Reopened Guggenheim opts to stress building's beauty over its role as museum

June 28, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

New York -- From the time it originally opened in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York has been the subject of lively debate between those who contend it's a Great Building and those who contend it's a Lousy Museum.

The Lousy Museum people say that its continuous downward ramp, its low ceilings, its slanted walls and lighting difficulties make it a terrible place to show and to look at art. The Great Building people say that Wright's monumental architectural statement is more than worth any difficulties it might cause.

Two years ago it closed for restoration and expansion; today it reopens, and the Great Building people win.

In moving many of the museum's functions, both exhibition and behind-the-scenes, elsewhere, and in opening up the entire Wright building to the public for the first time, the project in effect bowed to the essential nature of Wright's soaring rotunda as a triumphant, soul-lifting experience. By giving that space over for the reopening to a single work of art designed to show off the space, this museum dedicated to 20th century art in effect presents the architecture as one of the great works of 20th century art.

As a result of the entire $60 million project, the Guggenheim has expanded its presence in New York, allowing us to see more of its collection than ever before, and allowing us to have the grandeur of Wright's building unalloyed. In effect, we can have our cake and eat it, too.

The restoration of the Wright building stands as only one -- if the most important -- of several aspects of the giant Guggenheim project. At the Fifth Avenue and 88th Street site of Wright's building, the firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates has achieved a restoration/expansion that adds a 10-story annex containing offices and four floors of galleries (three of double height), increasing the total exhibition space from 31,000 to 51,000 square feet.

At the same time, the museum has leased a 19th century building at 575 Broadway in the downtown SoHo art district, with interior spaces designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. This building adds another 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.

And the museum has also moved into a 27,000-square-foot technical and storage facility on the west side of Manhattan, further relieving space pressures on the Wright building.

According to the Guggenheim's statements, the main complex's story annex, called the tower building, is based on a proposal Frank Lloyd Wright himself made for a "background" building at the site. In its narrow, rectangular presence at the back of the site, it attempts to be deferential and in fact probably intrudes upon Wright's statement as little as any building of its size could. It's so slim that the elevator core projects into the building's four gallery levels, making somewhat narrow spaces even narrower.

The real problem with this addition, however, lies in what the architects call its "tartan" facade, a pattern of limestone squares punctuated by four modest, painstakingly placed slits. The effect is so careful and proper that in its relationship with Wright's superbly muscular grandiosity it looks like Lillian Gish Meets John Wayne.

Once inside the museum, however, all possible reservations are overcome by the sense that Wright's building has been freed to become itself at last. In the main rotunda, the huge skylight floods the space with light, and the great, thrilling spiral of the ramp is at last open all the way to the top (formerly the top two of the building's seven levels were closed off for storage).

Moreover, all four floors of the smaller rotunda at the northern end of Wright's building, some of which were formerly given over to offices, have been opened up as public space; they connect at all levels with the main rotunda and on the second and fourth levels with the annex's galleries. Those galleries in turn connect with the main rotunda at the second, fourth, fifth and seventh levels, affording extraordinary freedom of movement and flexibility for exhibitions.

At more than one level, the public can also walk out on the terraces and roofs of Wright's building -- one of which has been turned into a tiny sculpture garden -- and enjoy the greenery of Central Park across Fifth Avenue. To anyone who has any feel for architecture, discovering Wright's building to the full for the first time creates a sense of exhilaration that must be something like a child's first visit to Disneyland.

To inaugurate the reopening of the main complex and the opening of the SoHo building, the Guggenheim has mounted an exhibition program called "The Guggenheim Museum and the Art of This Century." Designed to show off both the range and riches of the collection and the scope of exhibition possibilities, it consists of three parts.

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