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When Solomon R. Guggenheim gave Frank Lloyd Wright the commission for a museum in New York, it led to one of the 20th-century’s greatest works of architecture, a building that has become as famous as the art collection it was designed to display. The critic Paul Goldberger has written that before Wright’s Guggenheim, “there really were only two common models for museum design—the beaux-arts palace and the International Style pavilion—and Wright managed, in one fell swoop, to explode them both.” Wright’s building, continues Goldberger, “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.”
“Highly expressive” and “intensely personal” perfectly describe Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997 and quickly became one of the most famous buildings in the world. With its swirling forms and its facade of titanium, glass, and limestone, Gehry’s Guggenheim dances gracefully between architecture and sculpture. Taken together, the Wright and Gehry museums have come to represent the unique character of the Guggenheim in the popular mind. This has led some observers to speak of a Guggenheim “brand” that is inextricably linked to architecture, not just art.
The Guggenheim Foundation's relationship to architecture and promotion of architectural investigations of new museum forms stem from its unique history. In 1969, Peggy Guggenheim decided to bequeath her art collection and palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice to the foundation established by her uncle thirty-two years earlier; she died a decade later, and the Guggenheim was immediately transformed from a New York-only institution into a binational entity that would only continue to grow.
Shortly after Bilbao opened, the Guggenheim partnered with Deutsche Bank to create a museum primarily for the display of new commissions by contemporary artists, as well as for smaller special exhibitions. Deutsche Bank had space on the ground floor of its new Berlin headquarters, a 1920 office building in the center of the city. Richard Gluckman brought his simple, clean aesthetic to bear on the galleries, which have served as a tabula rasa for artists such as James Rosenquist, Gerhard Richter, Bill Viola, and William Kentridge, inspiring them to produce some of their best work.
In 2001, Rem Koolhaas created one of the most beautiful small galleries in the world in an unlikely location: the Venetian Hotel, Resort, and Casino in Las Vegas, where the Guggenheim, as part of its alliance with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, launched a museum that would display art from the permanent collections of both institutions. Koolhaas deftly created a series of four perfectly proportioned galleries, made of Cor-Ten steel, its rich brown surface alluding both to the velvet walls of the Winter Palace and to the sculptures of Richard Serra, a contemporary artist closely associated with the Guggenheim. On May 11, 2008 the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas closed after a seven-year partnership.
And on the horizon, Frank Gehry will design the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, a new museum planned for the capital of the United Arab Emirates. At 30,000 square meters, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be the largest Guggenheim museum worldwide, and the only Guggenheim in the region. It will exhibit masterworks from the Guggenheim collection as well as its own collection of major contemporary artworks. The museum is to be built in the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island—a natural island lying 500 meters offshore, which is being transformed into an international tourism destination, with plans for a national museum, a classical art museum, a maritime museum, a performing arts center, and an expansive arts-center park. It is expected that the museum will be constructed within five years.