The S. R. Guggenheim Museum

On 1 June 1943 Hilla Ribay, curator of the S. R. Guggenheim Foundation, wrote her first letter to Frank Lloyd Wright, inviting him to New York to discuss a project for ‘a temple of spirit’ [1] which would house a collection of non-objective paintings. Mrs Ribay was looking for ‘a fighter, a lover of space, an originator, a tester and a wise man’ [2] capable of imagining a building like no other. Mr Wright addressed his response to Mr Ribay, incorrectly assuming the curator to be a man. Thus, with slight confusion, began the story of the S. R. Guggenheim Museum which opened to the public on 21 October 1959, over 16 years after this first letter. Despite a series of problems, disagreements and delays over the years, Frank Lloyd Wright did not let his original vision get watered down. The finished building became one of his most celebrated works and probably the best manifestation of his concept of organic architecture.

The relationship between architecture and nature fascinated Wright throughout his entire career. In fact, the architect openly disliked big cities and preferred to build in suburban and rural locations, where his works would be surrounded by beautiful landscapes [3]. He was influenced by natural forms and colour pallets and sought to interpret nature’s principles, beauty and harmony through his designs. The famous Modernist slogan ‘form follows function’ was only one aspect of this artistic search for organic architecture [4].

Inspired by nature, Wright believed that form and function should be one. Aesthetically, this could be achieved by letting all building elements merge into a continuous entity [4]. This idea was materialised in the design for the Guggenheim Museum, where a single continuous floor spiraling up towards a domed skylight formed a naturally lit atrium unifying most museum functions into one space with minimal compartmentation. The architect did not regard exteriors and interiors as two separate entities but as an expression of each other. The interior ramp of the Guggenheim shaped its exterior into a clean circular ribbon devoid of any ornamentation. According to Wright, this new aesthetic called ‘continuity’ was a refined interpretation of his Lieber Meister’s (Louis Sullivan) concept of plasticity [5].

Spirals were a recurring theme in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs and were the dominant feature in the plans not just for the Guggenheim but also for San Francisco’s V.C. Morris Gift Shop, the David and Gladys Wright House, the unbuilt Gordon Strong Automobile Objective amongst others. The famous architect was fascinated by geometric shapes from a young age and was convinced that rectilinear forms were unnatural [6]. He held that rectangular interiors and right angles did not reflect human life and movement. Therefore, most of his designs utilised shapes adapted from nature – curves, circles, ovals, spirals, hexagons and triangles. The Guggenheim Museum became a true
demonstration of this trend with its interwoven spiraling floors, circular spaces, curving walls, triangular lighting panels, etc. [7]

The relationship between the sculptural architecture of the building and the art it was built to display sparked controversy long before the museum’s opening. Many artists believed that the organic curvilinear surfaces were not appropriate for hanging artwork. Others claimed that the breathtaking architecture would overpower the exhibited paintings. Those allegations, although reasonable, were mostly disregarded by the architect, who aspired to building a space not just to show art, but also to express natural continuity, flow, change and harmony [8]. His determination to find greater plasticity in architecture helped him deliver exactly what the clients asked for in their first letters – a building ‘unlike any other museum in the world’ [9].

[1] Pfeiffer, B. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Correspondence. Fresno: Press at California State University, 1986. p.4
[2] Pfeiffer, B. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Correspondence. Fresno: Press at California State University, 1986. p.4
[3] Muschamp, H. Man About Town : Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.
[4] Smith, K. Introducing Architectural Theory. New York: Routledge, 2012.
[5] Wright, F. L. An American Architecture. New York: Horizon, 1955.
[6] Wright, F. L. An American Architecture. New York: Horizon, 1955.
[7] Pfeiffer, B. Frank Lloyd Wright. London : Taschen, 2007
[8] Guggenheim website, Geometric Shapes. Accessed 17 August, 2017. [Access:
https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/geometric-shapes%5D
[9] McCarter, R. (ed). On and By Frank Lloyd Wright: A Primer of Architectural Principles. New York: Phaidon, 2005.
[10] Pfeiffer, B. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim Correspondence. Fresno: Press at California State University, 1986.

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