The Guggenheim Museum, as I outlined in last week’s column, was a landmark from the day it was conceived, always intended to be very different from the typical rectangular buildings that line the streets of Manhattan. The designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, fought back and forth with the young artist/curator, Hilla Rebay, who was assigned to hire and rein in the temperamental Wright, who was 76 when he began the design and 89 when the Guggenheim began construction.
I became curious about Wright’s designs from my interior-designer mother, who dragged me to see Florida Southern College’s 13 buildings when I was a third-grader in Orlando. My mom gushed over the artistry of his architecture. Little did she know what I was to learn in architecture school about the egotistical, politically incorrect, tax-dodging, sex-offending Wright.
He publicly supported Hitler and resisted American participation in World War II — even encouraging his students to go to jail for four years, which a few loyal followers did, rather than honor their draft notices. Wright was eventually sued by the IRS for $2 million, never having paid taxes or even kept records. His design studio “employees” were enrolled students whose wealthy parents paid $20,000 to $35,000 for their college-aged offspring to become laborers, building Wright’s sprawling home and studios in Spring Green, Wis., and Scottsdale, Ariz. The average yearly income was $3,500 at the time and you could buy a new car for less than $1,000, but to work for Wright was priceless.
The book “The Fellowship,” the term used for the cult-like “school,” describes how small individual sleeping rooms had no door locks, and Wright often crept into female and male beds at night. The narcissistic Wright was also a procrastinator with a lavish lifestyle, spending on credit and not paying his bills. He drove red sports cars and wore custom-tailored clothing, including his signature cape and porkpie hat.
When Guggenheim wanted to see the museum designs, Wright, ever the salesman, quickly instructed his students to take the model for a funerary spiral ziggurat just canceled by a shah and turn it upside down. Later he described a parking garage auto ramp he designed, the fluid motion of ascending or descending and how it fit the need for the museum. In the 13 years it took to get New York City approval, engineers grappled with creating steel rod and beam-reinforced concrete cantilevers with very thick outer walls tapering to thinner interior edges overlooking the seven-story atrium. Thus the display space is a continuous circular ramp of balconies.
Recently it took $28 million and four years to repair the crumbling concrete and remove 12 layers of paint from the façade. When you visit, start at the top and walk down. Think about the skill and engineering it took to create this masterpiece. Was Frank Lloyd right? Does he remind you of somebody else, currently in the public eye? History often seems to repeat itself.
© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.