Architecture as Spectacle: Come Explore the World's Three Guggenheim Museums



Take My Breath Away

The Guggenheim brand has become a buzzword for how architecture and art can go hand in hand to create indelible experiences.


Distinctly New York, but also Decisively Global

The Guggenheim Museum stands as one of the busiest tourist hotspots in New York City but little know that there are other Guggenheim outposts and the past few decades have been marked by candidates who have wanted to bear the name ‘Guggenheim’. However, only three stand open today. New York, Bilbao and Venice.

So what makes these three museums special? Let’s take a careful peek into what sets these museums apart.


Guggenheim Fifth Avenue - The Flagship

The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum is a veritable masterpiece in the architectural landscape of New York City - no easy feat! From its imposing facade to its revolutionary concept (fusing art and architecture), the museum has forged an alternate path, much to the delight of visitors and ire of critics.

At this inception many were skeptical about its revolutionary idea of displaying artworks in a space that allowed all of the pieces on display to be seen in one single glance. In addition, its circular rotundas gives visitors an opportunity to glance upon the reactions and expressions of others in a more of less communal celebration of art.

Unlike other projects of the time, the Guggenheim seemed to break away from the two dominant influences of museum design - the traditional Beaux-Arts pantheon and the more recent 'modern' International Style. Yet, perhaps due to its lack of commercial interests and constraints, the head architect Frank Lloyd Wright was able to have free rein over the design approach and aesthetic of the Guggenheim. In this vein, it was also helpful that the initial goal of the Guggenheim's design was to create a unique and innovative museum space unlike any other. 

There should not be any argument as to how distinct the Guggenheim on 5th Ave is. Setting aside whether it is aesthetically pleasing or not, the fact that the Guggenheim on 5th Ave has garnered emotive responses (someone once remarked that it was 'a freak that astonishes passersby’) is a pretty good achievement. This is especially the case since New York City already has so many architectural icons to sift through.

That being said, the museum could have actually been even more expressive as Wright's original design called for the building's facade to be red, though this was canned due to certain political implications.

Nevertheless, the museum is at its heart a veritable attempt at improving the museum experience for visitors through its subtle design principles. By adopting the circular rotunda, the Guggenheim subtly guides visitors along an invisible but preplanned journey. This interesting choice of structure means that the museum would do a great favour in obviating the need for a map and that its visitors would not end up being confused winding passageways and confusing dead ends. Unlike other museums, the linearity of this design proved to be a boon for museum goers and the many curators that have passed through its doors.

The museum is however not without its critics. Some artists have refused to allow their art to be displayed at the museum for fear that the alluring architectural design of the museum would distract museum goers from the art that was on display. The circular form of its walls would also be challenging vis-a-vis exhibiting 2D art as the latter was conceived for traditional flat-faced spaces. Others have pointed out that the windowless, low ceiling and concrete dominated space of Guggenheim exhibits feels suffocating both for the viewer and the art on display.

To the doubters and naysayers however, the museum has a long proven track record in being able to pull in huge crowds day after day, vindicating its experimental approach to architecture. To this end, we should applaud the various radical ideas of the Guggenheim (and Frank Lloyd Wright) as it strove to create welcoming spaces where people can socialise and discuss works of art in a non-condescending atmosphere. It's not hard then to consider that the Guggenheim is in fact itself a work of art, and the first of its kind. 

If you’re considering visiting the Guggenheim New York, tickets go for $25 per person. There are Guggenheim ‘free days’, every Saturday 5-8pm, where visitors can also pay what they like for admission. $10 is recommended.

The Guggenheim Bilbao at night, photo from  Ander Gillenea via Chicago Tribune

The Guggenheim Bilbao at night, photo from Ander Gillenea via Chicago Tribune

Guggenheim Bilbao - A Testament to Urban Change

Nestled at the centre of the Abandoibarra district, Bilbao, sits a scintillating edifice. Undulating titanium surfaces intersect neatly and the Museo Bilbao Guggenheim gleams softly in the afternoon light. As the sun descends, light glints off its metallic surfaces at different angles. The effect is sublime as the onlooker is made aware of his changing position in relation to space and time as he walks a slow perimeter of the building. And this is very aptly so - the museum's permanent exhibitions revolve around Space and Time. Change is the operative word here and the museum stands as a testament to immense shifts in the economic prospects of this municipality.

The enclave of modern architecture stands in stark, but not jarring, contrast to the surrounding buildings. In the 70s, Bilbao was struck by an industrial crisis as the city’s economy started flagging under a multitude of factors. The ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), a Basque separatist group, ran a campaign of violence, deterring investors while creating political rifts within the city itself. In 1973, an energy crisis left the world in recession and cities reliant on heavy manufacturing were badly hit. This was followed by an outflow of former immigrants working in Bilbao as they returned home following the ensuing unemployment troubles. Bilbao floundered and the economy deteriorated for the next few years. In a bid to rejuvenate the city, urban planners embarked on a bold renewal project in the 90s.

Economic restructuring took precedence and the architectural shift mirrored the city’s pivot away from heavy manufacturing to the knowledge-based technology and services sector. This shored up an infrastructural overhaul, a much needed lifeline for the city.  This ambitious project has proved effective and is still lauded as a model for urban regeneration around the world, leading to what proponents of this grand undertaking term the “Guggenheim Effect”. Bilbao is now the economic centre of the Basque country, and a hub of financial activity.

The architectural elements of a city are not simply an aesthetic statement. It is a show of culture, a way of presenting yourself to the world. Iconic buildings serve as backdrops to famous scenes, altering the world’s perception of the city in popular culture; as first impressions to tourists, drawing in gasps of wonder and awe; and not least as pleasant surroundings for the local populace. Consider the Pyramid du Louvre designed by the iconoclastic architect, I.M Pei. A lightning rod for controversy, the post-modernist addition to the biggest art museum in the world attracted vitriol for a number of reasons: the incongruity with the existing French Renaissance architecture; the perception that it was a brusque, grandiose claim to fame by then-President François Mitterrand; and the architect’s ‘non-qualification’ as a Chinese national to design an installation for the ‘high civilisation’ French. These claims are shocking and similar accusations have been levelled at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

The Guggenheim Bilbao from another angle, photo from  Nerua

The Guggenheim Bilbao from another angle, photo from Nerua

While the movement in Bilbao has not been met with as much contention as the Pyramid du Louvre, critics have lambasted it for taking the heart out of the city. As with any long-established city, a radical change is bound to be met with resistance from traditionalists who find the upheaval effect on the cityscape abhorrent. They argue that the changes, while supposedly invigorating Bilbao, belie the growing split between the elite and ordinary citizens - the shift in industry naturally benefit the educated, capital owning elite.

With respect to the museum itself, some argue that these changes do little to integrate the local culture and, instead, borrow from and rely too heavily on the existing Guggenheim name. Tourism and retail are notoriously fickle revenue sectors and many consider an over-reliance on such unstable sources of income to be precarious. Yet, if the institution’s statistics are to be believed, the museum has reeled €4.2 billion ($6.5 billion) for the Basque Country economy in the past twenty years. An impressive feat to say the least.

Other countries have since then also sought to breathe life into enervated cities, be it other post-industrial like Daugavpils, Latvia with its Mark Rothko Museum, or oil-reliant cities like Abu Dhabi with its very own, newly opened Louvre. Many have attempted to reproduce Bilbao’s success, though to varying degrees. Serious thought should thus be paid to the replicability of the “Guggenheim Effect” - it stands to reason that the city’s relative success, if taken as such, is a result of a concerted effort on Bilbao’s part too.  It seems that cultural renewal is not a ‘plug and play’ solution and certainly not the moral of this Spanish Guggenheim story.

Of the many permanent exhibits, one that caught our attention was “One Hundred and Fifty Multi-colored Marilyns” by Andy Warhol. A retrospective meditation on one of his most famous motifs, the work features 150 prints of Warhol’s Marilyn in varying complementary shades of the original. In this act of replication lies the innumerable potential of a single print, a formula to be tweaked to slightly effect a different result.

Ultimately, we find the Guggenheim in Bilbao a sight to behold and valuable simply for its aesthetic value. While pacing its winding corridors in quiet contemplation of temporality, one might find worth in considering the position of art and architecture as a symbol of changing times and shifting landscapes.

The Guggenheim Bilbao’s tickets cost 17 euros per person.

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, photo from  Guggenheim

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, photo from Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice - A Living Stalwart In A Revered City

As one of the most visited sites in all of Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim is not one to miss especially after you’ve heard about the personality of its namesake. Peggy was born to a very well to do family, one of the branches of the infamous Guggenheims in America, and into a whole world of expectations. For Peggy, the legacy of her uncle, Solomon and his love for art, was what enamoured her the most.

Very early on, Peggy Guggenheim rubbed shoulders with many of the starving artists who lived in the Montparnasse district in Paris. There, she fell in love with the inspired creativity and geniuses of the century’s up and coming painters and poets. By this time however, World War II was about to break out in Europe. And having fled to America in the interregnum, Peggy returned to Venice with her full collection both saved from the war and from those purchased in America, to showcase the collection in the once Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. If you’d like to learn more about the eccentric character of Peggy Guggenheim, there’s a documentary about her life made in 2015.

There’s also talk of having an exhibition of Peggy’s more interesting pieces: the upcoming exhibition ‘Migrating Objects’ celebrates African, Mesoamerican and Oceanic art. Now pay attention as these will be deployed alongside other European pieces as if to mimic a dialogue between civilisations. Which direction this conversation goes however, is purely up to you.

Peggy’s collection in Venice bears similar resemblance to that of her uncle’s in New York: Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism all prominently featuring in rotating exhibitions and even those loaned overseas. Prominent names like Henri Laurens, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock are represented. The space itself is quite modest compared to the other Guggenheim establishments, but the Venetian project has a different aim: to place sole attention on the art. The building though historic, is just a structure to Peggy and her succeeding curators.

Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Venice? Tickets cost 15 euros a pop.

Mr Solomon Guggenheim, the patron of the arts that kicked this whole movement off, photo from  Guggenheim

Mr Solomon Guggenheim, the patron of the arts that kicked this whole movement off, photo from Guggenheim

Art Nourishing the Temple of the Spirit

In the near future, the foundation also expects a new addition (Abu Dhabi) to family due to open sometime in the next decade. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (to be designed by Frank Gehry who also did the Bilbao) is also joining another name-brand institution: the Lourve, in the city’s upcoming Saadiyat Cultural District.

In the meantime, if you do find yourself in New York, Bilbao or Venice, head down to your ‘local’ Guggenheim for an afternoon of cultural nourishment. Apart from appreciating the art, also think about lending your support to a foundation that’s working hard to democratise access to modern and contemporary art.

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