The Guggenheim, an American revolution

Place: New York, Country: United States
Owner: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Architectural design: Frank Lloyd Wright
Addition building design: Gwathmey Siegel and Associates Architects
Text by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit
Photos courtesy of: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation - New York. The Library of Congress - Washington DC. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation - Scottsdale - Arizona. Daimler AG. BMW AG
See credits to specific photographers in image captions

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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Restoration Completion. Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

“I need a fighter, a lover of space, an originator, a tester and a wise man”
(From the June 1943 letter by Hilla von Rebay to Frank Lloyd Wright)



Public museums were invented in Italy during the Renaissance, the Capitoline museum and the Vatican museum are perhaps the first institutions that we could call “museums”, although they were not really open to all, while the Ashmolean in Oxford, UK is the true archetype of modern museums and the first housed in a building specifically conceived for the purpose. Since that time, the concept of museum buildings has remained substantially unchanged for almost three centuries: a fixed sequence of rooms where paintings are hung to the perimeter walls and large sculptures are placed directly on the pavement, sometimes supported by a pedestal. Visitors are supposed to stand in front of the artworks, arranged following a linear logic, sometimes chronologically some others thematically, so to fully appreciate them one by one.

Such concept is very common also today and was absolutely preponderant when, in 1943, Hilla von Rebay, the art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, sent a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to design a new building in order to provide a better home for Guggenheim’s Non-Objective Painting collection.
The desire of the client was also to archive a more strict relationship between artworks and architecture: “…each of these great masterpieces should be organized into space” since “(these paintings) are order, creating order and are “sensitive” (and correcting even) to space” , Hilla Rebay wrote in her commission letter to Wright.

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Top and bottom, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Restoration Completion, Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

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The Guggenheim during construction in 1957, photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The birth of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum

The task which Wright was called to cope with was requiring a totally new approach to museum architecture and exhibition design. The first problem was to find a plot of land suitable for the purpose, it is known that Wright did not appreciate much New York, a city that he felt “overbuilt and overpopulated” and moreover lacking that strict relationship with nature that was one of the key-points of his architectural vision. The only place, among many considered, that was sufficiently inspiring was indeed just in front of Central Park, an ectopic natural idyll inside Manhattan’s dense urban agglomeration. To achieve the necessary union between exposed art and architecture, Wright decided to adopt a continous, organic shape with a large central void encircled by an uninterrupted exhibition path in the form of a long  descending ramp. The inspiration probably came form a precedent design by Wright for the unrealized Gordon Strong Automobile objective, a panoramic facility where visitors were intended to reach the top by driving their cars along a giant spiral ramp.

The gestation of the project was not a simple one: Wright prepared four initial versions of the building, three with a circular shape and one with an hexagonal one, but,  for example, it was not clear whether the building should have a horizontal or a tall appearance, or even if it had to be vigorously coloured or monochrome; furthermore the relationship between the architect and the client, and particularly with Hilla Rebay, was not always easy. A project, rather similar to what was then actually built, was substantially defined in September 1945. Nevertheless it took 14 more years to see the building completed, mainly because of planning consent problems and a troubled relationship between Wright and James Sweeney, the new museum director after Rebay’s resignation in 1952. In the meanwhile both Solomon R. Guggenheim, in 1949, and Wright, six months before the museum opening in October 1959, had died. They both did not see the building completed.

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An ink drawing by Wright of the Guggenheim project in September 1943, showing one of the red-coloured versions. © The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona

A revolutionary exhibition space

The exhibition space conceived by Wright was revolutionary: a whole, enveloping volume where visitors at first reach the top level by an elevator, then gently descend through a ramp while admiring the paintings arranged along it. Every 30 degrees, a narrow load bearing wall gives a precise cadence to the path. The space is unified, there are nor traditional exhibition halls neither secluded treasure rooms, almost all parts of the museum can be perceived from every point inside it and the visitors always know where they are and where they are going to. From the central lobby (the “Rotunda”) several exhibition levels are perceivable simultaneously.

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Top: An original sketch by F.L. Wright of the Guggenheim interior. The Frank Lloyd Wright foundation – Scottsdale – Arizona
Bottom: Installation view of RUSSIA!, 2005. Photo: David M. Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

This revolutionary concept had also its drawbacks: there are almost no horizontal floors, with the exception of the rotunda which Wright clearly did not intend for exhibition purposes but more as a social and gathering space, there are also few planar walls to which paintings could be comfortably hung and the reduced ceiling height inside the exhibition ramp makes it unsuitable for displaying large artworks. Paintings usually need to be fixed to the inclined perimeter walls through special steel rods (while Wright envisaged that they should be mounted following the wall inclination).
Furthermore many artists felt that their works were overpowered by the architectural strength of the “container” and were worried that the artworks could not be perceived by the visitors with the necessary “sympathetic” attention. In a 1956 letter to Sweeney, 32 artists, including De Kooning and Motherwell,  also say that “The basic concept of curvilinear slope for presentation of painting and sculpture indicated a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference necessary for the adequate visual contemplation of works of art”.
The fact was that Wright’s gesture was requiring a completely new approach to art museography. One interesting example is related to sculpture displaying. Since the whole exhibition space is sloped and the surrounding walls are not vertical, it is arguable that sculptures could be exposed or by following the ramp inclination or by keeping them in a perfectly vertical position by using a special pedestal or a a small platform. It turned out that the peculiar geometry of the building produced an optical illusion so that a perfectly vertical sculpture looked unpleasantly tilted, it seems that was the Guggenheim director of that time Thomas M. Messer to find a solution: a support inclined at a specific angle so that the sculptures seemed vertical even if they actually were not.

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Top: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Installation view of The Aztec Empire, 2004.
Photo: David M. Heald, © SRGF, New York.
Bottom: Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kris McKay, ©SRGF

In 1992, a museum extension designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects was realised, following Wright’s original project; an eight-story rectangular tower just behind the main building was added, so providing a series of more traditional flat-floor exhibition rooms eventually allowing large paintings and sculptures to be more practically exhibited.

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Top: The new addition tower is visible in background on the left. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Restoration Completion, Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
Bottom: one of the exhibition rooms added in 1992. Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kris McKay, ©SRGF

Lighting the museum

Natural lighting was a key-point in Wright’s design: a large domed skylight provides a diffuse background illumination to the internal space while a continuous band of ribbon windows supplies a specific natural illumination for the artworks located along the exhibition ramp.
The reason of such attention to natural light also originated from Wright’s dislike for artificial lighting, that he deemed “dishonest” as stated in a 1955 letter he wrote to Sweeney: “A humanist must believe that any picture in a fixed light is only a “fixed” picture! If this fixation be ideal then see death as the ideal state for men. The morgue”. Nevertheless an artificial lighting system was eventually added so to ensure a proper illumination of artworks in all conditions.

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Top: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Installation view of Picasso and the Age of Iron, 1993.
Photo: David M. Heald, © SRGF, New York
Bottom: Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kris McKay,©SRGF

The Wright’s Guggenheim museum legacy

One interesting question is whether Wright’s design has became a model or not. There are few museums presenting a ramped exhibition space, many of them are automobile museums (such as the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz museums in Germany, and partially also the Ferrari museum in Modena by Future Systems) thus recalling in a certain sense that Gordon Strong Automobile Objective that was perhaps a starting point for Wright when approaching the design of the Guggenheim. Some others, such as the Macba in Barcelona, the Denver museum by Libeskind, the Hanoi museum and the Hellenic museum in Athens, present large iconic ramps albeit rarely used as actual exhibition spaces. Possibly, the museum that more closely matches the museographic concept of the Guggenheim has also the most different gestation imaginable: the Museum of Cinema in Turin, housed in the monumental domed building designed in the 19th century by Alessandro Antonelli as a synagogue, to which a long temporary exhibition spiralling ramp was added in 2000.

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Left: the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgard by UN Studio, courtesy of Daimler AG 
Right: the BMW museum in Munich, courtesy of BMW AG

An element of the Guggenheim design which has instead became an archetype for many exhibition buildings, particularly in recent times, is the principle of a museum as a whole space, uninterrupted and interconnected, where all parts look one another, usually through a large central void.
Maybe this is the part in Wright’s and Guggenheim’s revolutionary museum vision that has been more widely accepted. Modern museums are more and more conceived as socializing and educational institutions where culture can be disseminated also to a large, non specialized, public inside a less “sacred” space and where exhibited objects and artworks participate to a manifold and complex overall perceptive experience.

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Left: The Museum of Cinema in Turin.  © Inexhibit museum magazine
Right: The central hall of the MUSE museum in Trento by Renzo Piano Building workshop. © Inexhibit museum magazine.

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A still from the introductory scene of Manhattan by Woody Allen, 1979, United Artists

Article by Riccardo Bianchini, Inexhibit 

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