October 21: the goog

2012/10/21 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1959 the Guggenheim Museum opened.

Like the Farnsworth House, Villa Savoye, and chapel at Ronchamp, the Guggenheim represents the architectural ideals of its modernist-master architect so precisely that it has become a point of pilgrimage so profound that its original function hardly matters at all any more.  Sure, it still houses a collection of modern paintings and whatnot, and so it still acts like a museum.  But just spend an hour inside that big flower pot and see how many people come in and pay full freight to see the art vs. how many people come in to snap a picture looking up to the skylight and then hit the street.

In addition to exercising shrewd art-buying taste, the Guggenheim family also knows how to choose an architect, and sort of invented the idea of the spectacle/museum that is a tourist draw with or without any art inside.  (The fact that so many of these new museums, especially additions to extant buildings–like this one and this one, for example–, are really just glorified cocktail bars for fundraising night and wedding rentals, emphasizes the point).  The weirdness of Wright’s design was a matter of contention from the first.  When the museum opened, Life magazine noted that after being the “butt of jokes” for months, and still being met with “praise and protest,” (architects of course wet themselves; museum directors wondered how to hang flat art on curving walls and over ramping floors).  In a final analysis it was pronounced “dizzying,” which FLW would have liked, except that he died about six months before the grand opening.

During its construction, however, Wright was keen on having the process photographed and written about, so you can see construction getting started,  and the building with messy scaffolding and centering, and the way it looked when it was still pretty bumpy, prior to final render, and also how it looked getting finished, with a predictably nonchalant FLW on his perch.  Wright was at the time the most famous American architect alive, although in another interview he rejected the notion he was the world’s greatest architect–because there was no one living with which to compare him in the first place.  Pressed to think of soi-disant architects with whom he might be compared, Wright ran through the centuries.  He rejected Michelangelo (saying St. Peter’s cupola is “not a true dome at all”) and thought maybe only Jefferson was worthy of being compared with His Wrightness.

Like other buildings by Wright (like that famous house and that famous church), the Guggenheim has aged poorly, its materials cracking and the skylight sealant failing.  This of course was to be expected, as the brash architect famously said that structural failures were evidence that the architect was being properly progressive.  In other words, technical failure is to be expected within an architectural vocabulary based in technical prowess.  The Guggenheim might be an imperfect place to look at paintings, but it is a spectacular monument to Wright’s ego and Modernist architecture in general.

Image: at night, in 1959 (from this source)


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