Ask the Architect

How was the Guggenheim built?

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Q. While visiting the Guggenheim Museum, I learned about what a special place it is, so different from other museums because of its round shape. It really is one of a kind, and I was trying to imagine how the architect came up with the idea, and how he made it hold together. It seems like there are no columns or beams, so I wonder if you can explain how it was built and the significance of its shape.

A.The background of the Guggenheim Museum is quite a story. I’ve learned about the building over many years from several sources, since some people are more focused on it as a work of art that overshadows the art displayed on its walls, others like the history of how it was conceived, and still others are intrigued by what holds it together. After all, the continuous ramp in the display space, going around in a circle as it rises seven stories, seems to float.

Solomon Guggenheim, 82, from an immigrant family that came to America in 1847 — after success in embroidery in Switzerland, but investing in mining and smelting here — was already one of the wealthiest people in America when he began collecting avant-garde and modern art. His collection was on display at a storefront gallery, curated by a young German countess, Hilla Rebay, who reached out to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and directed him to make sketches for a mystical place to display art, unlike anything on a rectangular footprint, typical of other Manhattan buildings.

Rebay was a vibrant, wealthy artist deeply rooted in her conviction to what she called “theophysical” concepts, the “spiritual enfoldment” of art. She and Wight argued, and somehow cooperated, as the project progressed from June of 1943 until permits were finally approved in March of 1956, 13 years later. Along the way, over 700 drawings were produced and changed.

Wright created a masterpiece that had more than 30 violations of building codes, and was rejected by the New York City Building Department for seven years for everything from accidentally extending over the front property line to not being structurally feasible. Since Wright was never a registered architect and had limited training, he relied on his engineers, Wes Peters and Mendel Glickman. One book describes how even they weren’t completely sure how to model the building mathematically, so they instead concocted hundreds of pages of calculations which impressed and befuddled the plans examiners enough to gain their approval.

A brilliant move was made during the bidding process, when the original $1 million budget climbed to $4 million. A concrete expert named George Cohen suggested using a super-strong concrete called gunite, originally developed for the hulls of PT boats, which is now used for in-ground concrete swimming pools. The suggestion saved hundreds of tons of concrete and steel. The continuous ribbon of ramp is made of cantilevered sections of steel-reinforced concrete, shot from guns at high pressure. To be continued next week.

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.