Guggenheim Museum: How Frank Lloyd Wright Brought His Masterpiece to Life in New York

Guggenheim Museum New York Architecture

Left: Stock Photos from Tinnaporn/Shutterstock | Right: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A trip to New York City isn’t complete without a visit to one of its most famous locales, the Guggenheim Museum. For the past 60 years, the institution has “collected, preserved, and interpreted” modern and contemporary art that crosses cultures and platforms while engaging audiences in New York City and beyond. During its time in Manhattan, the museum has mostly been housed in a structure whose reputation precedes the art you’ll find inside. The Guggenheim building was designed by renowned and celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is widely considered his best (and certainly most memorable) work.

Fallingwater Falling Water Frank Lloyd Wright Organic Architecture

Fallingwater, 1935
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Wright was commissioned to design the institution in 1939—well into his career. At this point, he had spent from 1905 to 1908 constructing the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Its use of reinforced concrete earned it the reputation of being one of the first modern buildings in the world. Wright had also completed Fallingwater in 1935, a house located in rural Pennsylvania that is partially situated over a waterfall. The acclaim from it earned the site a designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Guggenheim Museum New York Architecture

Stock Photos from Kamira/Shutterstock

It took 15 years for the Guggenheim building to be complete, but the challenges were ultimately worth it as the design is considered to be Wright’s greatest masterpiece.


History Behind the Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum was established by philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim. He had a collection of abstract paintings from American and European artists that were housed in a rented space and called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. It was clear, however, that there was a need for a permanent location. Guggenheim, along with his museum director Hilla Rebay, commissioned Wright for the job.


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On June 1, 1943, Rebay wrote a letter to Wright asking if he’d design a space to display Guggenheim’s collection. “I need a fighter, a lover of space,” she said, “an originator, a tester, and a wise man.” Of the structure, she added, “I want a temple of spirit, a monument.” There were little requirements for Wright, but the institution's co-founders had a big stipulation. “The building should be unlike any other museum in the world.”


Why is the Guggenheim Museum iconic?

Guggenheim and Rebay asked a lot of Wright, and he was up for the task. His portfolio showed that he could design outside the box, and his philosophy for architecture was equally as forward-thinking. He believed that a building should not be constrained by “preconceptions or historical styles.”

Wright articulated his vision of what a museum ought to contain, and it wasn’t pillars or lots of concrete (although an important material for Wright). His ideas were more abstract than that. “A museum should have, above all, a clear atmosphere of light and sympathetic surface,” he explained in a letter to Rebay in 1944. “A museum should be one extended, expansive, well-proportioned floor space from bottom to top, a great calm and breath pervading the whole place. The whole thing will either throw you off your guard entirely or be just about what you’ve been dreaming about.”

Guggenheim Museum New York Architecture

Stock Photos from ItzaVU/Shutterstock

Guggenheim Museum New York Architecture

Evan-Amos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s this thinking—the distillation of the museum's essence—that makes Guggenheim Museum such an iconic building. The structure itself is incredible with its sweeping curves that have the lyricism of a ribbon, but the feeling you have in that space is equally as important. Standing inside under its dazzling skylight or “oculus,” it is beautiful in its ability to evoke awe and highlight human ingenuity.


Next: Learn more about the design of the Guggenheim Museum.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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