Interesting Places to Visit, Little-Known History
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York City)
By Richard Grigonis — April 14, 2011
“The Guggenheim Museum was conceived to be as adventurous in its architecture as in its collections.”–Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1975
In an age when architectural critics, academics and the general public heap praise upon the organic contours of the radically sculpted, glass-titanium-and limestone-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—hailed by architect Philip Johnson as “the greatest building of our time”—it’s difficult to believe that just 40 years earlier another Guggenheim Museum, the circular, glass-domed, inverted ziggurat by Frank Lloyd Wright at Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets in Manhattan, aroused more controversy among critics and the public than any building of their time.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on the upper east side of Manhattan was not always considered an iconic masterwork of museum architecture as it is today. (Photo: © Serban Enache | Dreamstime.com)
Whereas Frank Gehry’s “The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao” (completed in 1997) is the most frequently named building in the 2010 World Architecture Survey of architecture experts as one of the most important structures completed since 1980, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (completed in 1959) was referred to by its opponents as an indigestible, militaristic hot cross bun, the Washing Machine, the Upside-Down Oatmeal Bowl, the Concrete Trash Can, the Upside-Down Cake, the Corkscrew, the Snail, the Gourd of Cheese, the Queen Mary (because of the north wing’s resemblance to a ship’s prow) and the Poached Egg.
Urban planner and social critic Lewis Mumford, at the time architecture critic for The New Yorker, wrote disparagingly, “And if the outside of the building says Power, the interior says Ego, an Ego far deeper than the pool in which Narcissus too long gazed.”
while visiting new York in early 2011 to review a restaurant, our resident pizza-ologist and extreme sports reporter, Caitlin Doherty, stops by to pay homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial concrete corkscrew. Note the small rotunda at left and the “big box” annex addition in the background. (Photo: © Richard Grigonis)
Taxi driver Sam Krawatsky had a more blunt appraisal at the time of the museum’s opening: “It’s a monstrosity, a real eyesore—I’ve seen better looking incinerators.”
Or, as one unidentified nurse remarked, “All it needs is a cherry on top.”
Conductor Leopold Stokowsky, however, who passed the museum daily during its construction, said, “I am thrilled by its beauty and originality… I feel it is going to begin an entirely new era in New York architecture.”
at dusk, new york’s Guggenheim lights up its entrance. (Photo: © Serban Enache | Dreamstime.com)
As for Wright himself, he invented his own superlative for the building, calling it an “arche-seum,” or “a building in which to see the highest.” Of course, anyone with even a modicum of architectural knowledge could not dismiss him, even in those days. In terms of single family residences alone, there was no greater architect in human history than Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, if Wright’s revolutionary, intensely personal, idiosyncratic take on a museum design had not been built, neither would Gehry’s. In terms of social acceptance, one building cleared the way for the other.
And, ironically, when it came time to enlarge the New York Guggenheim with an annex tower by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects in the late 1980s and 1990s, the critics, academics and the public were once again up in arms. This time, however, they fought to protect the now-iconic building from “desecration” by interlopers, so greatly had the building’s reputation changed over the preceding 30 years. (But more of that later.)
Upon entering the Guggenheim Museum in New York, one experiences a remarkable space: an atrium like no other. Looking up, one sees the spiral ramp and the multi-panel glass dome. (Photo: © Serban Enache | Dreamstime.com)
How Wright came about producing the crowning achievement of his long and turbulent career—which became renowned as a landmark in American architecture—is an interesting story in itself.
Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949) was the fourth of seven Guggenheim brothers whose family had made its fortune in mining after immigrating to America from Switzerland in the 19th century. Guggenheim originally collected works by the Old Masters but in the mid-1920s he branched out to acquire “non-objective” paintings, or works that are literally not representational; that is, containing no recognizable figures or objects, just color and shapes or grids.
A closer look at the dome from the bottom floor of the atrium at the The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. (Photo: © Jenny Campbell | Dreamstime.com)
In 1937 Solomon R. Guggenheim and abstract artist Hilla Rebay (more precisely known as Hildegard Anna Augusta Elizabeth Freiin Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, Baroness Hilla von Rebay) founded the nonprofit Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a nonprofit institution for the collection, preservation, and research of modern and contemporary art. In 1939 the foundation opened its first museum, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, housed in a rented automobile showroom at 54th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan. By 1943 it was apparent that the space was insufficient to house Guggenheim’s collection, so he decided to approach a major architect to design and build a permanent museum. The 76-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter dated June 1, 1943 from Hilla Rebay, at the time the foundation’s curator and director of the museum, which opined, “I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”
Guggenheim and Rebay had settled upon a major and unique architect. The remarkable Frank Lloyd Wright was a man of immense talent, controversy, narcissism and contradiction. Wright enjoyed living on the edge, was often in perilous debt, subject to lawsuits, and was something of a hedonist, a man capable of casting everything to the winds if need be, and deserting his wife and children for a lover, even if the woman in question happened to be a client’s wife.
A closer look at the large rotunda’s dome, 92 feet above ground level, as seen from the topmost portion of the ramp. Note the 'lens' of the glazed centerpiece of the roof. at least one artist would like to place an actual high-quality lens there to project the heavens onto the floor of the atrium, thus converting the Guggenheim into a giant camera obscura. (Photo: © John Ciallella | Dreamstime.com)
Wright had become fascinated with circular forms involving continuous ramps, starting with an unrealized project (designed in 1924), the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, a scenic overlook, planetarium and restaurant atop Maryland’s 1,282-foot (391 meter) Sugar Loaf Mountain, wherein the 150-foot diameter planetarium dome supported cantilevered ramps for automobiles, the curves of which tightened as they wound their way up to a viewing platform.
Wright’s interest in spiral ramps continued with a redesign of the V.C. Morris Gift Shop in 1949 in San Francisco, and even in a proposed Pittsburgh car park for Edgar Kauffman, for whom he would build his most famous single-family residence, Fallingwater, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Wright’s spiral ramp concept finally reached fruition in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (constructed 1957–59) in New York City, which was designed for visitors to take an elevator to the beginning of a quarter-mile-long ramp that spirals down at a three percent incline around a six-story interior sculpture court—a sort of inverted, internalized version of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective.
reverse angle: Looking down and across the atrium from the upper section of the concrete ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's large inverted-drum rotunda. There are six turns or stories to the ramp. (Photo: © Petra Klaassen | Dreamstime.com)
However, it would take 16 years, 700+ sketches, six working designs and numerous confrontations with the client, financial watchdogs and city boards before the building, with its large and small rotunda (or “monitor building” as Wright called it) was actually finished. From the get-go, Wright was not even happy with New York City as a location for the museum, but he acquiesced to the wishes of his client, the patron Solomon R. Guggenheim.
After evaluating locations on Manhattan’s 36th Street, 54th Street, and Park Avenue, as well as in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, he settled on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets because of the presence of Central Park nearby. The park was a relief from what Wright felt was an unrelenting, overblown, noisy cityscape, and would complement the Plasticine-like organic forms he was attempting to incorporate into the building’s otherwise more rigid modernist style. For example, the galleries were divided “like the membranes in citrus fruit, with self-contained yet interdependent sections,” writes Matthew Drutt, Executive Director at Artpace San Antonio. The bays along the spiral ramp of the building’s large rotunda give the whole the semblance of a chambered nautilus. (In a 1957 conversation with New York Times critic Ailene Saarinen, Wright himself referred to it as a “snail-like structure” that it would “bring Central Park across the street,” supposedly owing to foliage positioned across the building’s front.)
The “bump” in the concrete helix. wright’s semi-famous triangular staircase is in back of and to the right side of the bump. It became part of the shared space or “knuckle” connecting this space with the 1992 annex tower addition, positioned where wright himself had wanted an annex. (Photo: © Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com)
Wright believed he could literally redefine how the public looked at art via architecture. For example, he designed the large rotunda’s interior walls to slant slightly outward to give the impression of “holding pictures as though they were on an easel in an artist’s studio.” The low ceiling height of the bays along the ramp, however, preclude hanging anything other than small-to-medium sized art.
To make matters worse, by the time Wright finally executed his design, the quaint, universal museum experience of looking at easel-size paintings had just come to an end. Abstract expressionists of the 1950s such as Jackson Pollock indulged in huge canvases, most of which were impossible to hang along the walls of the Guggenheim’s large rotunda. That’s probably why the competing Museum of Modern Art, often berated by Wright (he boasted that the Guggenheim would make MoMA look like “a Protestant barn”) became most closely associated with the movement. Indeed, a great deal of historically noteworthy art created since World War II is “of scale.”
two visitors spot something of interest across the void of the large rotunda at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The concrete ramp actually swells in width as it swirls upward, in a sense helping to blur the distinction between architecture and sculpture. (Photo: © Phillip Gray | Dreamstime.com)
Other aspects of Wright’s design were also seen as troublesome for museum visitors. The three percent grade of the ramp psychologically (and even physically) keeps “pulling” the viewer along, making it uncomfortable for anyone to stand still long enough to contemplate an art object. A rotunda with a greater diameter and a 1.5 percent incline would have done the trick. Furthermore, the ramp should have been wider—during busy periods the flow of visitor traffic down the ramp inhibits a viewer from standing back to observe any work of art from a distance. (Wright himself suggested that cushioned hassocks be placed along the ramp to root visitors to the spot and encourage contemplation of the artwork.)
Not surprisingly, when artists finally caught whiff of Wright’s design prior to its construction, they hated it. In 1956, a year before construction began in earnest, 21 artists, including Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell, submitted a formal complaint about Wright’s design to the museum’s trustees. In their letter they stated that the museum was “not suitable for a sympathetic display of painting and sculpture… [indicating] callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary to for the adequate visual contemplation of works of art.” The vituperative group strongly urged the museum to reconsider Wright’s plan, hinting that Wright was more interested in expressing his own personality in the building than in “providing proper quarters for pictures.” One signer of the document feared that “we shall be compelled to paint to suit Mr. Wright’s architecture.”
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in winter, from across fifth avenue on the sidewalk bordering central park. (Photo: © Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes | Dreamstime.com)
Artist George L.K. Morris (1906–1975), the former art critic for Partisan Review who had helped found the American Abstract Artists group back in 1936, was concerned that “even a slight slope puts a picture out of plumb. On the walls of the ramp painting will look slightly askew: the bottoms won’t match the floor line.”
Many artists honestly believed that Wright’s design was a cruel joke meant to ruin the experience of looking at paintings on walls. Some saw it as a contemptuous attack specifically on modern art. Wright didn’t make the situation any easier on himself for, as the master of self-promotion, he loved to make provocative, even outrageous statements inevitably picked up and broadcast by the media.
In this October 3, 2008 photo, the façade of New York’s Guggenheim Museum was illuminated with Images projected onto its light gray “London fog” exterior concrete surface to mark the completion of a three-year restoration project. (Wright himself originally wanted to sheath the building in gold leaf, then settled on a less expensive apricot-tinged ochre called powell buff, which, ironically, has never been painted on the building's exterior.) (Photo: © Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com)
As for what he thought was the misplaced preeminence accorded to modern art, Wright wrote the following:
And before we can progress in our own machine products as art, we, too, will have to dispose of the insufferable insubordination of the picture. Summarily, if need be. I should like to strike the pictorial death blow in our art and craft. Of course I do not mean the picturesque.
There was a real fear among artists that no work of art in the Guggenheim’s collections could compete with what was felt would be the overwhelming, three-dimensional spatial experience found inside the museum. (After all, didn’t architectural critic Vincent Scully call Wright “the master of space?”) It’s a back-handed complement, in a way, to Wright’s genius as architect—and there is perhaps a bit of truth here, for it is often said that the Guggenheim’s greatest work of art is the building itself. The supreme irony of it all was that the architect who purportedly hated modern art had created the most abstract building of its time, perhaps both thumbing his nose at artists and demonstrating that he could overshadow their talents at will.
view of the Guggenheim’s Large Rotunda from a position near the entrance on fifth avenue. (Photo: © Cpenler | Dreamstime.com)
Solomon R. Guggenheim publicly replied to the artists’ letter, countering that the ramp’s three percent grade was just one percent over the city’s grade limit for public sidewalks. Wright himself, in his usual passionate eloquence, dismissed the fears of his “fellow artists” by ridiculing their “rectilinear frame of reference” as a “callous disregard of nature”: “…you all, curator included, know too little of the nature of the mother art: architecture,” he wrote, adamant that this goal was “not to subjugate painting to the building… on the contrary, it was to make the building and the painting an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony such as never existed in the World of Art before.”
The uproar over the tilted positioning of the paintings and hybrid indirect illumination (from a louvered skylight and supplemental artificial lighting where necessary) brought Wright into conflict with James Johnson Sweeney, the internationally known art critic and former Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who succeeded Hilla Rebay as the Guggenheim’s director in 1952 and who was implored to reorganize and bring an air of professionalism to the museum’s operations.
angling the camera down (from position in the previous photo) to a point to the right of the Guggenheim Museum's fifth avenue entrance. (Photo: © Aprescindere | Dreamstime.com)
Among other things, Johnson simply wanted to compensate for the sloping walls by attaching the paintings to the ends of horizontal bars, thus allowing them to be displayed upright against stark white walls. Wright was entreated to demonstrate his method, but he never did. Fortunately for Johnson, Wright died six months before the museum’s opening in 1958, and his modifications were made. Art critic John Canaday, writing in The New York Times, commented that Wright's original conception was “A war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed,”and while the director’s approach [of using the horizontal bars] compromised “architectural harmony… no better compromise could be found.” Art News called the painting-horizontal bar arrangement, “Marshmallows stuck to the ends of twigs,” declaring the lighting as “glare to shave by.” (Interestingly, Johnson was not invited to speak at the museum’s dedication out of fear of what he might say about the building and/or its architect.)
Other delays and problems with the New York Guggenheim stemmed from building codes and, more seriously, a lack of funding. The $2 million set aside in the 1940s for the museum’s construction was woefully inadequate, and by the 1950s even the final $3 million budget bordered on absurdity. The original design had not just a large and small rotunda, but a tower too. The small rotunda (or “monitor building,” as Wright called it) was to house apartments for Rebay and Guggenheim but instead was reconfigured as office and miscellaneous office space. There was also to have been a roof garden and a tea garden with a view of Central Park. A planned colorful marble exterior was replaced with an outer curtain wall generally consisting of a 5-inch layer of gunite (the same material used to construct swimming pools) shot from the inside onto a plywood form bent to the proper circular and sloping shape, and reinforced with 2 layers of 2-by-2 mesh, plus several layers of vertical and horizontal steel bars.
exterior detail of gunite exterior seen in previous photo of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. view from fifth avenue side. (Photo: © Svlumagraphica | Dreamstime.com)
The original design also included a series of artist studios along the top ring of galleries, glass tubing in the elevator shafts and dome, and an observatory with a revolving dome and telescope. A curator’s apartment and an “ocular chamber” for experimental sound and light projections planned for the adjacent four-story administrative tower, as well as a two-story “historical gallery” (intended to become an income-producing 15-story apartment building) would also go unrealized.
Indeed, because of Wright’s scaled back design, the Guggenheim became a small museum that nevertheless attempted to behave like a large one. Unlike, say, the Marquess of Hertford or Henry Clay Frick, who converted their mansions into small tasteful storehouses of relatively stable permanent collections, Solomon R. Guggenheim and his successors had aspirations for their museum completely out of sync with its size—more in tune with those of a huge, dynamic, metropolitan institution, continuously expanding its collections and presenting many temporary exhibits over the years. Early on came the The Thannhauser Collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist works (including 32 Picasso paintings and drawings), bequeathed to the museum by Justin K. Thannhauser; then came Karl Nierendorf’s holdings; the 300 works of modern art bequeathed by Peggy Guggenheim (Solomon’s niece) along with her private Venetian residence, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, and so forth. The lack of exhibition space and sloping walls, however, prevented the Museum from mounting certain types of major exhibitions.
dollying the camera back toward fifth avenue from the previous position, to reveal a long line of people waiting to enter the museum. the reason: it is October 21, 2009 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary with free admission. (Photo: © Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com)
Additionally, the staff had been relegated to cramped space in the small rotunda. Over the years, as the museum grew in its ambitions and the staff expanded, partitions were added, sealing off areas of the atrium well. The Guggenheim’s restaurant and shops were used by more people per square foot than similar facilities at any other museum in America. And the ratio of visitors per square foot exceeded that of any U.S. museum except the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Something had to be done, but not much at first.
Wright himself had plans for a large annex to connect to the main rotunda via a shared staircase. It was never built during Wright’s lifetime, but it did inspire later changes to the museum. In 1968, Taliesin West, Wright’s successor firm run by his former associate and son-in-law, William Wesley Peters, designed and built a four-story annex, with footings and columns strong enough to support 10 floors, just in case the museum might want to build Wright’s vision after all. Something akin to that actually happened.
Another photo from the new York guggenheim museum's 50th anniversary celebration on Oct. 21, 2009. Two viewers pose for a picture before the museum. (Photo: © Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com)
The idea of expanding the Guggenheim Museum with a new annex picked up momentum in 1981 when then-Director Thomas Messer realized that the building could only display about three percent its 6,000 works at any one time. One of the museum’s trustees, businessman and investor Stephen Swid, suggested the acclaimed architect Charles Gwathmey, who had designed several projects for Swid. (Gwathmey had created Steven Spielberg’s apartment in Trump Tower and an office building in Beverly Hills for David Geffen). Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he was famous for his single family residences, in particular the modernist Hamptons beach houses for Marshall Cogan and Francois DeMenil.
The annex Gwathmey and his partner Robert Siegel ended up building for the Guggenheim used the same footings and columns of the 1968 annex by Taliesin West and William Wesley Peters, and it was nine stories high, though not the same design as Wright’s 10-story concept. From the outside, it basically looks like a big box that serves as a more modern-looking backdrop to the building, somewhat diluting the visual impact of what had been a disconcerting, incongruous abstract structure plopped down between Andrew Carnegie’s Georgian stronghold and a brooding Victorian townhouse on upper Fifth Avenue.
Photo of visitors enjoying free admission to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Solomon R. guggenheim museum in new york, october 21, 2009. here we see the people viewing an exhibition consisting of some of the more than 200 works by Kandinsky held by the museum. (Photo: © Shiningcolors | Dreamstime.com)
Gwathmey and Siegel’s plans not only included the museum’s new annex, but restoration and some reconfigurations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original structure. After years of debate, endless hearings, and protracted litigation with enraged preservationists who called it “a donkey ear” (possibly a few of them had poked fun at the museum’s design 30 years before), the new, expanded and (perhaps) improved Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened June 28, 1992.
Visitors soon took in all of Gwathmey and Siegel’s $60+ million changes to the structure: The new gravel-surfaced sculpture garden snuggled in the intersection of the large rotunda and the new limestone-clad annex, the removed partition walls and, above all, the greatly expanded exhibition space—from 31,679 to 51,100 square feet. The annex has a service and administrative entrance on the ground floor, two floors of offices on top with views of Central Park, and four large galleries sandwiched between providing a total of about 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. Three of these galleries were made double height so that even the jumbo paintings of the Abstract Expressionists can be on view—on flat walls, no less. One accesses the four galleries via passageways branching off of the ramp in the main rotunda. As New York magazine commented at the time, “Now, instead of taking the elevator to the top and circling round and round down to the main floor visitors can escape at every floor either into the new galleries or to balconies that overlook them.”
close-up of visitors enjoying free admission and viewing selections from the Guggenheim museum's kandinsky collection as part of the museum's 50th anniversary celebration, October 21, 2009. (Photo: © Serban Enache | Dreamstime.com)
Wright’s version of the annex would have joined the main rotunda through a shared staircase, but of course he ended up building a triangular one instead. Gwathmey and Siegel, however, did transform this into something closer to Wright’s vision, using the space like the knuckle on a finger to connect the main rotunda and the new wing, “in the spirit of Wright,” as Gwathmey was quoted at the time.
Local luminaries such as Woody Allen and Jacqueline Onassis may have caused a commotion for time, sporting buttons reading “Don’t Wrong Wright,” but the upshot was that Architecture Magazine eventually commended the Gwathmey-Siegel design as “tasteful, discrete, and logical.”
The Solomon R. Guggenheim's soho branch, now closed. (Photo: www.ny.com)
To place on public view even more of the museum’s 6,000+ works of art, a branch location, The Guggenheim Museum SoHo, also opened in 1992. Designed by Architect Arata Isozaki (who had reworked the Brooklyn Museum of Art) and situated in a 27,000 square foot historic cast-iron building owned by collector and art publisher Peter Brant, this relatively small, lone outpost of the Guggenheim was at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street (569-575 Broadway), in a building designed by Thomas Stent in 1882 and at one time used by menswear pioneer Rogers Peet & Co. In its day, the SoHo exhibition facility showcased traveling exhibitions and selections from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection as well as special exhibitions complementing collection exhibitions at the main museum uptown, including noteworthy exhibitions of the work of Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Robert Rauschenberg and Bill Viola. (Alas, the SoHo branch is now closed, having become Prada's New York flagship store.)
Throughout the four years prior to the Guggenheim’s 1992 reopening, Director Thomas Krens, a man unusually well-versed (for a museum director) in branding and bottom-line business considerations (dubbed “Krensian Economics” by some wags) enhanced the international franchising and licensing of the Guggenheim identity (and enabled the development of international exhibit space for the Guggenheim’s works) by negotiating and eventually signing an agreement for a new international museum with the city of Bilbao, Spain. Krens and Basque cultural commissioner, Joseba Arregi, signed this agreement on October 1, 1991.
Frank Geary-designed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, as seen reflected in pool. Photo taken on February 3, 2010. (Photo: © Javiergil | Dreamstime.com)
The new museum was to be designed by Frank Gehry and it was to share resources and curators with the Guggenheim. The risky “museum deal of the century” became the now legendary success of the Bilbao Guggenheim—still referred to in both art and business worlds as the “Bilbao effect.” Many cities would now like their own Guggenheim to attract visitors and boost business.
But for Americans, there will always be just one Guggenheim Museum, the now-familiar vat-shaped structure with the glass dome on top, housing the most famous concrete spiral in the world. In the old days, people visited the Guggenheim to see the building. Then, around the end of the 1960s, they visited the museum to survey the interesting characters who tended to frequent the premises. This was followed much later by the public coming in droves to examine and ponder the renovations of 1992.
And if nothing in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum impresses you, there's always the vendor stands outside where you can partake of a genuine new york hot dog, italian ice, or pick up a souvenir. (Photo: © Valentino Visentini | Dreamstime.com)
And now, finally, they go to the Guggenheim to see the art.