di Secondome

A full-scale party to celebrate architecture and design through a masterpiece that, in 2019 will celebrate its sixtieth birthday. On October 21st, 1959, opened its doors the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, along that Museum Mile in the Upper East Side, which still is the area with the highest concentration of cultural institutions in the world. Since then, the upside-down ziqqurat by Frank Lloyd Wright is a must-go for all the art and design enthusiasts, and very more so will be this year, with a special calendar of seven days a week opening, speeches by historians and critics, special dedicated exhibitions and guided tours to discover the history and the architecture of this iconic building.

An icon not only for the Big Apple, but also for the challenges that architecture can engage in, against conventions and mainstream taste. Today, with the Guggenheim being part – since 2008 – of the American National Historical Landmark and being a candidate – since 2015 – to enter the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, it’s hard to imagine that the twenty years that took Lloyd Wright to build his masterpiece were riddled with controversies and invectives against the project that was slowly revealing itself to the city. What Lloyd Wright did, was indeed almost a provocation: his creature was thought of as something entirely outside the Manhattan’s architectural principles, that the architect wasn’t fond of. From the shape to the material, reinforced concrete, everything placed the project light years away from the aesthetic of the blocks of the Big Apple. It wasn’t long till the criticism came. “Much longer before its opening, the Guggenheim became a topic of public domain. Journalists, critics, and simple citizens went out of their way to find it the most appropriate nickname: “An upside-down bowl of oatmeal”, “a washing machine”, “a wash house”, “a big, white ice-cream freezer”, “an awful Hollywoodesque avocado-burger”. These are memories that Gabriele Neri wrote in his nice book published a few years ago for Quodlibet, “Architectural spoofs”, worth one more quote: “In a famous article on the New Yorker, Lewis Mumford linked it to a “huge pill-organizer”, while were common comments such this one, from the New York Mirror: “The Museum is one of the most radiant monstrosities by Frank Lloyd Wright. From the outside it looks like a mud-ball. This hive-like thing is not appropriate in any part of New York. Well, there it is, a building that should be in a museum to show how crazy the Twentieth Century is”.


Moreover, it was very hard for Wright to obtain the permit for the authorities, since the building violated in more than one point the rules of the local building code at that time.

Neri again remembers the title of the New York Times on October 25th , 1959, a few days after the opening of the museum, summing up all the critics to the building with a famous pun, that had inspired a few satirical cartoons: “That Museum: Wright or Wrong?”. The subtitled added “Is it a museum or a monument to Mr. Wright?”.

In short, polemics and satire against contemporaries archistars’ projects considered over-the-top are not exactly news, rather, how this story proves, encores of a play at least sixty years old. A play that can be retraced until December 31st  2019 in the New York Guggenheim, along Fifth Avenue, maybe tasting one of the courses that the restaurant “The Wright”, in the museum, will serve during these months, dedicated to the museum’s founders and to Lloyd Wright himself.

Photo: David M. Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York