MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Fifty years ago, a strange structure was completed on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It looked like it had dropped from outer space. The writer Norman Mailer said it shattered the mood of the neighborhood wantonly and barbarically. It is the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Edward Lifson reports on the museum's legacy 50 years later.
EDWARD LIFSON: When the cream-colored spiral opened 50 years ago, breaking the squared-off style of the apartment buildings it sat against, breaking the idea that buildings have a ground floor, a first floor and so on, breaking the convention that, well, let's just say that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum broke rules of architecture that had existed for centuries.
Wright died shortly before the museum opened in 1959, and Movietone News had the story.
(Soundbite of Movietone News)
Unidentified Man #1: Controversy on which he thrived in life follows Frank Lloyd Wright to his grave with the opening of the cylindrical Guggenheim Museum in New York City. It's being called an inverted oatmeal dish, a hot cross bun…
LIFSON: Wright dismissed his critics in a 1957 CBS interview.
(Soundbite of CBS interview)
Mr. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (Architect): Somebody said the museum out here on Fifth Avenue looked like a washing machine. Well, I've heard a lot of that type of reaction, and I've always discounted it as worthless, and I think it is.
Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) Oh, darling (unintelligible). You're all I need.
LIFSON: In front of the Guggenheim, beneath the outward-leaning spiral, a busker entertains tourists who've come from around the world.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Whether times are good or bad.
LIFSON: Frank Lloyd Wright would likely smile if he heard the man singing about being so faithful to anything other than his work.
Mr. PAUL GOLDBERGER (Architecture Critic, The New Yorker): I think the legacy of this building is in the message that architecture does not have to lie down and play dead in front of art.
LIFSON: New Yorker magazine architecture critic Paul Goldberger.
Mr. GOLDBERGER: That an architect can do something that's powerful in itself and that enhances the experience of looking at art.
LIFSON: In here, a ramp spirals upward. The art is shown along the ramp. You stand on a slight slant and you can't get close enough or far away enough to fully appreciate some pieces.
The executive editor of Metropolis Magazine, Martin C. Pedersen, admires the building, but…
Mr. MARTIN PEDERSEN (Executive Editor, Metropolis Magazine): The whole ramping concourse, I've never once felt comfortable underfoot viewing art. You feel always slightly off-kilter.
LIFSON: That was the intent, says Frank Lloyd Wright scholar and Harvard professor, Neil Levine. Levine says this place works as a museum for many, not all, kinds of art because its space helps the art put you into, in Levine's words, a daydream.
Professor NEIL LEVINE (Harvard University; Frank Lloyd Wright Scholar): It's a space of walking through and being relieved from the normal conditions of the world, where there's no horizon line, there is no straight path, there's no verticals, there are no horizontals. So everything is different from, quote, "the real world."
LIFSON: As were the paintings Guggenheim collected: radical new abstract art for a new world, one suffering from the effects of World War II.
Wright's vision was not fully realized. He wanted visitors to the top, a glass-tube elevator up to the top and chill under a glass sphere with a telescope, classical music and a garden. And then, primed, we'd stroll down the ramps.
Prof. LEVINE: Which would be a very gentle way of perceiving the works of art in the building, and Wright used the phrase, he'd let the elevator do the lifting so the visitor could do the drifting.
LIFSON: Drifting slowly down the ramp today is Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. He worked for Wright while the Guggenheim was going up and now directs the Frank Lloyd Wright archives.
Mr. BRUCE BROOKE PFEIFFER (Director, Frank Lloyd Wright Archives): What's amazing, when you're in the building, when you're on the ramp, you can see where you are, but you can see where you've been and you can see where you're going. And it's as though you are in control of the time-space continuum.
LIFSON: Wright also designed the Guggenheim as a place to see other people and to be seen. It helped usher in the era of museum branding and spawned every freestyled sculptural museum of the past half-century, the most famous of which might be another Guggenheim: the one in Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry.
Gehry's next, the Guggenheim for Abu Dhabi, is moving forward, but in the current economic climate, Frank Gehry says it's getting harder to build works of art with spirit, passion and feeling.
Mr. FRANK GEHRY (Architect): I think that throwing architecture under the bus is being touted by the people who can't do the other, and say wow, we're through with those guys, and now we're going back to straight simple, cold, sterility. It's got to be green, though. As long as it's green, you're okay.
LIFSON: That's today's way to save the world. Fifty years ago, Solomon Guggenheim and his curator thought that experiencing their new kind of art in Wright's new kind of space was, as they said, the only solid way to peace.
So did we get there, or, as in the Guggenheim, are we going around in circles?
For NPR News, I'm Edward Lifson.
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