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.