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The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City
The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City

Building the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

6 Minute Read
DirtStories logo for DOZR
October 14, 2021

Solomon Robert Guggenheim was an art collector and American businessman born in 1861. He was born into a mining family and founded the Yukon Gold Company in Alaska while dabbling in art collecting as a hobby. In 1919 he retired from business ownership and began to focus solely on art collection. 

The reason you should care about Solomon R. Guggenheim and his interest in modern art collecting is that he is responsible for the creation of the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York City. 

Fast Facts About the Solomon R. Guggenheim Art Museum

1.2 million people visit the museum every year. The Guggenheim in New York shares a collection with a sister museum in Bilbao, Spain. The building was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 and is considered a New York City Landmark.

The Guggenheim collection today features more than 8,000 works of art. The collection contains work from Kandinsky, Picasso, Degas, and Paul Cezanne. In the New York City museum, you can view paintings by Gaugain, Manet, Henri Rousseau and Vincent Van Gogh. 

The Beginning of the Guggenheim

Mr. Guggenheim spent many years collecting art from all over the world. He was very focused on modern art. By the time he was 66, he had collected paintings from Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky. He collaborated and learned from art theorists and professionals from all over the world. 

His collection passed 50, then 100 and then 150 works of art. 

In the 1930s, Guggenheim held his first-ever public exhibition at the Plaza Hotel in New York. While he did keep some of the art for his private collection, Guggenheim believed in sharing art with the world.

The Guggenheim Foundation

In 1937 he established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the “promotion and encouragement and education in art and the enlightenment of the public.” Over 600 works of modern art were given to the foundation or purchased by the foundation after its establishment. Throughout the latter half of the 1930s and into the 1940s, art shows, collections, displays and galleries are opened to the public displaying Guggenheim's collection.

By this time, the Guggenheim Foundation was quite established and the artwork collection too robust for temporary display. In 1943, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design a permanent gallery and museum to display the collection to the public.

Designing the Museum

Designing the Guggenheim Museum took years. More than 700 sketches were drawn and 6 separate sets of working blueprints and plans were drafted up. At the end of the day, it took 13 years from when they hired Wright to when construction began. 

One of the major reasons behind the delay of the build was that Solomon R. Guggenheim died in 1949. Many people connected to both this project and the foundation were very close with him. The delay was also impacted by the end of WWII and the price inflation that followed. 

The Thought Process Behind the Design

The most notable feature of the museum is the spiraled main atrium with a glass-domed ceiling. The spiral design resembles a shell and allows the different spaces in the building to flow into each other. In modern art, a circle represents infinity. In this case, the spiral and circled staircase in the atrium and rotunda encourages viewers to immerse themselves in the collection. 

The slight ramp that circles around the atrium and carries a person down the ramp throughout was intended by Wright to make art viewers feel slightly off-kilter, to feel as if in a “daydream” and as if stepping into the museum is to step outside of the traditional world and boundaries of reality. 

The building was meant to be explored from top to bottom. Today, visitors are encouraged to go to the top of the ramp and explore the artwork by making their way down the ramp instead of upwards. 

Modern art comes from the mindset of individual expression and challenging the norms. That’s exactly what this building was designed to do, too. It’s a perfect example of how architecture has a direct impact on how we view and experience the world. When it was first built, many disliked the look of the building and it was subject to many critiques.

Construction of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City

Construction of the museum finally began in 1956 and took three years to complete. 

Much like the works of art that Solomon R. Guggenheim collected, this building is Modern in architectural design. It was built to challenge the “normal” way people view art with a building that almost wraps the viewer up in its atmosphere. 

The location of the building - on the corner of 89th Street in Manhattan overlooking Central Park - was chosen because of the proximity to the greenspace. The quiet of the giant park in contrast to the hustle of the big city helped to create the ambiance both Guggenheim and Wright were after.  

In many ways, the design of the museum in itself is a work of Modern art.

Materials to Build the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim museum is made up of 7,000 cubic feet of concrete and 700 tons of structural steel. Unique plywood forms were used to shape the arches and curves of the building. These curves were built up with “gun-placed concrete” - also called “gun-concrete”, “shotcrete” or “gunite” - which means that concrete was sprayed onto the plywood forms instead of poured into a mould. 

This type of construction was very new at the time. Today, shotcrete is often used in tunnels, subways, parking garages and for architectural purposes. It is with this method that the smooth arches and curves of the building were possible. 

No carpeting, curtains, decorations, artistic “flair” or detailing was added to the building. Wright wanted nothing that would take away from the art that would be on display. 

Dozens of subcontractors worked together on this project. It cost a total of $3 million to build. Between 2005 and 2008, $29 million was spent restoring the exterior. 

The Guggenheim Today

The museum opened its doors on October 21, 1959. 16,000 people attended the opening day of the museum.  Today, this building is recognized as a haven of Modern artistry and a must-visit for anyone with an eye for art. Even Lego has a Guggenheim building set. 

Every building has a story behind it and this museum is no different. 

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