Finally Doing Right By Wright


TIME: Architecture & Design – July 6, 1992

Finally Doing Right By Wright

After years of fuss and furor, the great but inhospitable Guggenheim gets a splendid overhaul

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is not even 33 years old, but it seems a relic of some distant age, when vast, impractical artistic hubris could persuade and triumph. Wright was a fabulous caricature of the genius artiste, difficult and grand, and so the Guggenheim was a caricature of 20th century genius architecture — bizarre, ahistorical, antiurban. These days, there are still plenty of arrogant, solipsistic architects around, but self-confidence — and talent — on the scale of Wright’s no longer exists.

And so, in this reduced age, people are discombobulated by the prospect of fussing with a masterwork such as the Guggenheim. It is, after all, the greatest American architect’s best-known building. And yet the Guggenheim’s very singularity has always made it a wretched place to show pictures: the narrow ramp that hugs the inside wall has been the museum’s main exhibition space.

 When the trustees decided a decade ago that they could not manage without considerable additional space, they turned to Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel, architects whose work (sleek, handsome, rather restrained) is not exactly Wrightian. On the 35-ft. sliver of land behind Wright’s museum, Gwathmey Siegel would build the Guggenheim an addition. Ever since, the firm has been accused by a slightly hysterical mandarin consensus of desecrating the Guggenheim, of wanting to make a toothpick from a piece of the True Cross; the first design, a huge tower that brazenly cantilevered a pale green box out over Wright, was rejected.

 In the public fracas surrounding the expansion, it was always the exterior of Gwathmey’s new $24 million slab that got all the attention; the $22 million interior renovation of Wright’s building (which cost $7 million in 1959) was mentioned only passingly. Now that the work is finished and the doors are open, that fever ratio should reverse itself: the slab is a bland and only slightly annoying intrusion, while Gwathmey’s intelligent, intricate, loving work inside is a revelation, making it a far, far better museum than it has ever been.

 The uncomfortable truth is that the Guggenheim has been problematic not just for curators but for visitors: the interior could be oppressive and maddeningly hermetic. Now, for the first time, the museum has complexity as well as sheer monomaniacal power. You can still keep to Wright’s relentless ramp, but now you can also break away at four different levels into the new building and wander the loftlike galleries freely. Gwathmey has opened up the place, clearing away clutter and creating dozens of new architectural moments — glimpses of Central Park, comfortably arm’s-length views of the great ramp itself, details of the Wright building freshly revealed. Gwathmey unabashedly believes that he has unveiled a new and improved Guggenheim. “It’s no longer,” he says, “a one-liner.”

 Yet even that one-liner — the spiraling ramp, soaring atrium and glass dome — has been reinvigorated, allowed to have its punch line. For years the top section of the ramp was partitioned off and turned into a large closet. Now visitors can go all the way to the grand summit, and curators have been given back the best, roomiest gallery space in Wright’s building.

 The surprising, redemptive virtue of this project, however, is not the purification of the great hall but the transformation of Wright’s four-story wing that abuts the famous upside-down ziggurat. What was a cramped, homely office warren, a thicket of Plexiglas and stained wood, has become a jewel box open to the public: three floors of balconied galleries and, on the ground floor, an expanded museum shop. With its open core and rotunda, it is like a fetching little gemutlich miniature of the vertiginous main hall.

 Nor can anyone object to the interiors of Gwathmey’s new slab. Architectural honesty and etiquette are observed (he has gone out of his way to show the seams between Wright and Gwathmey), and the Guggenheim can finally display large canvases: Francis Bacon’s enormous triptych Three Studies for a Crucifixion, for instance, hangs comfortably in the new 17-ft.-high fifth- floor gallery.

 It is the visual impact of the new tower, outside on Fifth Avenue, that provokes so much ambivalence. In an ideal world, there would be no new tower: it tames Wright, too neatly and decorously walling off his astounding object from the neighborhood behind it. Gwathmey says he has provided a proper frame for Wright, but the Guggenheim is supposed to clash with the city, to twist and shout. Yet for all that, the tower is hardly a monstrosity, or even very big, at 27,000 sq. ft. among the smallest 10-story buildings ever erected.

 While critics are still carping even about the tower, Gwathmey seems to think that it is excessively discreet. “This building,” he says, just a touch contemptuously, “is very . . . responsible.” Uncontrite, he firmly | believes that his original hulking box would have been better. “It would have been more dynamic.”

 In the end, neither Gwathmey nor preservationist ideologues got precisely what they wanted. And what about the absent third party to the debate? For Frank Lloyd Wright, displaying art was more a pretext than a program; instead of a museum, he designed a mammoth abstract sculpture, a space where the paintings would always be subordinate, the Kandinskys and Miros little remoras stuck to the skin of his great whale. Finally, that perversity has been indulged: most of the art has been moved to adjacent structures, and his Guggenheim is free to be itself. Wright, the magnificent bastard, has won.