In the crowded, regularly-shaped New York, a white concrete spiral catches the eye of the passer-by with its flowing game of volumes, reminding of the winding moves of nature in the closely-located Central Park. No wonder why this special building has been declared a city landmark and one of the major architectural achievements of the 20th century. “The building should be unlike any other museum in the world”, said Solomon R. Guggenheim to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1943. And ever since its opening on 21st October 1959, the building has fulfilled his founder’s wish.
Being the most important project in Frank Lloyd Wright’s late career, Guggenheim museum embodies Wright’s Usonian vision. Previously displayed in his prairie houses, this unique approach now had to deal with a totally different context: the central area of New York. Making little reference to the city, Wright considered the proximity of the Central Park to be a key factor for reducing the impact of noise and congestion on the new building. In an urban landscape dominated by rectangular volumes, the organic appearance of the museum turns out to be a statement about courage, affirmation and symbolism.
The interior of the building is no less impressive. The large central atrium topped by a huge skylight is surrounded by the gallery – a continuous ramp, allowing a fluent circulation of visitors as well as an unprecedented visual communication between different levels. The sense of spatial freedom and the circulation scheme were revolutionary for the museum design at that time. As the architecture critic Paul Goldberger remarked, ‘Wright’s building made it socially and culturally acceptable for an architect to design a highly expressive, intensely personal museum. In this sense almost every museum of our time is a child of the Guggenheim.’
The spectacular achievement at Guggenheim museum founds its roots in Wright’s previous projects. The structural and spatial principles of Falling Water merge with the independent volume and skylight used at Johnson Wax Building. The concrete spiral, first imagined by Wright in the project for Gordon Strong Planetarium in 1925, is described in his early drawings as an ‘inverted ziggurat’. Ultimately, the museum symbolizes the spiritual ascension that art can bring to the modern man.
With a strong, contrasting presence in the New York landscape, Guggenheim Museum turned out to be a controversial topic among architecture critics and artists as well. Since the building was meant to be a statement, instead of adhering to the established urban and architectural principles of its surroundings, it brought about a formula of its own, an alternative to the traditional museum layout. However, some artists considered the curved walls unsuitable for displaying painting and sculpture, while others feared of the impact that the building itself could have on visitors, overshadowing the art within.
Still, the general opinion remains in favor of this innovative design. Nowadays a renowned tourist attraction and a representative image for New York, Guggenheim Museum is one of the reasons why architecture can be defined as art: because of its intrinsic force of expression, because it communicated the values put into its conception and, last but not least, because it has the power to impress and inspire, sharing the mission of the artworks housed between its walls.
Wright, Frank Lloyd, ‘Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography’
Frampton, Kenneth, ‘Modern Architecture. A Critical History’
‘The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the Modern Museum’
Photo by David Heald – www.guggenheim.org