Home   Architects   Styles  












Name   Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Date   1959
Address   1071 Fifth Avenue, 89th Street Manhattan, New York, USA
Floor Plan    

The only museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. the Guggenheim was also his most time consuming commission. Formed in 1937, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was the source of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the original name of the institution. Located at 1070 Fifth Avenue, between East 88th and 89th Streets, Wright's museum is alternately viewed as his most kinetic structure, his most egregious expression of hubris, or as his magnum opus.

In 1927 Solomon Guggenheim met Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, a tireless advocate of abstraction in the visual arts, and in 1943, as his curator, she wrote the architect, asking whether he might be interested in creating "the dome of spirit. thus conceiving. at least in words of the central idea of the building. Disagreement about location delayed the project from the start: Wright. unsympathetic as always to dense, urban sites, advocated a location in Riverdale, the Bronx, near the Spuyten Duyvil and overlooking the Hudson River. Guggenheim, how- ever, persisted in his preference for a more central location, making the primary purchase of land on Fifth Avenue in 1944, although not until 1951 were the requisite parcels of land on Fifth Avenue assembled.

In response to the constrained site, Wright designed a vertical rather chan horizontal form and by building upward created almost the antithesis to the Prairie style of his early career. The most plastic of his designs, the museum is spiral, ballooning outward as it ascends and encloses a unitary space. Echoing chis rotunda is smaller volume, which he called the "monitor." Poured into curvilinear forms, the steel-reinforced concrete made possible the plasticity of the form and marked Wright's ultimate abandonment of pow-and-lintel structure.

Not the sole instance of Wright's use of the spiral, the Gurgenheim owes its form to numerous antecedents; its central rotunda is heir to the great domed central spaces in the ancient and early medieval worlds, such as the Pantheon (A.D. 128) in Rome, to which Wright himself compared the museum, and Santa Costanza (C. A.D. 350), also in Rome. Le Corbusier had developed an unbuilt scheme for a spiralled vertical museum. In 1924, Wright designed: domed planetarium for Gordon Strong in Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland, in which a double helix of ramps, one for automobiles and a second, narrower, inner ring for pedestrians, wraps around the exterior of the form. Completed before the museum, the V.C. Morris Gift Shop (1950) in San Francisco exhibits a central coiled ramp. Similarly introverted schemes preceded the museum as well: the Larkin Build- ing (1903, demolished) in Buffalo, New York; Unity Church (1908) in Oak Park, Illinois: and the S.C. Johnson and Son Administration Building (1936) in Racine, Wisconsin.

Earlier in his career, Wright had relied on the vertical core as an anchoring device, as in the fireplace and chimney core of the Frederick C. Robie House (1909) in Chicago and the vertical fieldstone core of the Edgar S. Kaufmann Sr., House (Fallingwater, 1936) in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Wright's central and radical concept relied on the continuity of the spiral in combination with the service of an elevator. By claiming that the museum visitor would no longer need to retrace steps, Wright further justified the form, which evolved through four versions. The first approximately eight-story volume, developed in 1943, comprised hexagonal tiers with level floors and a subordinate spiral for moving between levels. Clerestory windows with glass cubing as in the S.C. Johnson Administration Building would provide natural light. The next version derived. in Wright's own words, from the ancient Near Eastern ziggurat. with perpendicular outer walls clad in red marble. By the end of 1943 and early 1944, he inverted the ziggurat, thus creating the expanding spiral, and in the final phase of the development he inflated the volume somewhat and tilted the walls outward. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the design, the tilted walls-deemed an appropriate form for the display of art by the architect, who felt that they would approximate salon easels- vexed museum curators and directors who adapted the eccentric conditions with a system of metal rods to hold the canvases vertically.

The position of the larger rotunda in relation to the smaller monitor varied, and in 1948 Wright reversed them, placing the rotunda at the south end of the block. By 1952 he developed proposal for all annex, in which the patterned facade facing Fifth Avenue, in contrast to the smooth expanses of concrete of the gallery spaces, consisted of small squares further divided into smaller squares. Surrounding de monitor, a concrete balustrade, originally circular but executed as contrasting rectangle, de- rived from those seen earlier in Fallingwarer, and circular pat- terns, seen in the windows of the Avery Conley Playhouse (1912) in Riverside, Illinois, define the mullion arcs of the monitor windows and the brass strips of the terrazzo flooring. As : secondary geometric element, the lozenge form of the fountain at the base of the spiral repeats most notably in the cornice of the monitor, grouped in pairs within semicircular arcs. Modified between 1954 and 1956, the skylight was originally pictured as a series of tangent concrete or stainless steel rings with an inner shell of coffering. Cost constraints, however, resulted in the sub- traction of the inner shell and the addition of more prominent hairpin-shaped ribs supporting the glass. Although Wright wanted a fluid, continuous structure, structural vertical fin-like piers support the ramps.

In 1952 the building was renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and in the summer of 1956 construction began, supervised by William Short in collaboration with David Wheatley and Moron Delson. Jaroslav Joseph Polivka served as engineering consultant for the structural design, and Wright hoped in vain that he would be able to make the vertical fins that support the ramps unnecessary, John Ortenheimer designed the distinctive embossed exterior lettering, and the builder was George N. Cohen of the Euclid Construction Company.

Opened in 1959, Wright's last and posthumous work received several alterations, including the enclosure in 1974 of the driveway between the rotunda and monitor to contain the bookstore and cafe and the addition in 1978 by Richard Meier of the Aye Simon reading room off the rotunda. Envisioned as second atrium with balconies and a skylight, the monitor had been closed to accommodate administrative offices. In 1992 the firm of Gwathmey Siegel and Associates began a comprehensive restoration of the building and the realisation of an annex east of the monitor. Relating approximately in scale and pattern to the annex visible in a pencil-and-ink perspective by Wright from 1951. Gwathmey Siegel's ten-story tower, clad in gridded limestone, includes, in addition to offices, one single height and three double height galleries. Reopened as a gallery, the monitor contains a second spiralled ramp. Also accomplished were the installation of ultraviolet-filtering glass in the dome, the return of the café to East 88th Street, and restoration of the below-grade-level auditorium to contain its original seating configuration, balcony, and loft.

Whether viewed as among the noblest or as the most impositional of Wright's public spaces, the Solomon R. Guggenheim remains, like an uninvited but determined guest at a staid and exclusive dinner, Fifth Avenue's most defiant denizen.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2.  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.


Further Reading

Although there is a vast number of sources on the building, Neil Levine's analysis is perhaps the most thorough in addressing its formal, spatial, and structural aspects.

Gill, Brendan, Many Marks A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Putnam. 1987: London: Heinemann, 1988

Jordy, William H., The Impact of European Modernion in the Twentieth Century, Garden City. New York: Doubleday, 1972

Levine. Neil. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996

McCarter, Robert, Frank Lloyd Wright, London: Phaidon, 1997

Scully. Vincent, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Braziller, and London: Mayflower, 1960

Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman, New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, New York: Monacelli Press, 1995; 2nd edition, 1997

Wright, Frank Lloyd, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim correspondence, compiled by Bruce Brooks Pfeitfer, Fresno: Press at California State University, 1986

Photos and Plan    






New Projects






Support us