What Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum looks like without any art on the walls.

What we build.
April 14 2010 7:01 AM

Nice Curves

What the Guggenheim looks like naked.

Frank Lloyd Wright at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum during construction, c. 1958. Click image to expand.
Visitors to the Guggenheim Museum's inaugural exhibition

In a 1959 New Yorker review of the recently opened Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lewis Mumford admired Frank Lloyd Wright's invention but deplored the building's many deficiencies as a place to exhibit art: the distracting ramp, the sloping walls, the lack of conventional galleries. He concluded that perhaps the best solution would be to turn "Wright's monumental and ultimately mischievous failure" into a museum of architecture. Last month, the Guggenheim did something better. As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, for a solo show by a young European performance artist, Tino Sehgal, it left the rotunda empty. The stark space was a revelation.

Like Mumford, I've always considered the Guggenheim a tug of war between architecture and whatever was on display, with the latter often losing. But being in the freshly painted interior—not stark white, which Wright hated, but a kind of soft ivory—reminded me what a remarkable gift he left us. The ascending ramp is usually described as a simple spiral—that's what the souvenir coffee mugs for sale in the museum gift shop reproduce. In fact, the ramp is a helix, a spiral whose diameter increases as it rises. Moreover, it's a complicated helix, being interrupted by a bulging balcony at each revolution. The ramp leans outward, but other elements, such as the structural fins that transfer the weight of the ramp to the outside walls, and rise to support the central skylight, lean in. The exterior walls are tilted, too, following Wright's original conception (not implemented) of exhibiting paintings casually, as if they were simply leaning on an easel.

Visitors to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s inaugural exhibition, New York, October 1959. Click image to expand.
Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum during construction
Advertisement

Modern architecture is often characterized in terms of its makers' concerns with pure space, although in truth space is not really perceived, only the surfaces that enclose it. In the Guggenheim, Wright manipulates these surfaces to great effect. Overlapping curves, complex intersections, a long interval of smooth planes interrupted by the double beat of the vertical cylinders that contain the men's and women's washrooms. For once, Goethe's old chestnut applies; this really is frozen music. Floors, walls, and structure blend into a seamless whole (literally seamless, since the building is effectively one large piece of reinforced concrete). Nor is the eye distracted. Unlike architects today, who insist on articulating every possible joint and junction, Wright almost entirely eliminated details. The cork-screwing balustrade—which is slightly tilted—is a simple concrete wall with a pleasantly rounded top. Paradoxically, while the building is all-Wright, it never feels as if the architect were imposing himself. 

Wright was a humanist, in the sense described by Geoffrey Scott in his classic The Architecture of Humanism. "The humanist instinct looks in the world for physical conditions that are related to our own," Scott wrote, "for movements which are like those we enjoy, for resistances that resemble those that can support us, for a setting where we should be neither lost nor thwarted." He was describing baroque architecture, but his observations apply here. Nobody gets lost in the Guggenheim, and nobody stands still. The morning I was there the place was full of people, mothers with strollers, couples ambling up and down the ramp, children excitedly peering into the void. Not so much looking at the architecture as experiencing it while doing something else. A few hundred people enjoying themselves in an empty building. Somewhere, the Old Magician must be smiling.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.