened after a two-year closure for renovation, restoration, and addition. New York newspapers were filled with reports on and reviews of the changes. Much of the work involved repairing damage to the building’s fabric and removing or minimizing changes imposed by Sweeney and his successors. The cracked and peeled facade was repaired and repainted. Wright’s skylight was stripped of paint, and the core was flooded with natural light, as Wright had intended. Intersecting galleries added in 1968 by architects of the Taliesin Fellowship Taliesin Fellowship , Wright’s foundation, were altered so that they interfered less with Wright’s great central space. The roof was converted into a sculpture garden, as the original plan had dictated.

Another major change involved expansion of the museum’s office and gallery space. Architects designed and placed a ten-story tower behind and above Wright’s Guggenheim. According to the museum and the architects, the new tower was built on Wrightian foundations and accorded with Wright’s intentions. (An intermediate office building added after the museum’s opening and before the renovation was torn down.) A new inaugural exhibition was mounted to show off the collection’s range and depth. All these changes, said Thomas Krens Krens, Thomas , the Guggenheim’s director, related to the expansion of the Guggenheim’s collection and the broadening of its educational mission. They were part of an ambitious plan of global expansion.

As it had in 1959 at the Guggenheim’s opening, comment on the building took precedence over analysis of the new inaugural exhibition. As before, controversy erupted; opinion was once again divided. While the restoration and renovation met with almost universal approval, the new addition did not. On one hand, it was said to dwarf Wright’s spiral and to attempt to civilize the rough character of the original building. On the other hand, it was described as deferring too much to the Guggenheim and for failing to assert a strong enough personality of its own.

Critics in 1959 thought that Wright’s building spoke more to the future than it had to the past. The Guggenheim represented a radical departure from architectural norms in its use of materials, in its form, and in its effect on the public. The use of reinforced concrete on such a scale, and with such daring, had some precedents in the United States, none of which took technology to quite the point Wright did in the Guggenheim, and none of which had the Guggenheim’s effect.

The Guggenheim sums up many of Wright’s theories and architectural trademarks, particularly in its treatment of interior space. Its location in New York, its visibility, and its history of controversy have generated a vast literature and kept interest in Wright and his philosophies high.

In only a few decades, the Guggenheim was transformed from a monster into a sacred monster, a much-loved building. Front-page news from its inception, it is among America’s best-known museums. Its very name conjures up the image not of a collection or its namesake but of the museum structure itself and its builder. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum brought architecture and architects into the public eye and public consciousness, where they—and the Guggenheim and its builder—remain. Guggenheim Museum Museums Architecture;Frank Lloyd Wright[Wright]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Peter. “The Guggenheim: Museum or Monument?” Architectural Forum 111 (December, 1959): 86-93. Critical analysis of the museum, illustrated with many black-and-white photographs, and including as appendix a selection of critical comments from the New York press. Fair-minded, straightforward, and ultimately positive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gill, Brendan. Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. 1987. New ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Popular biography by an architecture critic and writer for The New Yorker. Tries to account for Wright’s contradictions and his appeal. Chapter on Guggenheim saga. Footnotes, index, many photographs of people and buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordy, William H. The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Vol. 3 in American Buildings and Their Architects. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Thorough, evenhanded, scholarly case studies of landmark buildings by an eminent architectural historian. Long chapter on the Guggenheim. Well-illustrated with plans and photographs; excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kliczkowski, Sol, and Aurora Cuito. “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.” In Frank Lloyd Wright, edited by Sol Kliczkowski. Gloucester, Mass.: Rockport, 2003. This chapter provides an extended study of the Guggenheim Museum, Wright’s controversial work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naredi-Rainer, Paul von. Museum Buildings: A Design Manual. Boston: Birkhäuser, 2004. A design industry guidebook on the building of museums. Includes a chapter on the issue of form versus function in architecture and design, a debate evidenced in the opening of Wright’s Guggenheim.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vrachopoulos, Thalia, and John Angeline. Hilla Rebay: Art Patroness and Founder of the Guggenheim Museum of Art. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. A brief account of Hilla Rebay’s work in founding the Guggenheim Museum, and a study of art patrons and art patronage in general. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Frank Lloyd. An Autobiography. Rev. ed. New York: Horizon Press, 1977. Wright’s own account of his life and works. Photographs, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Correspondence. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. Wright’s letters give his view of the Guggenheim story. Useful commentary by Wright specialist. Models, plans, photographs of construction, personages.

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