The Guggenheim – “unlike any other museum in the world”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim, a businessman, art collector, and part-heir to a great mining fortune, began collecting abstract art in the 1920s. After retiring from his business endeavors, he became a full-time art collector, focusing specifically on modern and contemporary art. In order to display his collection, he founded the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939.

The collection, featuring works by Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall, had outgrown the small space within a few years and quickly needed a new home. Guggenheim’s art advisor, artist Hilla Rebay (who also became the museum’s first director), singled out the only individual suitable for the task: leading american architect, innovator, and creator of the concept of organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. The founders gave the architect only one requirement: “The building should be unlike any other museum in the world.” Wright rose to the challenge and claimed that his Guggenheim would make the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art “look like a Protestant barn.”

The architects’ last project, the Guggenheim took 16 years to create. It opened in October 1959, only a few months after Frank Lloyd Wright took his last breath at the age of 89. It is almost ironic that Wright’s last major work belongs to New York, a city he hated. New York City, a stone jungle filled with revival style edifices and glass-clad modern buildings, represented the exact opposite of his principles of organic architecture that championed aesthetic harmony of nature and architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright created a building that was indeed “unlike any other museum in the world.” It was an entirely new conception of a museum space: a six storied spiral ramp encircled an open atrium, all crowned by a glass dome. Instead of providing traditional rooms for hanging paintings, Wright set out to design an experience in which the visitor would traverse one continuous space and view an exhibit as an uninterrupted whole.

Like every revolutionary idea, the design was met with a lot of criticism. How would the building’s unique contemporary shape allow it to fit with its neighbors? How would it match the character of Fifth Avenue? Would it be possible to display artwork along circular walls? Would the unique character of the museum distract from the artworks on display?

The innovating structure was quite controversial not only among the critics but also among artists. In 1956, 21 artists, including Willem de Kooning, sent a letter to the Guggenheim Foundation complaining that the spiral shape was “not suitable for a sympathetic display of painting and sculpture.” They also had an issue with the building itself, fearing that it would take away from the art on display. Not afflicted with false modesty, Wright dismissed the critique by basically saying that nobody understands “the nature of the mother art — architecture”.

On the other side of the argument, many thought that the architect had created a unique concept: a museum containing works of art that itself stands as a work of art.

Without blending in with its surroundings, the Guggenheim Museum assumed its place along the Museum Mile and soon became one of the most recognizable architectural silhouettes of New York City. 

  • Location: 5th Ave between E 88th and E 89th St
  • Built: 1959
  • Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

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