Tuesday, August 21, 2012


""...[Wright's] great swansong, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York, is a gift of pure architecture—or rather of sculpture. It is a continuous spatial helix, a circular ramp that expands as it coils vertiginously around an unobstructed well of space capped by a flat-ribbed glass dome. A seamless construct, the building evoked for Wright 'the quiet unbroken wave.'..."
Spiro Kostof

The Museum Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York is certainly one of the most celebrated and controversial buildings in modern architecture. It is, together with the Fallingwater House , the most famous work of American master Frank Lloyd Wright, who was commissioned to design the museum when he was already 76 years old. The curved shapes of the building contrast sharply with the rest of the urban fabric in New York, being both provocative and innovative. It houses some of the most important works of modern art, including masters such as Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian.

"Hanging out in the Museum" at the Guggenheim, a work by renowned Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang , also shown in the Museum of Fine Arts of Taipei .

Solomon R. Guggenheim , a Jewish tycoon and owner of a gold mine in Alaska began collecting abstract art in 1929, with the help of the German painter Hilla Rebay, her friend and artistic advisor. This type of art is not meant to represent objects, landscapes or people (as had been the tendency of art, including Impressionism, up to that moment), but rather express feelings, ideas and abstract concepts.

Powerful partnership: the philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim and his advisor and friend (lover ?) Hilla Rebay introduced abstract art in the U.S. and a time when it was persecuted in Europe.

Guggenheim managed to accumulate a collection of paintings by European artists at first only to decorate his apartments, but later he organized exhibitions outside New York. In 1937 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was created and in 1939 he opened the "Museum of Non-Objective Painting" dedicated to abstract art.

Former Museum of Non-Objective Painting, located at 54 East Street.

In 1943, during World War II, Guggenheim and Rebay wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to create a massive "temple-museum." Wright's election was due not only to the architect's fame among the aristocratic circles of the time (Wright had built his most famous work, the Fallingwater House, for another Jewish businessman, Edgar J. Kaufmann) but also to defuse criticism about Guggenheim's collection being mostly composed of works by European artists. Wright was then the American architect par excellence.

Historical photo of Frank Lloyd Wright with Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay, showing the model of the new museum (see Hilla's fascination ). Note the fence with circular motifs as it was originally projected.

The project, however, would take 15 years before being executed, due to  many bitter arguments between the architect, the City Planning office, the Foundation and some of the artists, who even sent a letter of protesting that the walls of museum would not be large enough to accommodate their paintings. Wright replied, "Well, then cut them in half." The museum, however was completed in 1959, although none of its main  promoters did not live to see it completed (Solomon Guggenheim had been dead for 10 years and Frank Lloyd Wright passed away 6 months before the inauguration).

Wright during the construction of the Guggenheim, shortly before his death.


Although several possible locations were discussed, the building was finally built on the  5th Avenue, between  88th and 89th St., in front of a large pond at the Central Park in New York.

In fact, Wright did not like this city, but he was pleased that his building was to be located in front of the largest green space in New York. Walking down the 5th Avenue, the building appears to us with its curved forms as an alien element, different from the boxes arranged in the gridiron layout of the Big Apple. But this formal originality gives it the character of a monument or a metropolitan sculpture.


The museum, as it opened in 1959.

Layout made ​​by Wright before the project was accepted

Wright's driving idea was to generate a continuous spiral that would allow uninterrupted contemplation of works of art. It just reminds me of the concept of "museum of unlimited growth" proposed by Le Corbusier for the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo , but unlike the Corbusian spiral (mainly developed in the same level), Wright proposed a ramp that ascends three-dimensionally at an angle of 3°, around a central space illuminated by a glass dome. In this way visitors could use the elevator to the top level and comfortably walk down by the ramp, even those that would require a wheelchair.

For the Italian theorist Bruno Zevi "How Wright's space reduces the generatrix, placing itself, not in geometrical terms, but in those immediately plastic, thinking of form as something which grows and, as it does, space becomes its life giving force, its construction in a dimension "

Ground floor.
Zevi's comment is accurate: the spiral into the museum not only shapes the internal space but leads the movement as a whirlwind that ascends to the sky.

During my visit there was an installation with this large mirror in the center space. Sometimes it was hard to distinguish the reflection from reality.

Externally the main volume is composed of a continuous concrete ribbon which surrounds the ramp and which is inclined outwards, thus fracturing the massiveness of this volume that forms a sort of an inverted truncated cone. Additionally there is another smaller the cylinder located in the opposite corner, and both volumes are crimped by a horizontal slab, forming a sort of canopy. Wright had shown a predilection for these almost-floating, horizontal volumes even in earlier works such as the Robie House in Chicago.

An interesting detail which is not often seen in the photos. The museum is sunk from the level of the street, and separated by a planter. This allows for greater clarity and strength to the volume, as if it had sprouted and grown from the bottom of the earth. The references to nature, common in Wright's work, allowed his architecture to be called "organic."

But not only the outside walls lean outward, but the inner ramp's 1 m parapet tilts inward. Moreover, the ramp, which rises 6 laps, gets closer to the center as it ascends in height, which makes the higher levels much wider than the lower ones. This also increases the effect of internal perspective, so that the space seems higher than it actually is. It is therefore a cone-shaped space within an inverted cone.

The dome emphasizes the centrality of the design by means of radial beams that arise from the walls, as arched architraves which converge toward the center of the composition.

The sui generis design of the museum  involved the development of new construction techniques, which would be used later in several buildings afterwards.
Three types of concrete were used: reinforced concrete with "Lelite" for the superstructure, lightened concrete for the  ramps and floors, and concrete with stones was used for the interior walls.

Detail of the formwork

For the development of a curved form, a special metal  and timber formwork was required, on which the concrete was poured.
The slabs supports sometimes were separated by 30 meters and in some cases had cantilevers of up to 8 meters. The main ramp is anchored to a 30 cm thick beam  that overhangs and 4.4 m into the main space.

Construction of the upper levels of the ramp


In 1992 conducted an extension of the museum was carried out, which was conducted by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates . Siegel resisted the temptation of seeking notoriety and added a simple block next to the sculptural museum, a rectangular, almost blind box with small slots by way of windows, which contains more than 4700 m2 of additional exhibition area and 1400 m2 of office area, which allows the Wright building  to be exclusively dedicated to the galleries. The connection with the old building is done through a glass wall.

The Guggenheim before and after the  expansion.


In 2002 an extensive restoration of the Guggenheim was conducted, since it contained many cracks and external damage, as Wright designed the structure without expansion joints to give a solid appearance. State-of-the-art technology such as  laser modeling shown, however, that structure was solid and stable. After the restoration, the discussion arose if the building should take the color proposed by Wright (a sort of electric pink) but finally decided on the "London Fog" tone, which is a sort of gray now leads.

Contemplating the void

In 2009, during the 50 years since the inauguration of the museum, Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation conducted the contest "Contemplating the Void", in which hundreds of artists, architects and designers from around the world came up with different experiences and feelings of how the central space of the famous museum should be perceived.

"The Absence Of Feeling Empty" Giancarlo Mazzanti (Colombia) and the proposal of Iwamoto Scott (USA) and Neil Denari (U.S.) for the contest Contemplating the Void.


There is undoubted influence of this museum in later works of great architects around the world, such as Richard Meier's  High Museum in Atlanta or the Kyoto Concert Hall , designed by Arata Isozaki.

However, despite its enormous success with the public, the building was not exempt of criticism. "[The museum] has been praised as a work of art, attacked as an atrocity, named the best museum of all time and reported as if it were not a museum  at all "said the critic E. Huckstable.

The Guggenheim in the day of its inauguration on October 21, 1959.

But besides its shape, many of the complaints focused on its functionality: natural light inside is generous, but not for works of art, which have to be artificially lit. The slope of 3 ° of the ramp makes difficult the appreciation of paintings arranged horizontally, the same as the inclined wall complicates the installation of works of art.

Upon arrival, one is captivated by the stunning spiral space. The ad-hoc furniture designed by Wright often goes unnoticed.

One of the main criticisms that have been made to the museum is that its sculptural  shape opaques the works of art it contains, distracting the visitor by the magnificence of the building instead of favoring the contemplation of the works, which is after all the reason and purpose of the museum. But this would not be an exclusive feature of Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York. Some decades later Frank O. Gehry would do the same in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This will be the theme of our next post. Until then.

Detail of titanium in the dome of the New York museum celebrates the connection to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.





  1. I went to a contemporary art fair in Shanghai recently, which was a real eye-opener. Chinese contemporary art has come leaps and bounds from the watery Zen landscapes to huge canvases of strange-looking beings. The prices being asked and paid were huge too.
    Oriental, if not Chinese, my print of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting, http://en.wahooart.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8BWS6R, bought some time ago from wahooart.com, is as lovely as ever.

  2. I like visiting museums in New York.I admire their creativity and the way how the creators of that museums thinks. I want to visit there again and again. think everyone must go there just once in their lifetime.