The Guggenheim Museum on the Inside
"The space within became the reality of the building."
(Eric Peter Nash, Frank Lloyd Wright: Force of Nature [New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1996], p. 31)
As you step forward the low-ceilinged area suddenly opens into the rotunda and draws your eye up to the skylight—or oculus—96 feet above you. The works of art remain mostly hidden. Before you get to them, you must experience the building itself.
Here we begin to grasp Wright’s vision for the museum space—a spiral-ramped building topped by a large skylight. The main rotunda is the heart of the Guggenheim Museum. It functions almost like a town plaza. A quarter-mile of concrete ramps climb the outer walls. Visitors on the ramps not only view the art, but are also aware of people in other areas of the museum. On a busy day, you’ll see a continuous flow of people moving along these ramps, viewing the exhibitions. Wright conceived of the museum as an airy, open place where visitors would not have to retrace their steps, instead entering the building on the ground level, taking an elevator to the top, and descending gradually, enjoying the art on display until returning to the entrance.
According to architectural historian and critic Paul Goldberger, "In many buildings, you observe them best by staying in one place and taking it all in. But the only real way to experience the rotunda is to move along the spiral.... Because it's the experience of...feeling the space change, feeling yourself go round and round at this remarkable pace that Wright sets for you...seeing a piece of art that you have just seen close-up again across the rotunda from a distance. All those things are essential to the experience of the Guggenheim. It's a building that you cannot experience by sitting in one place.... It was Wright's idea that the building is about movement through space as much as it is about space itself."
A monument to modernism, the unique architecture of the interior space, with its spiral ramp riding to a domed skylight, continues to thrill visitors and provide a unique forum for the presentation of contemporary art. Goldberger commented on how the Guggenheim changed the role of the architect: "Wright's building 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." Now some fifty years after the museum’s opening, Wright’s ability to design a space flexible enough to accommodate so many various exhibitions has proven itself.
1. List five words to describe your experience of the inside of this building.
2. How is it similar to or different from what you expected?
3. How is it similar to or different from other buildings you have visited?
4. What activities are people engaged in?
5. What architectural shapes do you see?
6. What sounds do you hear?
7. What is your favorite spot within this building? Your least favorite?
8. How would you describe this building to a person who has never been here?
9. The view from the top ramp is dramatic. Some people find this experience thrilling; some find it frightening and can’t quite bear to look down. Imagine yourself emerging from the rotunda elevator onto the museum’s top ramp. Write a paragraph that describes what you see, what you feel and what you hear as you view the museum from this perspective. Compare your reactions with those of your classmates.
- In recent years, artists and exhibition designers have put their own unique stamp on Frank Lloyd Wright’s impressive architecture. The rotunda has been painted black, bathed in fluorescent colored light, divided by a wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and housed an installation of automobiles as they tumble through the air. If you were invited to change the rotunda what changes would you propose? Draw or describe your unique ideas and share them with your classmates.
- In 1943, the museum’s first director, Hilla Rebay, wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to design "a temple of spirit." People have varying ideas about what makes a place spiritual. For some, it may be a natural environment, like a forest or a beach. For others, a church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious space is a site for spiritual experience. Ask each student to brainstorm a list of words they would use to describe the perfect spiritual environment. Ask them to make a sketch, model, or narrative description of that place. Then, have students present their visions to the class.
- Wright disliked New York City. He saw it as overbuilt, chaotic, congested, and devoid of the nature that he loved. Some people thrive in cities, others prefer less developed, more natural spaces. Describe your ideal environment and why it is the most suitable for you.