Museum is restoring its building to realize the architect's conception


August 18, 1991|By Grace Glueck | Grace Glueck,New York Times News Service

New York -- Did the Guggenheim Museum -- whose innovative spiral structure opened to a bemused public in 1959 -- do wrong by its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright?

Yes, say Guggenheim officials, who promise that when the museum reopens in February after a $24 million renovation, Wright and his vision will be vindicated.

"We are restoring a monument," said Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's director. "It was Wright's last and some say most original building, and our aim is to give it back to the public, reveal it in a way never seen before, consistent with Wright's original architectural concepts."

So the space Wright designed as a restaurant on the 88th Street side of the museum will again be a restaurant, using some of Wright's original plans for the first time, instead of a conservation laboratory; the ramp at the top of the spiral will be used as Wright intended, for art instead of storage, and the smaller of the two rotundas, which Wright called the Monitor Building, will be freed of its non-Wrightian glass and wood enclosures and made visible as dramatic space.

"It was clear that the Wright building was compromised, and much of it is in bad shape," Mr. Krens added. "The original architecture has been submerged, and the building is badly in need of repair." The project began in 1988.

The restoration was planned in conjunction with a nearly completed seven-story gallery and office annex connected to the rear of the Wright building. The annex, designed by the $l architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, has been widely criticized by those who say it detracts from the Wright structure.

All the glass in the Wright building, including that in the enormous domed skylight, is being replaced by thermal panes that filter out harmful ultraviolet and infrared rays. The skylight itself has been redone to seal leaks.

The walls are being insulated for climate control, the auditorium stage is being renovated for performances, and new excavation beyond the foundation will provide 10,000 square feet of underground space on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th streets for offices and other functions.

"We are driven by Wright's strict plans, but we want also to make sure that we have a mature, professional museum space," said Mr. Krens, whose eager championship of the Wright building is seen by some as an attempt to deflect criticism that the addition destroys the integrity of Wright's concept.

"The only way we are able to give the public the full experience of the original Wright building is because we've put all of the necessary museum functions outside of it," he maintained.

Conservation activities and storage have been transferred to an Upper West Side warehouse, and offices are being moved to the new annex and underground space and to a building in SoHo.

The Guggenheim building, shaped like an upside-down teakettle, took 17 years from initial planning to realization. It was such a complicated construction project that after Wright finished the drawings, it was hard to find a builder.

The job was undertaken by George N. Cohen, a contractor who had gained experience with cast concrete when building freeway overpasses. The museum's founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim, who died in 1949, had left only $2 million to build the museum, so Cohen used the most economical methods available, for example using Gunite, a concrete material sprayed from a hose against plywood forms, for the outside walls.

Wright was so grateful to Cohen for cutting costs that he allowed the contractor's name to appear on the building next to his own imprimatur, a red square with his signature through it. This is thought to be the only time Wright shared billing with a builder.

But the Gunite walls were not insulated, as required by the intricate climate-control systems that are standard in museums today. So an important and painstaking part of the renovation is stripping the walls of their interior plaster, applying a special vapor-controlling insulation and replastering them.

"With the complex systems they require, museums have to be built like hospitals today," said Thomas A. Sansone, the architectural consultant for the restoration and expansion program, who researched Wright's original drawings for the Guggenheim at the Wright Foundation in Arizona. "They have a similar need for control of various climatological situations."

The entire mechanical system of the Wright building is being replaced and transferred to the annex. This will make the roof of the Wright building -- with its close-up view of the Central Park Reservoir -- accessible for tours and possibly for events, Mr. Krens said.

Many of the deviations from Wright's original vision can be traced to James Johnson Sweeney, the Guggenheim's director from 1952 to 1960. Wright and Sweeney were at odds constantly.

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