Frank Lloyd Wright's battle to build the Guggenheim

As the museum calls for help with restoration plans we look at its difficult birth




If you’re one of the estimated one and a half million people who visit the Guggenheim in New York each year you’ve very probably passed through Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotating metal doors on the ground floor of the building. After 53 years of continuous use they’re apparently in need of some TLC so the museum is asking people to vote online in a bid to help it get a grant from the city council. We’ve already visited and added our name to the campaign and we suggest you do the same here. We’ve also posted a fascinating video above which reveals just what goes into making a major arts institution like the Guggenheim run like clockwork, but before you watch it here’s a little history lesson about one of New York’s most iconic buildings.

In the summer of 1943 Wright received a letter from Hilla Rebay, art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, asking him to design a new building to house Guggenheim's four-year-old Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The project was to turn into into a complex struggle, pitting the architect against his clients, city officials, the art world, and even public opinion. Sadly neither Guggenheim nor Wright lived to see the project's 1959 completion. But the museum stands as testament to Wright's genius and the spirit that characterised its creators.

Wright was initially resistant to building in New York, feeling that the city was already overbuilt, overpopulated, and lacked any real architectural merit. He chose the spot where the Guggenheim now resides because of its proximity to Central Park which he thought provided a much-needed refuge from the city. In actual fact, Central Park helped provide the inspiration for Wright's desire to “render the inherent plasticity of organic forms in architecture”. His inverted, winding ‘pyramidal temple’ dispensed with the conventional approach to museum design (and on its opening prompted 21 artists to sign a letter opposing their work appearing in the space). Instead, Wright whisked people to the top of the building by elevator, then led them downward, at their own speed, on the gentle slope of a continuous ramp. The open plan afforded viewers the unique possibility of seeing several bays of work on different levels simultaneously.

The building has since become an icon of the city and has been used widely throughout popular culture: in art in Matthew Barney's The Cremaster Cycle, in film in Men in Black and on TV in Ugly Betty. If you want to know more there’s an excellent Frank Lloyd Wright monograph by Robert McCarter available in our shop. It’s particularly good on the Guggenheim and the buildings that led up to it.




Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
Read more