In the November 2, 1959 issue, LIFE magazine paid tribute to Wright and to his eye-popping 5th Avenue museum this way:
Last week, six months after he died, the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright came triumphantly to life again in New York City. The revolutionary art museum he designed for Solomon R. Guggenheim was finally opened to the public. While it was under construction, the museum was the constant butt of jokes. Its cylindrical exterior was likened to everything from a washing machine to a marshmallow.
The inside of the new Guggenheim Museum proved to be far more sensational than the outside. To the visitors who streamed through, it seemed like the inside of a giant snail shell… The museum was greeted with a barrage of praise and protest. Architects hailed the “fantastic structure”, museum directors complained of the slanting floors and walls. An art critic called it “America’s most beautiful building”, a newspaper labeled it a “joyous monstrosity”. Everyone agreed on one thing — the building was definitely dizzying. This physical reaction would have pleased Wright who predicted, “When it is finished and you go into it, you will feel the building. You will feel it as a curving wave that never breaks.”
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was developed from 1943 to 1945. Solomon Guggenheim died in 1949 and it is doubtful that the museum would ever have been built if its construction had not been stipulated in his will. Work did not start until 1956 and the building was completed only in 1959, six months after Wright died.
What we see today, and this was the case from the time the doors opened, is not the museum Wright and his client had in mind. Solomon Guggenheim’s museum was purpose-designed to fit a radical idea of how art should be displayed, based on an extreme form of abstract painting in the 1940s called “non-objective” art. After Guggenheim’s death, the highly idiosyncratic museum that Wright created in painstaking collaboration with his patron’s ideas were turned into another kind of museum, fighting back all the way. It kept its basic form, but the original concept that the form served was abandoned. The transformation that took place in how the building is used is the cause of many of its well-publicised problems. The museum has been under attack by critics and curators ever since, unaware of the sources of the trouble and unwilling to acknowledge them. But the iconic form of the Guggenheim is so powerful, and essentially indestructible, that is has survived the corruption of its purpose to become an international landmark.
The practitioners of non-objective art believed that they had freed painting from all references to recognizable objects, for an artistic breakthrough that superseded the reflections of the real world that artists have traditionally produced. They claimed to have created a new kind of reality that extended pictorial space beyond the picture frame into real space, and that any division between the two ceased to exist. By experiencing paintings in this new way, the theory went – in a sense, by becoming part of them – viewers could reach a new understanding of art and reality. The harmony thus achieved would become a feeling of inner serenity, of oneness with the world, which, if universally practiced, could lead to world peace. Or so Solomon Guggenheim was willing to believe, under the tutelage of a young German artist, the Baroness Hilla Rebay, whose persuasive skills had converted him to the cause of non-objective art that he now collected exclusively.
Wright was asked to design a building that would serve this new and different way of seeing and understanding art. Rebay described it as a temple where a transcendental revelation would take place. As director and curator, she was to have a penthouse apartment in its upper reaches for as long as she lived. When both she and Guggenheim died, the collection would be frozen, nothing ever added, subtracted or changed. This wildly overreaching concept of art as a mystical route to everything from spiritual self-realization to peace among nations was promoted by Rebay with messianic conviction and Guggenheim’s backing and money.
He had already amassed an impressive collection of canvases by the best non-objective artists, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Jean Arp and Hans Richter, work that has stood the test of time and the disappearance of its bizarre theories, as well as a disproportionate number by a lesser member of the group, Rudolf Bauer, whom Rebay particularly favoured. In the collection’s temporary, pre-Wright quarters in a midtown Manhattan town house, the pictures floated in a luminous glow against pleated gray fabric, close to the gray-carpeted floor, the hushed galleries broken only by softly piped-in classical mood music. The design and installation were meant to lull the visitor into a state of sleep, oops, make that into a state of passive receptivity to the paintings’ spiritual presence and message.
When Rebay contacted Wright, she clearly expected him to go beyond the conventional norms of museum design. With his Emersonian background and beliefs, he was no stranger to the transcendental. He was not, however, about to create some cloud-cuckoo-land. What he took as his mandate was second nature to him – a release from convention, the freedom to redefine a building type, in this case to rethink the art museum in an unprecedented way. He was well-practiced in this kind of reconfiguration and, not surprisingly, he found some of the rethinking he had already been doing was instantly applicable, either by good fortune or, more likely, because he willed it to be so. He returned to an idea that had preoccupied him for many years; the search for a plastic, sculptural architecture that would be unbroken by conventional walls and floors, where mass and space were one – a concept that was to become architecture’s leading edge by the end of the 20th century.
The search for a plastic, free-flowing architecture with spaces that interact on many levels preoccupied him throughout his career, but architecture’s more sculptural aspects would not be fully explored until computer assisted drawing made it possible to plot complex shapes with astounding structural and economic accuracy. As usual, Wright was pushing design and technology far into the future. The spiral, the circle, the dome and the cantilever dominated much of his late work, in churches, community facilities and public buildings.
The only material available in the 1940s that could produce the sculptural shapes Wright sought was the still relatively new one of reinforced concrete, formed painstakingly in wooden molds. The structural calculations for curved surfaces departed radically from those used for “the stratified layers of post and beam”, as Wright put it; the change from straight-lined and rectilinear, he explained, had to be figured in terms of “the cantilever and continuity”. But without the computer, and with far less advanced materials and techniques, the technology of the 1940s and ’50s was often inadequate to the task. With all its imperfections, however, the Guggenheim stands as an acknowledged model and inspiration for those architects that later did the most creative work.
From the outside, the Guggenheim Museum looks like a cylinder, or an inverted ziggurat once one notices the outward slant to the top. A series of stacked volumes grow wider as they rise to a glass dome; these layers are separated by a continuous glass band meant to bring daylight to the spiral ramp inside. A ledge along the ramp was to be used like an easel for the display of paintings that were to receive natural light from the encircling glass. A round service core that Wright called the “monitor” intersects the larger circle of the ramp on one side. He wanted the visitor to take the elevator up to the top and “drift down” the spiral to the open space on the ground. From there, the full ramp is visible, its drama culminating in the skylit dome. The building makes no bow to the neighbouring apartment houses. Its freestanding sculpture establishes a powerful presence on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, but the rounded contours suggest the “organic” nature of the park across the street. A block-long horizontal base on which the slightly receding cylinder appears to rest anchors its strong forms and establishes a relationship to the street and the site, at a mediating scale.
When construction was about to begin, the Department of Buildings found multiple violations and refused to issue a building permit – an old story to Wright, who consistently built without one. Since the violations could not be corrected without destroying the unusual structure and the open plan, help was sought from the all-powerful Robert Moses, then New York’s building czar, who happened, conveniently, to be a relative of Wright’s by marriage. Moses, a ultraconversative architecturally, had no love for the building, but the permit was issued without further delay. No builder could be found who wanted to brave the inevitable technical problems of the unprecedented construction, until former apprentice Edgar Tafel appeared with someone willing to take the challenge. Wright insisted on sharing credit on the cornerstone with the builder, George N. Cohen, who more than earned the recognition.
Wright got along well with Harry Guggenheim, Solomon’s nephew, who headed up the project after his uncle’s death; another volume of cantankerous and amusing letters was added to Wright’s growing collection. But Harry Guggenheim wanted no-nonsense with theories and budgets; he delayed construction because of the high cost of building and shortages of materials after the war. There were design compromises and changes in program and policy. The museum was no longer dedicated to non-objective art or exclusively to Solomon Guggenheim’s collection, nor would anything be displayed in the manner that had been envisioned. The family had long viewed Hilla Rebay as a lady Svengali whose power over Solomon extended from the paintings he purchased to the strange theories she espoused and the bizarre medical cures she recommended. She was removed as director and the penthouse apartment with a park view disappeared from the plans. A new board was established and a new director brought in, James Johnson Sweeney, who was violently opposed to every premise on which Wright’s design was based; he made changes that sabotaged the building in every way possible.
Sweeney, who came from the Museum of Modern Art and had helped to establish its style and standards, did his best to remake the Guggenheim in that fashionable institution’s image. The idea of a permanently fixed collection was dropped for a policy of acquisitions, diversity and temporary exhibitions, although none of the necessary storage, preparation or display space had been provided under the earlier program. Granted that the original concept was curious, and might have been more curious in execution, the process of obliteration was brutal. Sweeney painted Wright’s soft ivory interiors white – Wright avoided and abhorred white – and substituted artificial light at the top of the ramp’s outer walls. All this was done to create the kind of shadowless, neutral ambience favoured by the modernists whom Wright had battled with all his life. Sweeney ignored Wright’s easel like resting places and drove metal rods into the walls to suspend pictures far enough away from the distracting tilt and curve of the ramp to defeat the illusion that everything on it was off axis. The rods are still there!
At some point, the top of the spiral was shut for storage, amputating its ascent, hiding the domed skylight that was the climax of the design. But although Wright died before the Guggenheim’s completion, he fought Sweeney to a draw from the grave, and Sweeney resigned in apoplectic frustration after a year in the job.
The building has continued to frustrate every director since, as each as tried to make peace with its demanding personality and physical challenges. What has survived, by default, is Wright’s basic, powerful idea of unified space and structure. It has overridden the continuing controversies about its use and practicality, the indignities of antagonistic installations, two “restorations” and a brace of additions. Whatever the dramatic, spiraling interior lacks in flexibility for exhibition purposes – and the most serious charge leveled against it is that the architecture trumps the art – this soaring volume with its encircling ramps is an intensely moving experience. The impact is visual and visceral; it involves all the senses. The building is alive; the movement of people and their murmurous sound, the surrounding colour and form, redefine social space and the way art is seen and felt within it, although certainly not as originally intended.
And they have a Brâncuși sculpture!