Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is a captivating documentary about the history and controversy over one of the 20th century’s most enduring architectural landmarks. Wright worked on the project for 16 years, and died just six months prior to its completion. The Guggenheim is his most famous work, yet his original ideas for the building were far more radical than what was eventually built. In every way the man was an architectural genius, a true artist of the discipline.
Microcinema’s new Guggenheim Museum DVD is hosted by Neil Levine, a scholar of architecture and a Harvard professor. While these are rock-solid credentials, I like the way he eases us into his studies of Wright. In 1976, Levine and his wife were looking for a reason to tour the United States. They wanted to see the nation, but they also wanted something more than simply a road-trip.
After being talked into taking his architecture class on a tour of a Wright home in Massachusetts, Levine was hooked. The couple then spent five months touring America—visiting roughly 150 Wright-designed homes during the trip.
When wealthy art-collector Solomon Guggenheim decided he wanted a permanent location to display his world-class collection of modern, abstract art, he commissioned the already famous Frank Lloyd Wright to design it. As anyone who has seen the Guggenheim knows, the architect’s vision was as uncompromising as any of the art housed inside. It is often said that the greatest piece of art that the museum holds is the building itself.
Wright began work on the structure in 1943. His benefactor Solomon Guggenheim passed in 1949, which led to a great deal of difficulty in bringing the initial concepts to light. In fact, Wright’s innovative spiral design was nearly abandoned in favor of the box-like structure of the Museum Of Modern Art—which had recently opened.
Thankfully, Frank Lloyd Wright’s imaginative motif won out in the end. But where did such a notion originate? After all, there was no building in Manhattan that even remotely resembled the Guggenheim. This is where Levine earns his paycheck. By showing us the ancient Mesopotamian Ziggurat Temple forms, the inspiration becomes crystal clear. Add to this the first building described in the Bible, the Tower of Babel, and suddenly new light is shed on where such an inventive piece of architecture came from.
There was much more to the initial design however. If you look at the Guggenheim, it is an inverted cone—a concrete tornado if you will. Like the Great Pyramids, the paintings of the Tower of Babel describe a flat bottom.
To Wright, that shape seemed dull and stagnant. His wish was for the museum to imply action, and with modern technology, he felt that he could make his building simulate motion and activity, by design alone.
To a degree, the architect won this battle. On one of the biggest conceptual points he had, though, we all lost. Wright’s idea was that an elevator would take visitors to the top of the interior, where they could leisurely walk down the ramps, admiring the pieces on display. At the floor level, we would all be reunited afterwards—making the whole experience much more social than idly working one’s way up, then back down.
It is typical of one of the many reasons people revere the designs of the man. As thoroughly modern as the Guggenheim still looks, the impetus was as populist as the Midwestern (Wisconsin, to be exact) origins of Frank Lloyd Wright. Over 100 years ago, he developed what came to be known as the Prairie House. These were the small, 1,500 square-foot, single-level houses that sprang up like wildfire in the Post-WWII era. They represented affordable housing for blue-collar families, with an emphasis on relative ease of maintenance.
The entire country is filled with tracts of this type. These fifties-era fading suburbs may be a cliché now, but the Baby Boom would not have happened without them. It is little wonder that the American Institute of Architects named Frank Lloyd Wright “The Greatest American Architect Of All Time” in 1991.
The man was a genius. Learning about his most famous building with the Guggenheim Museum DVD is a fine place to start. Then you can get into how his ideas have probably been felt (or lived in) by just about every American born in the past 100 years, and you will get an idea of why I respect him so much.