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The interior of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on New York's Fifth Avenue in 1959.

Frank Lloyd Wright: The Guggenheim and His Humanist Vision

June 08, 2009
by Devin Felter
The 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s death this year provides us with an opportunity to recount his life and work. One could certainly visit the Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York, but simply setting foot inside the museum, or any of his masterworks, would probably suffice to reawaken his spirit.

Keeping Architecture and Nature in Harmony

The Guggenheim exhibit, which runs through Aug. 23, calls the viewer to consider “the sense of freedom in interior space” in the context of Wright’s work, according to the museum. While this is certainly an appropriate lens through which one might analyze or evaluate his architecture, the idea is by no means new. It hearkens back to the days of “Prairie school,” with its sweeping interiors and seamless spaces.

But it would be a mistake to characterize Wright as valuing space or freedom for its own sake; he was always after something more.

“There isn’t a moment when you are not aware of, and reacting to, his space. This is exactly how [Wright] wanted it,” writes Paul Goldberger in a New Yorker essay on the Guggenheim. This reaction between inhabitant and edifice was a source of perpetual curiosity for Wright. If one looks back to the Unity Temple, one of his early designs, the relationship between man and construct is palpable.
Perhaps the compact space and abandonment of ground level windows account for this sense of intimacy. Like the Guggenheim, Unity Temple was intended to remove visitors from a frenetic exterior (the latter was adjacent to a noisy thoroughfare). In the absence of a natural environment on which to build, Wright strove for a kind of solace. He wanted to remind the public that architecture didn’t have to be at odds with nature.

Building for the Worker and the “Sanctity of Labor”

However, the focus on his affinity for the environment makes it easy to forget how much of a humanist he was.

For Wright, craft took on an existential quality, which is to say that he constructed meaning through his work. So when he presents us with this “sense of freedom,” we shouldn’t be meditating upon this in a vacuum—we should be considering how the space affects us and whether it reveals anything about our own needs as humans. The S.C. Johnson building is emblematic of this humanism, breaking out of the staid rigidity of the modern office with an expansive, invigorating work space.

PBS’s tribute to Wright—an extensive site that includes drawings, photos, history and critical responses to several of his works—describes the Johnson building as a “social vision of the sanctity of labor.”

It wouldn’t be far-reaching to say the same about the Guggenheim, and the works of art within the work of art.

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