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Using the Physical ,Economic, Socio-cultural -political and Technological Contexts of Building approach describe and analyse the Guggenheim museum in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in comparison with the National Gallery in London by William Wilkins.
Throughout history, galleries have exhibited creative architectural form at its best. In fact the architecture of many galleries can be considered to be a piece of art itself. Both the Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the National Gallery in London, designed by William Wilkins, are essential buildings in architectural history. Despite being stylistically in opposition the objective of both these structures is to display man's utmost creative achievements. By comparing and contrasting their economic, cultural, political and historical circumstances, I will analyse the architectural similarities and differences between the National Gallery, a gallery of the 19th century and the Guggenheim, a gallery of the 20th century.
The National Gallery and the Guggenheim museum were designed and built in respective cultural conditions that vastly influenced their development and construction. The art and culture of 1960's New York was blooming into a period of thriving Modernism and Minimalism. The Guggenheim Museum presents a superb rendition of the architectural styles of its era with 'it's snail- like exterior and spiral ramp inside' ( Wilkinson 2009). The Guggenheim separated itself from New York's conventional structures of 'skyscrapers and brownstones, of straight avenues and rectangular city blocks, this is a structure based on circles and spirals'(Wilkinson 2009) . The Guggenheim museum was built to house the Guggenheim collection and was designed to be an iconic museum 'unlike any other'(Wilkinson 2009) , however, the National Gallery in London was initially built as a status symbol. In the early nineteenth century, king George IV recognised that art galleries were being built and opened to the public in numerous European cities. In 1824 George Iv, not wanting the country to seem inferior, persuaded the English government to purchase, the first residence of The National Gallery, the house of the just deceased art collector John Julius Angerstein. Angerstein's House was ridiculed by the press due to the size of the building in comparison to other European Galleries of its era. Therefore, in 1831 it was determined by Parliament to construct a new building for the National Gallery on the site of the King's Mews in Charing Cross, on Trafalgar Square.
The location of the structure is a significant factor for both projects. During the 18th century there was a vast social and cultural divide between the citizens of London. The site of King's Mews in Charing Cross, on Trafalgar Square was primarily selected to enable the National Gallery to be accessed by citizens of all social classes. Situated between the wealthy West End and subordinate areas to the east, the location was extremely important to the project. However, due to a barracks and a workhouse being located directly behind the Kings Mews, the site merely allowed the structure to be one room in width. Also the porticoes on the eastern and western surfaces of the façade were erected to allow access to the public right of way that ran through the building significantly affecting its design. On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright was clearly displeased by New York being the location for the Guggenheim as 'to Wright the city was overbuilt, overpopulated, and lacked architectural merit' (Drutt 2014). Wright was more accustomed to designing architecture for remote areas of the United States as almost all of his previous buildings had not been located in the busyness of a large city. Nevertheless, Wright decided on the current site of Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets as its proximity to Central Park was essential. Wright believed that Central Park was as close as you could get to the natural world in New York and that it offered a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city.
There is a huge contrast in exterior architectural design and style between the exteriors of Wilkins and Wrights structures. Wrights is not only placed close to the most natural part of New York but also draws its inspiration from nature. 'The Guggenheim Museum is an embodiment of Wright's attempts to render the inherent plasticity of organic forms in architecture' (Drutt 2014). The exterior focal point of the museum is a reinforced concrete spiral, smaller at the bottom and widening towards the top creating a graphic, shell like exterior swirling towards the sky. Wright's structure appears to be reminiscent of an inverted ziggurat as the shell like exterior of this Guggenheim is similar to the successive stages of the Mesopotamian temples that date back from the third millennium B.C. This may be due to Rebays request for Wright to build a "temple of the arts" as referenced by Jane Turner in the Grove Dictionary of Art, Vol. 33. Or perhaps Wright even took inspiration from the Tower of Babel due to the religious referencing in his instructions. Moreover, William Wilkins design also looks back in time for inspiration with its neo-classical columns and protruding portico. Wilkins structure is influenced by the Classical period of Greek and Roman architecture. This distinctive style is clearly present in the galleys lavish portico, a porch leading to the entrance of the building covered by a roof held up by columns. The Galleries columns are carved with a fluted (grooved) shaft and extravagant ornaments that flare upwards and resemble foliage and flowers, such as the acanthus leaves, all typical features of a Corinthian column. Wilkins hoped his structure to be a "Temple of the Arts, nurturing contemporary art through historical example". However, the commission was blighted by frugality and compromise and therefore the consequential structure was, almost on all accounts, considered a failure. Wrights building, nevertheless, was a great success. His juxtaposition of the spiralling focal point with the sweeping canopy that extends above the entrance really expresses Wright's unique perception on modernist architecture's strict geometry.
The interior of these buildings reinforces the architectural styles of their era. While the National Gallery was being designed in the early 19th century Neo-classical architecture was in style. The Neoclassical style consumes this building from the high ceilings to the decorative trim on the walls, reflecting the regal, classical style of art work on show in the gallery. Even when visiting the building today we can still observe the wonderful refined details of the interior of the rotunda. This central feature of the building reminded me of the Vatican Gallery in Rome with its gold leaved carvings, delicate mosaics and interior Corinthian marble columns, giving this breath taking room a Romanesque feel. On the other hand, the Guggenheims interior is just as dramatic as its exterior and is clearly influenced by the bold modern art that was going on display in the gallery. The spiral of his exterior structure is mirrored in the integral 400m spiral rotunda, a sort of modernist adaptation of the colossal staircases found in refined and luxurious American structures. When designing the Guggenheim, Wright decided to take an unconventional approach to gallery design by taking visitors to the top of the spiral structure in the lift and let them start walking down towards the exit of the gallery, preventing them from having to .retrace their journey and walk back down the spiral when leaving. The artworks themselves are displayed in separate segments along the continuous ramp, ' divided like the membranes in citrus fruit, with self-contained yet interdependent sections' (Drutt 2014) also comparable to 'a nautilus shell, with continuous spaces flowing freely one into another.'(Drutt 2014). However, some critics have complained that the organic shape of the building did not suit its purpose. The spiral staircase forced the visitors to always view the artwork from an angle and the walls were fairly low for a museum obstructing several of the paintings from being displayed correctly. On the other hand, the terrazzo floors o f the open rotunda allows visitors to uniquely view several sections of work on different levels and from different angles. Additionally both the Guggenheim and the National Gallery boast a dome on top of their buildings, an architectural design dating back to the era of Classical Roman architecture, such as the pantheon. Although both domes are made out of glass to bring light into the buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright utilize this large expanse of glass to make the structure feel open to the elements and nature and to further establish a sense of tranquillity in such a chaotic city.
Time both evolves and takes it's toll on architectural structures. Both the Guggenheim and the National Gallery have had their fair share of extensions and renovations. During the second world war the gallery sustained serious damage from the London bombing raids, leaving many of the exhibition rooms needing extensive repair. The structure had to eventually go under restoration when it re-opened after the war, mainly to rebuild rooms and to remove the Tarpaulin and corrugated iron that had been used as a last resort to replace sections of the roof. In 1965 the Guggenheim was also renovated, however, this was not due to damage but to accommodate the museums expanding permanent collection in the small rotunda. On the other hand, Wrights original plan for a tower wasn't realized until the restoration and extension of 1968, completing Wright's vision 35 years after beginning construction. The National Gallery also acquired an extension in 1991 designed in by postmodernist architects, Robert VenturiandDenise Scott Brown. This building in comparison with the opulent embellishment of the original structure, was much plainer and simpler taking apparent inspiration from Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Gallery was designed to create a focal point by aligning the Galleries to create an extending corridor, ornamented with columns that draws the eye to the focal point. Nevertheless, the price of wales disliked the extension profusely and openly made a speech comparing it to a "monstrouscarbuncleon the face of a much-loved and elegant friend". Moreover, in 1992 the Guggenheim was renovated again due to lack of insulation causing condensation problems. This was fixed by fixing strips of carbon fibre inside the concrete structure of this building to form an shield of protection. According to Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times, due to the poor quality of construction the building was 'stripped of as many as 11 layers of paint, and experts conducted a 17-month survey of thousands of cracks of varying magnitude in the facade.'
Changes in usage
The Guggenheim Museum and the London National Art Gallery are excellent structures in their own right and both represent a turning point in the Architectural history of their culture and typology.
Published: September 10, 2007 New York Times The Restorers’ Art of the Invisible