Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949) was a younger son of the mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905) and the founder of the Yukon Gold Company. He collected modern art and displayed his paintings at his apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, until the collection became so large that it grew into the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939.
In 1943 he commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s only New York building, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum [http://www.guggenheim.org], which eventually opened in 1959 – after the deaths of both the founder and the architect – at 1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street in the midst of the city’s Museum Mile.
There it sits, looking as if it’s landed from outer space, a deliberate challenge to the rectilinear patterns of the streets and the buildings around it.
Frank Lloyd Wright would rather have built it elsewhere – not in New York City, which he disliked – and chose the Fifth Avenue site because of its proximity to Central Park.
The spiral shape reflects a nautilus shell, and the divisions of the display areas echo the membranes of citrus fruit.
Like most Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, it looks remarkable yet has turned out to be remarkably difficult to maintain, and it’s undergone a series of repairs and renovations.
Though its aesthetic appeal is a matter of taste, there is no denying the impact of this sensuous, swirling structure.
Its practicality can best be appreciated by taking the ovoid lift to the top and following the gently graded spiral ramp, which inevitably dictates the order of viewing exhibits, round and round the central space.
The peculiarities of its display-space have irritated some artists and, indeed, some curators. It’s impossible to hang a flat painting on a concave wall, and difficult to place a rectilinear canvas on a sloping floor.
Others regard it as an exceptional context for showing artworks. Indeed, one of its most memorable exhibitions, Frank Gehry’s The Art of the Motorcycle (1998), was built around an assemblage of 114 historic motor-bikes.
The Guggenheim’s eccentricities do not suit all types of art by any means, but the building is a consummate work of art in its own right.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple: the architecture of New York City, please click here.