Art News & Views

The Guggenheim ‘Archi-Sculptures’


by Shambhavi R. Padukone

Architects have always tried to design museum buildingsas works of art themselves. It gives them an opportunity to showcase their creativity. Whether they conform to the aesthetics of the surrounding environment or not, by virtue of sheer monumentality, the architects create landmarks. However, many art critics are of the opinion that the most dramatic museum designs interfere with the art within. Frank Lloyd Wright (New York) and Frank O. Gehry (Bilbao, Spain) mark important developments in museum design and utility. Both the museum buildings were meant to be a major art attraction in themselves – one epitomises the Modernist ideals and the other aims to shatter the Postmodernist construct. The perennial problem is whether the architecture outshines the art it displays– art works, which are probably similar to what one can see in other major modern art museums as well– or whether the design actually enhances the art displayed.

Frank Llyod Wright

There has been so much that has been written and said about the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York building. It has become emblematic of the ideals of Modern museum architecture. As one walks up along the 5th Avenue, the Guggenheim building conspicuously stands out at the corner of the 88th Street. It is an exciting experience to see the building that looks like a white ribbon curled into a cylindrical stack, slightly wider at the top than the bottom. Its appearance is in sharp contrast to the typical Neo-Classical boxy Manhattan buildings that surround it. Wright claimed that his museum would make the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art "look like a Protestant barn."

Since its inception in 1937, the story and achievements of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has been shaped and guided by its directors, curators and an architect – their ideologies, visions, missions and perspectives. The arguments over ideological principles that defined the nature of collections and the disagreements over building design went on for nearly two decades before its final completion on 21st October 1959, which witnessed enormous crowds gather at the grand opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, New York. Frank Lloyd Wright was approached by Solomon R. Guggenheim's art advisor Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen in 1943 and asked to create a building that would stir the soul. Guggenheim himself clearly stated the objective of the museum building…

I do not want to found another museum such as now exists in New York… No such building as is now customary for museums could be appropriate for this one.

It took Wright sixteen long years of intense work and struggle to complete this commission. The longest he would ever work on. This arduous artistic journey began with Hilla Rebay’s firm belief in the spiritual dimension of non-objective painting.

“Never before in the history of the world has there been a greater step forward from the materialistic to the spiritual than from objectivity to non-objectivity in painting. Because it is our destiny to be creative and our fate to become spiritual, humanity will come to develop and enjoy greater intuitive power through creations of greater art, the glorious masterpieces of non-objectivity.”

To her, the meaning of the word “non-objective” signified a combined concept of the highest aesthetic and spiritual principles. She was instrumental in introducing Guggenheim to the experimental artistic trends in contemporary European paintings. In 1939, she transformed a former automobile showroom rented by Guggenheim, into an exhibition space and called it the Museum of Non-Objective Paintings, where only the finest examples of non-objective art were meant to be displayed. In addition to the German painter Rudolf Bauer and Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky’s work (which completely changed and defined the tenor of Guggenheim collection),touring and exploring the artistic practices of Europe with Rebay enabled him to expanded his collection which came to include paintings by Marc Chagall, Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Léger and László Moholy-Nagy. The growing number of works in his collection necessitated the idea of constructing a museum with the mission of “promoting and encouraging and education in art and the enlightenment of the public.” Not entirely satisfied with a temporary space, they commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright in 1943 to design a permanent museum structure that would be a “temple to non-objectivity.” Rebay’s and Wright’s inspiration and perception of what Art meant for them and what it symbolized were drawn from the same principle, which was not mimetic but presented abstract mysteries of nature and human imagination. Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum building was envisioned as a metaphor of those utopian ideals they espoused. The challenge for Wright was to create a unique space that could showcase art without taking away its worth and value. It was designed keeping in mind that it would attract the masses, but still present a formal façade that says, "Look, but do not touch."

Wright’s early sketches give some basic aspects of the museum design that remained constant and unchanged from the very beginning – the spiral sloping ramp, the scale of display and use of natural light as far as possible. He gathered inspiration and many architectural and decorative elements from his house in Spring Green, Wisconsin USA, Taliesin. He visualized the architecture in human scale and designed it in harmony with the art displayed in it. The large glass dome over the central atrium of the spiral building was an important architectural element but he insisted on a narrow open space running continuously over the sloped walls that allowed natural light to penetrate inside. Wright used the term “Arche museum” in the last few years of completing the design of the museum building. This term created a bit of confusion and discomfort among the trustees of the Guggenheim museum and the art critics and Ada Louise Huxtable voiced this concern that this structure is “less of a museum than it is a monument to Frank Lloyd Wright.” However, there were many who appreciated and lauded the innovative design.

Frank O! Gehry

The name inspires a strange bizarre perspective of things. Gehry’s architectural language comes from a reaction to Postmodernist ideas. His work is often described as post-structuralist in nature falling within the style of Deconstructivism. Unlike the early modernist structures, those structures that are designed along the principles of Deconstructivism do not reflect specific social or universal ideas, such universality of form, and they do not necessarily reflect a belief that ‘form follows function.’

The building is a kind of an urban sculpture that gives the impression of being a ship in the Nervión River. It is set between two levels – the river level and the city level. It has a wide staircase that connects the two different levels. His work begins with the form and the function adapts to it. His drawings and sketches are central to his working process and the final built form maintains that impromptu sketchiness of the drawings.

As soon as I understand the scale of the building and the relationship to the site and the relationship to the client, as it becomes more and more clear to me, I start doing sketches.

The drawings/sketches do not represent any architectural mass or weight. It loosely defines the directions and shifting spatial relationships.With the aid of computerized models the building was constructed with blocks of limestone, half a millimetre thick titanium panels and glass curtains.The building is mostly about creating an experience. This showmanship pulls you into a hyper-real space while striving to detach you from the mundane world around. It is a well known fact that most visitors to Bilbao are primarily there to see Frank Gehry's shimmering titanium ‘archi-sculpture’ – the Guggenheim Museum. People speak of “the Bilbao effect,” referring to the marketing potential not just for the museum but also for its city when a famous architect creates an eye-catching spectacle in architecture.

However, despite the huge attention given to spectacular museums (like Guggenheim New York and Bilbao) and the heated debates around it, such dramatic works have not yet become norm for most art museums. (Un)Fortunately, most museums fall somewhere between the highly dramatic and the very ordinary.

Tags: art, architecture

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