Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim's artistic adviser, helped Guggenheim assemble his collection of modern art and convinced him to begin planning for a museum to house his collection. In 1943, she chose Frank Lloyd Wright and provided him with $21,000 to begin planning, even though a site had not yet been chosen. In August 1945, a design was unveiled to Mr. and Mrs. Guggenheim. Rebay's objective, seconded by Wright, involved construction of a museum to house Guggenheim's collection that rejected conventional museum architecture.
The building, notwithstanding the alterations and additions that have taken place, is a prime example of the later work of Frank Lloyd Wright, manifesting his theory of "organic architecture" in the unity of building method, appearance and use. It is Wright's only complete building in New York City and is completely different from any other modern building in New York City, breaking the norm of a facade parallel to the street and planar surfaces. Of reinforced concrete construction, its most striking feature is the one-quarter-mile long ramp which spirals up in ever-widening loops around an interior courtyard.
Reinforced concrete with early elastronic wall coating
On New York's upper Fifth Avenue, which largely consists of apartment houses constrcted of brick, sometimes with limestone over lower floors, together with a number of surviving town houses, largely though not entirely now serving institutional uses. Nearly all these buildings have flat facades facing the park and built to the building line. This is a stable neighborhood.
Wright was known to push the limits of technology and this building is no exception. George N. Cohen, the contractor, is credited with having made construction of a unique building possible at a reasonable cost. Wright created an irregular shape in the spiral that expands as it rises. This created uneven expansion and contraction as temperatures change. In order to preserve a monolithic appearance, there are no expansion joints. Wright used a thick elastic wall coating that had just been developed to prevent external cracking. Despite what would appear to be problems inherent to the building, a recent two-year assessment in connection with the restoration currently taking place found the structure in "remarkably good condition." "Guggenheim Restoration Has Wright Stuff," Architectural Record, vol. 195, no. 11, November 2007, p. 42.
Client and architect wanted and built a museum like no other. Despite its iconic status, the building appears to have had little influence on New York City architecture.
Wright intended to build an museum that broke with conventional museum architecture, a symbol of a new era in the display of art. There were to be, he said, "clean beautiful spaces throughout the building, all beautifully proportioned to human scale." Put another way, Wright constructed a museum suitable for the founder's collection of non-objective art. Despite much controversy whether that aim was accomplished (many eminent artists derided the building initialy), Wright designed a building as innovative as the art it contains. The fact that is still startles us after nearly fifty years testifies to his success.
Considered by many the most significant building of Wright's late period.
There is little doubt that this is building of great significance, an icon to a great architect's unique vision of modern architecture. That it also houses an important cultural institution contributes to its value.
The building has been extensively published. There follows a very brief list of some of the more useful publications:
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1960.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1975.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, 1994.
LANDMARK PRESERVATION COMMISSION, Report, New York: Landmark Preservation Commission, 1990