Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry both have titanic reputations in the architecture space, and both designed museums for the Guggenheim Foundation—who came out on top?
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1937 with a straightforward mission—promote the understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. But as the foundation and its collection have grown, modern aesthetics have evolved as well, shifting with the times. Across two continents, two architects—Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry—have both devised landmark architectural schemes to house parts of the collection.
The Guggenheim Foundation has its roots in New York City. In the late 1930s, it became clear that there was a need to build a museum for the foundation’s growing permanent collection. In 1943 Frank Lloyd Wright secured the commission, setting out to build a stacked white cylinder of reinforced concrete featuring “one great space on a continuous floor” with a central atrium measuring 92 feet.
Six months after Wright’s death, the museum was unveiled on October 21, 1959, and it was an instant success. Inside, each sweeping curve creates an intoxicating sense of inertia, owed to the continuity of the space. Visitors are encouraged to start at the top of the museum and work their way down, which underscores the purpose behind its form: The aesthetic appeal of New York’s Guggenheim lies within the experience of the building, where the art and the architecture are not competing for attention, but complement one another.
New York was never going to be anything but a bustling urban capital. Bilbao, on the other hand, was a city with major potential that was sliding downhill, culturally, economically, and commercially. In 1991, the Basque government reached out to the Guggenheim Foundation to suggest that the organization open a new art museum in the city’s then-decrepit port area, once a bustling center of maritime commerce.
When Frank Gehry earned the commission for a new Guggenheim art center in the Basque city, he was handed a cultural carte blanche. With it, he devised a supremely dynamic structure, wrapping his undulating structure in high-octane titanium siding, interspersing glass and limestone throughout its facade. When the building was opened to the public in 1997, architecture critics hailed the structure as the one of the greatest of the century—a feat of engineering and artistry.
Commanding the southern bank of the Nervion River, the museum demands notice—its dazzlingly bright and dynamic exterior catches light and shadow from every angle at all hours of the day, taking on the color of the Spanish skies surrounding it in a brilliant fanfare.
Wright’s Guggenheim very much stands as an icon of Mid-century Modern design, with its pragmatism interwoven into the fabric of the design. A more understated materiality leaves it as the rusty penny next to Gehry’s Guggenheim, but its construction appealed to a different generation of modernity. Gehry’s design may have predated Instagram by over a decade, but its photographability in many ways generated a buzz about a city that, before the 1990s, had laid outside the periphery of the typical world traveler. It stands, then, that the value of each Guggenheim museum exists not in their comparison, but in their respective contextualization—and despite the time that’s passed, both impress with the same intensity and panache as they did when they were first completed.