Architecture of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

In June 1943, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) received a letter asking him to design a new building to house a collection of modern paintings owned by the wealthy businessman Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949).

By Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Guggenheim Museum (1959) by Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

The resulting achievement, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, testifies not only to Wright's architectural genius, but to the adventurous spirit that characterized its founders.

Daddy, Daddy (2008) by Maurizio CattelanSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Every year, over a million visitors come to view world-class art and experience firsthand this unique building. The structure itself has become a cultural icon featured in Hollywood films from Men in Black to The International, and claims the title of the world's most photographed landmark.

Exterior

As you face the museum you will see three distinct formations. To your right is the large, imposing rotunda. To the left, a smaller rotunda echoes the circular shape. Until 1988 this space was used as administrative offices; today it is accessible to the public as galleries and a café.

The rectangular Tower addition opened in 1992 and was designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects as additional exhibition and office spaces. As you tour the inside of the building, try to match what you have noticed on the outside with the spaces you will encounter on the inside. 

Rotunda

To your right is the large, imposing rotunda. Whereas the rest of Fifth Avenue presents buildings that are rectangular, vertical, and decorated with bits of ornamentation, the Guggenheim counters this regularity with its circular, horizontal, and sculpted facade.

Small Rotunda

This small rotunda was part of Wright’s original design and is exactly half the size of the main rotunda—48 feet across by 48 feet high. Until 1988 this space was used as administrative offices; today it is accessible to the public as galleries and a café. 

Tower

The rectangular Tower addition opened in 1992 and was designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects as additional exhibition and office spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright had actually proposed a tower for the museum at one point.

Some of his drawings show a tall, rectangular structure behind the main building, serving as a foil for the spiraling rotunda. Wright’s tower, though, was intended to house artist studios, not gallery space.

Entering the Museum


As you approach the museum's entrance, the openness you previously felt is replaced by the imposition of a hovering, low ceiling. The entrance is simple and understated. At every step of the way, Frank Lloyd Wright directs what you see and when you see it.

Circle Motif on Sidewalk

Wright put out a “welcome mat” for visitors by more than doubling the width of the sidewalk and introducing his central motif—the circle—in the concrete pavers that surround the building.


As you approach the museum's entrance, the openness you previously felt is replaced by the imposition of a hovering, low ceiling. The entrance is simple and understated. At every step of the way, Frank Lloyd Wright directs what you see and when you see it.

The Rotunda (ground floor)

Here we begin to grasp Wright’s vision for the museum space—a spiral-ramped building topped by a large skylight. The main rotunda is the heart of the Guggenheim Museum. It functions almost like a town plaza, surrounded by a quarter-mile of concrete ramps that climb the inner walls.

Planter

Nature, above all else, was Wright’s most inspirational force. He advised students to “study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” 

Fountain

The fountain, featured prominently on the rotunda floor, introduces water as another natural element in addition to wood, light, and plants that Frank Lloyd Wright used in his design.

The shape of the fountain is similar to the form we associate with pods, seeds, leaves, or footballs. The ledge of the fountain serves as a place to sit, and many visitors make a wish and deposit a coin into its pool.

Oculus

As you move forward, the low-ceilinged area suddenly opens into the rotunda and draws your eye up to the skylight—or oculus—over 90 feet above. The works of art remain mostly hidden. Before getting to them, you must experience the building itself.

The Rotunda Elevator

Although it is unusual for an elevator to be included in a building tour, it is an integral part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design. He wanted everyone visiting the museum to ride the elevator to the top of the spiral ramp, and then leisurely walk down to look at the art. 

This is unlike most museums, which lead visitors through a series of interconnected rooms and force them to retrace their steps when exiting. 

The Rotunda Elevator

The shape and color of the elevator’s interior is important as well. The shape of the elevator is unexpectedly a semicircle rather than a full circle and painted a deep red, which was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite color. He called it the “color of creation.” 

The Spiral Ramp

For Frank Lloyd Wright, architecture was not about walls, ceilings, and floors—it was about shaping spaces. Look at the spiral ramps and how they define the edges of the rotunda while maintaining a sense of light and openness within.

Top ramp

The view from the top ramp is dramatic. Some visitors find this experience thrilling; some find it frightening and can’t quite bear to look down. 

Oculus

From the oculus, natural light floods the museum. Wright’s design also included a second source of illumination. Along the top of each ramp you can see a continuous strip of lights, called lay-lights. 

Wright designed them as windows so natural light could illuminate the artworks. Today, they’re usually lit with artificial bulbs. This allows curators and conservators to control the levels of ultraviolet light, which can harm the works.

Along the Ramps

For Frank Lloyd Wright, architecture was not about walls, ceilings, and floors—it was about shaping spaces. The spiral design recalls a nautilus shell, with continuous spaces flowing freely one into another.

Visitors on the ramps not only view the art, but are also aware of people in other areas of the museum. On a busy day, you’ll see a continuous flow of people moving along these ramps, viewing the exhibitions.

Wright conceived of the museum as an airy, open place where visitors would not have to retrace their steps, instead entering the building on the ground level, taking an elevator to the top, and descending gradually, enjoying the art on display until returning to the entrance.

Gallery Bays

The galleries are divided like the membranes in citrus fruit, with self-contained yet interdependent sections. The open rotunda affords viewers the unique possibility of seeing several bays of work on different levels simultaneously.

Aye Simon Reading Room

Tucked away on Ramp 2 is a place to sit, read, and learn. This room was part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original design, but for many years it was used for storage. In 1978, renowned architect Richard Meier was hired to transform it into the Aye Simon Reading Room. 

According to Meier, “When I first walked in, it was a broom closet. It was filled with mops and buckets and cleaning equipment. And so, the first thing to do was to clean it out, and in cleaning it out, we discovered there was a skylight in the space that had never been opened. It had been just closed over.

“Light and Wright, you know, are almost synonymous. When you think of Frank Lloyd Wright, you think about the unique qualities of natural light in all of his spaces. And that occurred here in this very small space, as well. So opening the skylights made people see what a unique space this was.”

Aye Simon Reading Room

Today the reading room is a resource center for all visitors looking to learn more about the museum’s collections and exhibitions—or about modern and contemporary art in general. Meier’s keyhole entrance symbolizes the enlightening power of the resources contained within.

Conclusion

According to architectural historian and critic Paul Goldberger, "In many buildings, you observe them best by staying in one place and taking it all in. But the only real way to experience the rotunda is to move along the spiral.... Because it's the experience of...

feeling the space change, feeling yourself go round and round at this remarkable pace that Wright sets for you...seeing a piece of art that you have just seen close-up again across the rotunda from a distance.

All those things are essential to the experience of the Guggenheim. It's a building that you cannot experience by sitting in one place.... It was Wright's idea that the building is about movement through space as much as it is about space itself."

Oculus

For Wright, basic shapes had symbolic power. The circle, he said, suggested infinity; the triangle, structural unity; the spire, aspiration; the spiral, organic progress; and the square, integrity. Nearly all of these forms can be found in the architecture of the Guggenheim Museum as you look up at the skylight. 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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