Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum: the history of the masterful New York building.
As the Guggenheim Museum prepares for its 60th anniversary, learn about its iconic NYC building.
In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright received a commission that would lead to one of his most famous buildings: the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which to this day remains Wright’s only public building in the five boroughs. Though archicritic Paul Goldberger once said it was “absolutely the wrong building in the wrong place,” one thing is for certain: the Guggenheim was, upon its debut in 1959, a revelation, and upended the idea of what a museum could and should look like.
Philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim and his art advisor, artist Hilla Rebay (who also became the museum’s first director), chose the architect based on his reputation; Wright was in the later part of his career, with landmark buildings like Oak Park’s Unity Temple and Bear Run, Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater behind him. There was just one stipulation from the museum co-founders: “The building should be unlike any other museum in the world.”
Wright delivered and then some.
But the 16 years between when Wright got the commission to when the building opened were tumultuous ones, with everything from New York City’s arcane building code to the death of Guggenheim throwing wrenches into the works. Wright himself died in April 1959, six months before the museum made its public debut.
So how did it come to be? It’s a long story, too long to recant in full here; entire books have been written on the subject. It’s also one that Wright likely would have preferred not taken place in New York City. But as the Guggenheim itself notes, the museum’s final location on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th streets was something of a blessing for Wright thanks to its next-door neighbor, Central Park.
Wright’s obsession with nature and organic forms is evident in many of his famous works, such as Fallingwater, so named because it’s situated atop a waterfall (and thus the falling water is as much as feature of the home as the Pottsville sandstone used to construct the building).
While the Guggenheim isn’t the most obvious example of this—you can’t really see Central Park from inside the museum, for instance—it was nonetheless envisioned in the same vein. Light floods the space from a large skylight perched atop it; the circular design, meanwhile, was inspired more by nature than typical building shapes.
The architect even copied from his one of his own earlier conceptual designs for the project. The Gordon Strong Automobile Objective was a tourist attraction that Wright designed on spec in the 1920s, and its design is strikingly similar to that of the Guggenheim: Visitors would be ferried to the top of Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain, and then follow a spiraling pathway down. It may not sound like much of a tourist draw, but Wright ended up cribbing the design and flipping it upside down for the Guggenheim.
Four years from the initial submission of plans to approval—sounds like a lot, right? And that was on top of financial issues the project had already faced, and the fact that after Solomon R. Guggenheim’s death, the new museum leadership wasn’t too keen on Wright’s inventive design. Eventually, though, everything fell into place, and construction began in 1956.
Construction continued over the next few years, with Wright living in a suite at the Plaza Hotel for five years as it was being built. But alas, he never saw the project completed; in 1959, he died at the age of 89 after undergoing surgery in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Guggenheim would open six months later, to both acclaim—no less than then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower called it “a symbol of our free society which welcomes new expressions of the creative spirit of man”—and rancor. Critic Lewis Mumford, a friend of Wright’s, referred to it as “Wright’s monumental and ultimately mischievous failure” in a 1959 review of the building in the New Yorker.
Still, despite those challenges—and the initial controversy surrounding the structure—it’s gone on to become one of the most popular museums in New York City, attracting more than a million visitors every year. And it’s a good bet that many of them are there for the building more than the art—which is, no doubt, exactly as Wright would have wanted it.