A Brief History of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

A brief history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Frank Lloyd Wright, Hilla Rebay, and Solomon R. Guggenheim with Wright’s 1945 model of the museum.

In June 1943, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Hilla Rebay, the art advisor toSolomon R. Guggenheim, asking him to design a new building to house Guggenheim’s collection of non-objective art, a radical new art form being developed by such artists as Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian. Guggenheim’s one requirement of the architect was that the building should be unlike any other museum in the world. Wright, in turn, created a design that he believed would be “the best possible atmosphere in which to show fine paintings or listen to music.” Frank Lloyd Wright was already known as the preeminent American architect of the 20th century, but this invitation would add another major accomplishment to his influential career.

The project evolved into a complex struggle pitting the architect against his clients, city officials, the art world, and public opinion. Both Guggenheim and Wright would die before the building’s 1959 completion, but their achievement, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, remains. It testifies not only to Wright’s architectural genius, but also to the adventurous spirit that characterized its founders.

Wright made no secret of his disenchantment with Guggenheim’s choice of New York City for his museum: “I can think of several more desirable places in the world to build his great museum,” Wright wrote in 1949, “but we will have to try New York.” To Wright, the city was overbuilt, overpopulated, and lacked architectural merit.

Still, he proceeded with his client’s wishes, considering locations on 36th Street, 54th Street, and Park Avenue (all in Manhattan), as well as in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, before settling on the present site on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets. Its proximity to Central Park was key; as close to nature as one gets in New York, the park afforded relief from the noise and congestion of the city.

Nature not only provided the museum with a respite from New York’s distractions but also lent it inspiration. The Guggenheim Museum is an embodiment of Wright’s attempts to incorporate organic form into architecture. On one of his early sketches, Wright jotted “inverted ziggurat,” referring to a stepped or winding pyramidal temple of Babylonian origin. His plan for the new building dispensed with the conventional approach to museum design, which led visitors through a series of interconnected rooms and forced them to retrace their steps when exiting. Instead, Wright whisked people to the top of the building via elevator, proceeding downward at a leisurely pace on the gentle slope of a continuous ramp. The galleries were divided like the membranes in citrus fruit, with self-contained yet interdependent sections. The open rotunda afforded viewers the unique possibility of seeing several bays of work on different levels simultaneously. The spiral design recalled a nautilus shell, with continuous spaces flowing freely one into another.

Wright’s design put his unique stamp on Modernist architecture’s rigid geometry. The building incorporates triangles, ovals, arcs, circles, and squares. Forms echo one another throughout: oval-shaped columns, for example, are reiterated in the geometry of the fountain and the stairwell of the Thannhauser Building. However, circularity is the major motif, from the rotunda to the inlaid design of the terrazzo floors.

Originally the small rotunda (or monitor building, as Wright called it) was intended to house apartments for Hilla Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim, but instead the space became offices and storage space. When, between 1990 and 1992 the museum underwent a major restoration, it was converted entirely to exhibition space and renamed the Thannhauser Building in honor of one of the museum’s most important bequests. This allowed for the display the museum’s growing permanent collection and for visitors to enjoy portions of the building that had previously been off-limits. As part of the restoration a new wing, designed by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, Architects, was added. This tower provides four additional exhibition galleries as well as two upper floors devoted to offices. The most recent addition to the museum, the Sackler Center for Arts Education, opened in 2001 and provides a permanent public facility devoted to arts education.

Some people, especially artists, criticized Wright for creating a museum environment that might overpower the art inside. “On the contrary,” he wrote, “it was to make the building and the painting an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony such as never existed in the World of Art before.” In conquering the static regularity of geometric design and combining it with the plasticity of nature, Wright produced a vibrant building whose architecture is as refreshing now as when it first opened. In August 1990, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was designated as an official New York City landmark. It is the youngest building ever to receive such recognition. The Guggenheim is arguably Wright’s most eloquent presentation and stands today as one of the great works of architecture produced in the 20th century.

Based on an essay by Matthew Drutt, former Associate Curator for Research 

On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

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