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Frank Lloyd Wright, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Frank Lloyd Wright, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 1942-1959. Speakers: Dr. Matthew Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) Steven: This is Steven Zucker, standing outside of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, with Matthew Postal, an architectural historian. Standing outside of one of the most iconic buildings in New York, certainly one of the most unusual buildings. We're walking up 5th Avenue. Rows of prewar limestone and glazed brick buildings, of approximately the same height. Rectilinear, these boxes really. Then you come across this wild construction. What is Wright thinking? Matthew: He wanted to design something that would leave a mark, an unforgettable mark in Manhattan. Steven: Frank Lloyd Wright does this at the end of his career. Actually, the dating of the building is a little bit complicated. He was hired in ... Matthew: In 1943. Steven: The famous model that we often see him and Hilla Rebay with, and Solomon R. Guggenheim himself dates to 1945, but then the building doesn't get built until 1959. What accounts for the delay? How does this work? Matthew: There were a lot of challenges. There was the Second World War, there was a downturn in the economy in the late 40's. There's the Korean War. Then, finally, there is the issue of, how do you build a spiral museum entirely out of concrete? Steven: It's really complicated to even describe. From the front you've got these two main masses, and this bridge that links them. There's a tremendous kind of unity, I think, of form. The circle repeats itself over and over again. What is similar to what he did before? Matthew: From the very start he's interested in geometry. He's interested in patterns. He would use patterned brick work. He would use patterned floor treatment. He liked patterns. Whether they were hexagons or octagons or triangles. Here's an opportunity to do a circle. Steven: You see them everywhere. Built into the sidewalk in front of the building. Of course, you see it in the rotundas themselves. It's Farris concrete, right? It's held up with rebar? Matthew: You know, his early buildings are basically poured concrete. Blocks of concrete. Like Unity Temple. Although, he probably used metal to strengthen the concrete in some places. This building, because of the width of the ramps, and the walls and it all has to be one continuous surface, requires a lot of different types of cage-like metal, to hold up the structure. Steven: He's doing something incredibly ambitious, by keeping this atrium completely open, by having these cantilevered ramps that circle through the atrium, and give us the exhibition space. We see even more cantilevering on the outside of the building. The whole thing seems incredibly precarious, pushing the limits of engineering. In that it kind of reminds me of its visual precedent, which is to say, something like the Pantheon. That's really using concrete in enormously new, and important ways. Matthew: This is certainly like the Pantheon, and the Hagia Sophia, in it's inspired by expressionist architecture, of the 1910's and 20's. Steven: Especially in Germany, right? Matthew: In Germany. Steven: And Austria, yeah. Matthew: When you think about it, it's one thing to have these ideas, it's another thing to execute it. Steven: To realize it. Matthew: Wright had great drawings. He had a terrific model. He had a patron with money. The real question was, how was he going to do it? Ultimately, the person who built it for him, deserves a lot the credit. The contractor was a man who built parking garages. Steven: Didn't Frank Lloyd Wright also design, a auto showroom on Park Avenue that actually has a ramp? Matthew: That's right. Steven: For the cars. That's very much in the style of the Guggenheim. Matthew: And a store in San Francisco. Steven: The museum was originally called, the Museum of Non Objective Art, which was an early way of saying abstract. It's now called the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim came from a very wealthy family. They had made their money in mining. We also mention this woman Hilla Rebay. Who was she? Matthew: Hilla Rebay was from Germany. She was an abstract painter. She came to the United States in the 1920's. She exhibited quite frequently, and she met Solomon when his wife commissioned a portrait of him. Steven: There's a really interesting disconnect, because when we think of Frank Lloyd Wright as an architect, I think we often think of him as antithetical. As really in opposition to the European modernists. And yet, here he is creating the structure that's meant to house them. Matthew: He wasn't the first choice. When it was suggested to Hilla Rebay to hire him, she reportedly said, "I thought he was dead." Steven: Oh no. Matthew: They considered several architects. Ultimately, Wright was well-known, there was a lot of attention paid to him, after Fallingwater was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art had given him a retrospective in 1940. Steven: Was it originally intended for this site? 5th Avenue just across the street from Central Park, 88th, 89th Street? Matthew: Solomon Guggenheim had begun to finance his museum in the 1930's. They moved to various locations. They had a space where Lever House is today on 54th Street. Clearly, they wanted an iconic building. They wanted a building of great visibility. Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a distant cousin of Robert Moses, who was the head of planning in New York City, actually traveled around Manhattan in an open Cadillac, looking for an ideal location. Steven: It's only a few blocks north, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Great bastion of classicism. Was it in any way, kind of consciously taking on that tradition, do you suppose? A museum had always been a kind of palace architecture. Matthew: I think it's a pretty radical endeavor. Every building draws on other building. Clearly, Wright was trying, as he was almost always trying, to create something new. Steven: What does that do to the art that it contains? Does it overwhelm or does it frame it in a way, that draws the art out and excites us visually? It's a funny and ambitious but also, I think, combative relationship with the modernism that's shown within the museum. That is, the container is an object in the collection, isn't it? Matthew: Right. The issue is, should the museum be a neutral container? Should paintings be hung in simple, white boxes? Or should the architectural design contribute to the aesthetic experience? Steven: There is a kind of push and pull, and there is a really kind of modernist conceit here, in that it actually raises that question. That the building doesn't recede into the background. It remains very much in the foreground, and forces us to grapple with those kinds of questions. Kind of zealously guards its own primacy. There's always this kind of antagonism then, between the rectilinear and two dimensionality of the canvas, and the dynamos of the structure. Matthew: Is that a good situation for paintings to be displayed? Steven: Maybe not paintings themselves in isolation, but perhaps one of the issues is that, when we get to the modernist era, we don't think about paintings in isolation. We think about the way in which contexts construct meaning. Wright is asserting this quite powerful context. Matthew: I think Hilla Rebay wanted to break boundaries, and I think Wright was a perfect candidate to do it. (lively piano music)