The Guggenheim Museum from the Outside
As you walk north on Fifth Avenue you pass block after block of tall apartment houses that establish a formidable wall of relative uniformity. On the opposite side of the street, an extended stone wall marks the outer limit of Central Park and presents its own predictable rhythm. The elements of the streetscape impart the message “keep walking.” And then you reach 88th Street. The street opens up, the profile becomes lower, air and light is more abundant. You have reached the Guggenheim Museum.
Whereas the rest of Fifth Avenue presents buildings that are rectangular, vertical, and decorated with bits of ornamentation, the Guggenheim counters this regularity with its purely sculptural facade. Its clean circular and horizontal design is devoid of surface decoration.
Frank Lloyd Wright was no fan of Manhattan. He once described it as a “vast prison with glass fronts,” but he also knew that a major commission in New York City would would be important to his legacy. For Wright the saving grace for the museum’s site was its proximity to Central Park, providing an oasis amidst the noise and congestion of the city.
Wright put out a “welcome mat” for visitors by more than doubling the width of the sidewalk and announcing his central motif—the circle—even in the concrete pavers that surround the building. Year-round you will find people perched along the outside ledges, taking in the sun, enjoying a snack purchased from one of the street vendors, or watching the parade of natives and tourists from around the world.
As you face the outside of the museum you will see three distinct formations. To your right, and most imposing, is the large rotunda. To the left, the small rotunda echoes the circular shape on a smaller scale. Until 1988 it was used as administrative offices, but is now open to the public. The rectangular building (the Annex Building) is an addition that opened in 1992. Designed by Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, Architects, it provides additional exhibition and office space.
1. What is the first thing you notice about this building?
2. List five words you would use to describe it.
3. How is this building similar to or different from others along the street?
4. Describe the museum in relationship to its site. In what ways is the museum in harmony with the area around it? How is it different from the environment that surrounds it?
5. Because of its unusual shape, the Guggenheim Museum has been compared to many common and not-so-common objects. What does the museum remind you of? Try to complete the following sentence: The Guggenheim Museum is like a __________________.
- Frank Lloyd Wright went through numerous ideas and revisions before a final design for the museum was approved. One early design was hexagonal, another was clad in pink marble. In what ways is today’s museum similar to or different from earlier designs? [insert 3 preliminary drawings]
- Why do you think some people were initially so upset by its design? In her book There Goes the Neighborhood, Susan Goldman Rubin cites many examples of buildings that were criticized when they were first built, but have eventually been embraced by the public. Do you know examples of art, literature, architecture, inventions, or ideas that initially prompted public criticism but eventually won acceptance? What are they? Why do you think they were criticized?
- According to architecture critic Paul Goldberger, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York forever altered the way people conceived of the modern museum…. More than any other postwar building [it] provided the example of the art museum as a magnetic, highly sculptural presence.” (Guggenheim Magazine, Fall 1999, p. 45). Recent decades have seen a great increase both in the number of museums and the ways in which they are designed, resulting in museums that are as important architecturally as for the art they contain. Ask students to research on the Internet some of the dramatic museum buildings that have opened to the public in recent decades.
- In 1990 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to designate the Guggenheim Museum an official landmark. It is the youngest building ever to receive such recognition.
What do we mean when we call a building a “landmark”? Can you name a landmark that you have visited? Why do you think it is considered a landmark? What building(s) would you nominate for official landmark status? Why?