March 7, 2017

Form Equals Function at the Guggenheim

Nine architects design exhibitions in the lauded building


by Catherine Russell


Art collaborations can lead to competing egos and require a skilled negotiator to ensure both aesthetics get the attention they deserve. How art is displayed is as critical to a successful exhibition as the art that is actually on display, and a museum’s choice of exhibitors are as rigorously vetted and critiqued as the artworks themselves. Art aficionados are a verbal group, and the term ‘art critic’ applies equally to art professionals as mere art lovers—nothing goes unnoticed, or unsaid. Twenty-first century architects and designers continue to pay homage to the design philosophy form follows function, practiced by 20th-century architect Louis Sullivan.


The Guggenheim as Laboratory

In a case of the student overshadowing the teacher, architect Frank Lloyd Wright reinterpreted his education in Sullivan’s theory and demonstrated his philosophy form and function are one in his own building designs. The Guggenheim Museum in NYC is the only museum Wright ever designed and exemplifies this philosophy with innovative interiors that are distinctly different from classic museum interiors, where the museum is intended as a backdrop to the artworks. Adored (and occasionally reviled) by enthusiasts of design and architecture alike, The Guggenheim periodically enlists the vision of inventive architects who respect this equality between form and function to create innovative art exhibitions where the installation incorporates the design of the building itself to showcase the art on display; while simultaneously showing off the curves, angles and shadows of The Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim has featured nine exhibitions designed by architects who were chosen based not only on their architectural portfolios and awards, but also for their understanding of design strategy and architectural lighting for public spaces. In each of these exhibitions the innovative yet functional use of lighting incorporated both the museum’s design—curved white walls, fluid exposed ramps, and the prominent rotunda skylight—and the artwork on display to transform Wright’s design into theatre.


Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid Exhibition at the Guggenheim

A 1992 exhibition by architect Zaha HadidThe Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde—was the first occasion an architect was invited to design an exhibition installation for The Guggenheim. She returned in 2006 to stage a retrospective, simply titled Zaha Hadid, for which she curated a wide range of examples of her disciplines—drawings, paintings, sketches, architectural drawings, urban plans, models, relief models, animations, furniture, and design objects—to demonstrate how over time evolving themes influenced her architectural design.

The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968

Gae Aulenti’s design for this 1994 exhibition contrasted with Wright’s circular rotunda by building angular pieces that brought focus to the center of the museum’s open spaces on varying levels of the ramp, introducing new shadows and shapes to the museum design.


The Art of the Motorcycle

Frank Gehry exhibition at the Guggenheim

Frank Gehry designed the much-discussed exhibit in1998, displaying 114 classic motorcycles in the museum rotunda. Controversial due to its bold and shiny display of materialism and commercialism, the exhibit established a new benchmark for crowd-pleasing and profitable exhibitions. He returned in 2001 to design the retrospective Frank Gehry, Architect, highlighting his own evolving architectural design process with the realities of urban planning before the existence of modern computer aided design.

China: 5,000 Years

Architects Gae Aulenti and Arata Isozaki in1998 featured four bold colored banners that streamed down from the top of the museum ramps to organize the display for this exhibition into manageable experiences.

Brazil: Body and Soul

For the 2001 exhibition French architect Jean Nouvel turned the rotunda black and used large-scale lighting to emphasize the juxtaposition of ancient and modern design.

Moving Pictures

A 2002 photography and video exhibit by contemporary architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote Architecture used bright blue foam to create pods that provided soundproofing and sensitive lighting—prominent against the museum walls, they showcased the films and photos on exhibit.


The Aztec Empire: The 3 Degrees of Felt

Norton Yoon exhibition at the Guggenheim

 For the Aztec art exhibit at the Guggenheim in 2004, Meejin Yoon, co-founder of Boston-based architectural firm Howeler + Yoon, collaborated with Enrique Norton, of TEN Arquitectos, to use dark industrial felt to deliver soundproofing and lighting that put the focus on the artifacts featured in the exhibit, and bridged the contemporary museum design with the ancient artworks. The use of a material as commonplace as gray felt was an innovative choice to adapt Wright’s design to display ancient art.

Understanding the competing demands of functional yet attractive lighting is fundamental to designing a creative display space, as exemplified in The Guggenheim Museum’s design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Combined with the need to also showcase the building’s architecture, visionary architects who can meet the challenge offer innovative and beautiful solutions to display art in public spaces.

Footnote: The link for Arata Isozaki leads to a nice profile of the Japanese architect on Archdaily. While on the site, take a moment to read the post featuring the 16 stories behind the 2017 Building of the Year Award Winners—it’s well worth the time. There’s a wonderful salute to Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid on PBS NewsHour that we highly recommend, and the link for Gae Aulenti leads to a touching obituary by The New York Times.

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