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

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.

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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.

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