One of a Kind

You could say 1959 was an eventful year. Alaska and Hawaii joined the union as newly minted states. NASA announced its first team of astronauts. And on Oct. 21, the spiraling concrete building Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened to the public.

Opening day of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1959 (Robert E. Mates, ©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

As visitors in furs and hats flocked through the doors, the Guggenheim was adjusting to its instant status as a lightning rod for controversy. After all, not a museum in the world—or building, for that matter—looked remotely like the imposing alien sculpture Wright planted on Fifth Avenue. The reactions of shock and puzzlement were immediate, as were nicknames like the Inverted Cupcake, the Washing Machine and, to paraphrase the New York Mirror, the Joyous Monstrosity.

The art world railed at the rotunda’s unorthodox galleries with gently sloping walls, individual bays, terrazzo ramps and not a right angle in sight. “A war between architecture and painting in which both come out sadly maimed,” opined New York Times art critic John Canaday,

And the experience of essaying six spiraling ramps with a three-degree slope? Like “slither[ing] up the ramp, one hip higher than the other,” to quote a disgruntled newspaper reporter.

Yet no less an authority than architect Philip Johnson proclaimed the museum to be “Mr. Wright’s greatest building. New York’s greatest building.” 

And if attendance was a gauge, Wright’s singular sensation was reeling in crowds. A 1960 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of museumgoers came for the architecture and the art, 38 percent for the architecture alone and just 5 percent for the art, a disservice to the Guggenheim’s fine collection but a hearty endorsement of the legendary architect’s final masterstroke (Wright died at the age of 91, six months before the museum opened). 

As befits “an explosion on Fifth Avenue,” as the New York Times once described it, the Guggenheim did not have an easy birth. It began in 1943 with a letter from Hilla
Rebay, art advisor to Solomon Guggenheim, asking Wright if he would build “a temple of the spirit” to facilitate a new way of looking at non-objective painting. Wright pounced. He had never designed an art museum. Stranger still, he had never received a commission for a building in Manhattan, perhaps because his architectural style favoring organic shapes, nature settings and low, horizontal buildings was at odds with the blunt International Style towers that dominated the New York City skyline. 

Over the next 16 years, Wright’s museum went through at least six sets of plans, delays forced by war and financial constraints, skirmishes with the city over building codes and difficulties in choosing a site (properties in Midtown Manhattan and Riverdale in the Bronx lost out to a quiet Upper East Side block, home to a girl’s school and residential buildings, across from Central Park). The design also met with objections, notably from a group of 21 prominent artists, including Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell, who claimed Wright’s nautilus-shaped building was inhospitable to their art. 

No matter. Construction commenced in 1956, treating onlookers to the startling sight of workers laboring atop a steadily growing circle of wood and steel. As one worker explained to The New Yorker, “The way I figure it is that this is the screwiest project I ever got tied up in. The whole joint goes round and round and round and where it comes out nobody knows.” Wright, ever the astute promoter, requested that construction be documented, resulting in a collection of breathtaking black-and-white photographs.

Which brings us back to 1959. Wright did not get every feature he wanted for his building, including a glass elevator and a red marble facade. But as architectural historian
Joseph M. Siry writes in “The Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the Modern Museum,” Wright realized “the essential idea of spatial and structural continuity in the main gallery’s ‘grand ramp,’ as he called it.” He transformed reinforced concrete, a homely material used primarily at the time for parking garages and automobile buildings, into an element of beauty and a means to a “sculpturally free architecture,” to quote Siry. And he saw writ large his concept for an inverted ziggurat, a favorite ancient shape he flipped onto its head to create the illusion of upward growth and “pure optimism,” as the architect put it.

Wright also invented a structure that changed the way museumgoers experience art. With the Guggenheim’s soaring atrium crowned by a skylight and vista points showcasing art across the building as well as directly in front of you, he devised a flexible space brimming with possibilities for unimagined encounters and undreamed of exhibitions. It was as if he’d received advance word that Minimalism and Post-Minimalism were on the way, shifting art from isolated modernist objects to works designed to engage with their surroundings. His socially oriented setting offered a preview of the lively gathering places museums would become.

It’s not entirely clear when the Guggenheim morphed from a “joyous monstrosity” into a timeless (and beloved) modern icon, as essential to New York as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. In his book “Wright and New York: The Making of America’s Architect,” Anthony Alofsin traces the shift to the 1980s, when postmodernism, “with its yearning for comfort, tradition and even ornament,” muscled past the International Style, an esthetic Wright rejected as vapid, nonfunctional and sterile. 

What is clear is that the Guggenheim, a recent addition to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, is looking good at 60. If you visit, treat yourself to seeing it as Wright intended back when he expected no more than 350 visitors at once. Take the snug red elevator or the zigzagging stairs to the top and walk down. Gaze up at the skylight, revel in the cantilevered ramps, admire the art and glory in the vast, column-free space. Maybe you’ll feel a bit dizzy as you descend. Maybe you’ll just get a thrill. And why not? You’re standing in the most important piece of art in the museum’s collection, as a former Guggenheim chairman of the board wisely observed.