Arts Curriculum

From its very beginnings the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has been a hub for new art and new ideas. The museum was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to house an innovative collection of works in a unique environment. Today, the museum continues to be a landmark destination that attracts visitors from around the world.

This curriculum module is designed as a resource for educators to help introduce the unique architecture and history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to students. It can be used on its own in the classroom, as preparation for a visit to the museum, or afterward as post-visit lessons. Although the primary goal of this guide is to introduce the museum’s unique architecture, many of the suggested discussions and activities can be used to explore the history, design, and use of any chosen building.

Themes

The Guggenheim Museum on the Inside
The Guggenheim Museum on the Inside
Geometric Shapes
Geometric Shapes
Form Follows Function
Form Follows Function
Organic Architecture
Organic Architecture

Overview

In June 1943, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Hilla Rebay, art advisor to Solomon 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.

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, finally 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. His plan for the new building dispensed with the conventional approach to museum design. Instead, Wright whisked people to the top of the building via elevator, proceeding downward 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.

In August 1990, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was designated 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.

Over the years, the Guggenheim has been through several restorations. Between 1990 and 1992 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. Another addition to the museum, the Sackler Center for Arts Education, opened in 2001 and provides a permanent public facility devoted to arts education. In 2008, the museum completed a three-year restoration project in preparation for its 50th anniversary celebration.

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


About the Architect


Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) was born and raised on the farmlands of Wisconsin. His mother had a vision for her son—that he would become a great architect. Wright was raised with strong guiding principles, a love of nature, a belief in the unity of all things and a respect for discipline and hard work. In 1887, following his study of civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Wright went to Chicago, where he became a designer for the firm of Adler and Sullivan. One of the partners of this company, the American architect Louis Sullivan, had a profound influence on Wright’s work. Sullivan’s mantra, “form follows function,” would also be embraced by Wright. In 1893 Wright left the firm to establish his own office in Chicago.

Wright created the philosophy of “organic architecture,” which maintains that the building should develop out of its natural surroundings. From the outset he exhibited bold originality in his designs and rebelled against the ornate neoclassic and Victorian styles favored by many architects of the time. He believed that the architectural form must ultimately be determined in each case by the particular function of the building, its environment, and the type of materials employed in the structure. Among his fundamental contributions was the use of various building materials for their natural colors and textures, as well as for their structural characteristics.

Wright initiated many new techniques, such as the use of precast concrete blocks reinforced by steel rods. He also introduced numerous innovations, including air conditioning, indirect lighting, and panel heating.

Wright spent much time in writing, lecturing, and teaching and established Taliesin, a school and studio-workshop for apprentices who assisted him on his projects. He also founded the Taliesin Fellowship to support such efforts.

Early in his career, Wright had originated many of the principles that are today the fundamental concepts of modern architecture. Throughout his career, architects who were more conventional than Wright opposed his unorthodox methods, but there is no doubt that his work has profoundly influenced the development of contemporary architecture.