The Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, NYC (1959)
What a wonder it is, sitting there so apparently out of sync with its neighboring buildings. Instead, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum seems to reach out toward the great park across the avenue. Critics sometimes lament the museum’s apparent disconnect with its context. Yet, others – I among them – rejoice at that discontinuity, given its so many linear, box-like surrounding buildings. When commissioned to add a companion tower adjacent to Wright’s spiral masterpiece, rather than compete with it, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates produced an astute counterpoint in a large rectangular structure with a neutral limestone facade. The tower beautifully keeps our focus on the lyrical curving form of the original museum, as well as expresses continuity with nearby buildings.
Like many, I find when visiting this building a remarkable refreshment of spirit, and experience within it an enhanced sense of life. For the museum provides a context fitting our inclination toward what is spiritual, not merely to what is material. As with the earlier precedents of Wright’s Unity Temple, Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax headquarters, Racine, it surely has to do with Wright’s attention to natural illumination from skylights. Whether or not one walks from the top level down at the Guggenheim, as Wright envisioned, or from the ground level up, the visitor’s eyes are drawn up within the swirling interior space to the light above, gracing the whole through the great oculus of the circular skylight.
An evident facet of this highly sculptural building stems from its late 1950’s time of construction – how the exterior walls of the concrete spiral ramps reveal a degree of unevenness in their outward surfaces (top photo). This was and is a humanly made building, reflecting our highest aspirations in terms of design while also some of the limits of our historic craftwork with materials.
Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is appropriately ranked among examples of world-class architecture. Both lauded and criticized at the time of its opening, it has taken decades to be matched by the work of another master of the medium, Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. Like Wright, he could envision and then design structures exploring the plasticity of modern materials and building methods. It is well to recall that Wright was in his 70’s when he began to create the plan for the Guggenheim (in 1943), and near his 92nd birthday when it was completed in 1959, delayed by the postwar recession.
Guggenheim Museum, Interior View (note the red Calder mobile)
Paul Horgan, while reflecting on the buildings of John Gaw Meem, offered words I find so fitting to Wright’s achievement on Fifth Avenue. “As one of the only great arts to offer physical shelter not only to [our] works but also to [our] spirit, architecture can convey directly the sense of an enclosing confirmation of [our human] desire to believe in a sustaining power beyond [ourselves].” With the Guggenheim, Wright not only achieved a magnificent context for the display of art, but also created what has become “a temple for the human spirit” (a phrase used in the terms of his commission).
This building does not stand alone. An amazing aspect of Wright’s architectural career is not only that he had the visionary imagination to conceive of so many remarkable structures, the audacity to commend them to potential clients, and the providential support for his proposals from so many well-funded benefactors.
With the Guggenheim, beauty ‘incarnate’ is embodied in construction materials and in a form that transcends what we typically expect now in architecture. Here we encounter a building that nurtures aspiration for what may be next in life. It may even prompt an unexpected experience of hope and joy for what it means to be human.