Audio Guide to the Imperfections of a Perfect Masterpiece

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
For the last several months, I’ve been working on something with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It’s a brand new audio tour about the history and design of a truly great work of American architecture. Even if you’ve never been to the Guggenheim, you probably recognize it. From the outside, the building is a light gray spiral, and inside, the art is displayed on one long ramp that curves up towards the glass skylight in the ceiling. There’s no museum like it, and it was made by one of my favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Roman Mars:
What you’re going to hear now is the whole audio tour. If you’re in New York City, you should try and listen to it inside the museum. There are signs on every floor indicating where you should stop. But if you can’t make it to New York, the tour is still really fun and works on its own. The team at the Guggenheim were generous enough to allow me to create a different kind of audio tour that feels like walking through the building with an extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable friend rather than a formal architecture professor. I hope you like it.

Roman Mars:
We’re going to post an episode guide with photos on our website at 99pi.org so you can follow along at home. But I think you can close your eyes and imagine and still enjoy all the stories. Here’s the first stop. If you’re in the building, start playing this in the lobby of the rotunda.

Roman Mars:
Welcome to the Guggenheim Museum. I’m Roman Mars, the creator and host of the design and architecture podcast, 99% Invisible. The Guggenheim Museum is an architectural masterpiece made by a master of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. In 2019, UNESCO selected eight buildings designed by Wright, including the Guggenheim, to be a world heritage site. UNESCO sites are considered vital to the collective interests of humanity. Yellowstone is a heritage site, so is the Grand Canyon.

Roman Mars:
Of the world heritage properties in America, 12 were made by God, eight were made by Frank Lloyd Wright. When co-founder and first director of the Guggenheim Museum, Hillary Bay, commissioned this building, she said she wanted a temple of spirit and Wright design one for her. Here’s the director of the Guggenheim, Richard Armstrong.

Richard Armstrong:
I feel now when I look up into that dome, I’m actually looking at a very beautiful abstraction of a rose window in a cathedral. I’m in awe.

Roman Mars:
So we’re going to take the genius of this building as a given. It’s great. What I’m going to focus on are the oddities, the accretions, the interventions that reveal a different kind of genius, not just the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright and his bold, original vision, but the genius of all the people that made this building function, adapt and grow over the decades. Frank Lloyd Wright was the originator of a concept called organic architecture. You might look around and see how this entire building resembles a seashell, and you might think, “Oh, cool, well, that must be organic architecture.” But sorry, that’s actually not what he meant.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
Really, for Frank Lloyd Wright, organic architecture was more about the metaphor of a living organism.

Roman Mars:
This is Ashley Mendelson, the Guggenheim’s assistant curator of architecture and digital initiatives.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
And actually, when he was on the site, he referred to the steel as the tendons and the muscles of the building, the concrete as the fatty tissue and the waterproof paint as the skin.

Roman Mars:
So we’re going to explore, touch and even dance with this living organism of a building and witness the evolution that’s occurred within these curved walls. The next stop is by the second-floor elevators on the main ramp. Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan was for the Guggenheim to be a top down museum. Originally, visitors were supposed to ride the elevator to the top of the spiral ramp and walk down. That’s where the exhibitions all started.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
I’ve seen many images of old installation views from the 60s into the 70s where that’s where the intro text was. Initially, the exhibitions were planned from top-down, starting on ramp five, get out of the elevator. The entrance name of the exhibition was right in front of you and you walked down to see it.

Roman Mars:
But over time, curators started programming from the bottom up. It just felt natural. Also, the Guggenheim does a lot of retrospectives, focusing on one artist from their early work to the late stuff.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
Many artists over the course of their careers, their work got larger in scale. And so if you’re doing a retrospective where you’re starting with the early work, which is small and then moving to a larger work, it makes sense to start at the bottom because the display spaces in the building get bigger and bigger as you move up in space.

Roman Mars:
But if you want to be a Frank Lloyd Wright originalist and you really need to walk down from the top of the Guggenheim, you might have company as you ride up the elevator.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
I think, still 15 to 20% of people take the elevator up. And it’s probably because they heard that that’s how Frank Lloyd Wright intended and they want to see it that way. And so most designers and curators plan for it to be experienced both ways. And in fact, most visitors that I talk to walk up and then walk down. So it makes sense that the show should be able to read in both ways.

Roman Mars:
This isn’t the only big difference from how Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the Guggenheim. His blueprints included plans for a second spiral ramp that would protrude out into the center of the rotunda. It was going to be twice as steep as the corkscrew ramp you’re standing on right now. He called it ‘the quick ramp’ and it was supposed to make it faster to get between floors.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
And Frank Lloyd Wright, in the description said, “Feel the pull of gravity as you walk down the grand ramp, and for quick and easy access between ramps, take the quick ramp from which is really good.”

Roman Mars:
But on the quick ramp, you’d feel gravity’s pull a little too much. The design was way too steep. It was more like a quick slide. So it never got built. But the quick ramp still influenced the final design of the museum. You’ll notice the hole in the center of the rotunda. It’s not a perfect circle. And the ramp you’re on right now is not a perfect spiral. There’s a semi-circle that juts out into the rotunda, that’s called ‘the bump-out’.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
The bump-out used to be part of the quick ramp. When you see that, then you understand that every curve actually belongs to a circle somewhere. They all had a reason for being there.

Roman Mars:
Sadly, we missed out on the opportunity to slide our way down the Guggenheim but the stairs we got as an alternative route between floors are still pretty delightful. You can find them in the hallways behind the elevator doors. They twist up the building in a triangle and add another lovely pure form to the museum. The next stop is by the third-floor elevators on the main ramp.

Roman Mars:
As you walk up the ramp in the rotunda, place your hand on the parapet. That’s the low wall separating the ramp from the void in the center. The first thing you notice is that it’s very low. If it were built today, let’s be honest, it’d probably be a couple inches taller. The other thing you’ll notice is that even though the building is composed of these pure forms like circles and spirals, the top of the parapet isn’t perfectly rounded or finished off with a crisp right angle. It’s bumpy and uneven.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
So the reason why the parapet is kind of lumpy in that way is because we touch up paint truly every day when the museum’s not open, and that’s because the building’s white and so it gets dirty. You’d have to really close the whole building and have it closed for, I don’t know, a full week or something if you were to truly repaint the interior. And so instead, we touch up here and there. And for that reason, everything has a texture.

Roman Mars:
You have an effect on this building. By being here and touching this railing, you’ve changed it. It’s changing texture is part of its evolution as an organic structure.

Roman Mars:
Okay, stay right here. This is the second stop on the third floor. Constructing Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of a spiral museum was not an easy feat to pull off. Wright oversaw the work. But a local architect named William Short was in charge of the project on the ground and George Cohen was the general contractor. In the three years it took to build the Guggenheim, they came to the realization that some of Wright’s ideas were not going to be doable. Like the idea of making the building a self-supporting spiral.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
If you imagine a slinky or something in the way that the wire, just because it’s in tension in that way, is holding itself together. That’s what he said early on.

Roman Mars:
So instead of a self-supporting spiral, they used something called web walls. Look at the floor across from you. Those thin walls that you see that jut out from floor to ceiling, those are actually all connected. Those are the web walls. They hold this whole building together.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
These vertical walls, which extend all the way up into the Oculus, the combination of all of those together is the structural skeleton of the building. Everything else hangs off of it. The ramp hangs off of it. The exterior walls hang off of it.

Roman Mars:
They had to solve the problem of making a curving spiral building no one had even imagined before, much less built. And they did it with gunite. Gunite is concrete that is shot out of a hose at high velocity. You spray it against a mold. It drives real fast and takes on the shape of the mold. It was Wright’s idea to use this pretty novel technology when the building was constructed. If you look closely and the sun is just right, you can see an angle checkerboard pattern of lines that betray the form of the plywood molds that created the shape of the outer wall.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
They had hired a subcontractor to do the gunite. And because they didn’t think about the formwork being expressed, the gunite formwork is placed on like a real angle, which is not consistent, and it’s just because they didn’t think you would see it and so they just made their pattern work, as you do.

Roman Mars:
The pattern is a result of the gunite construction. And Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t like the fact that it was visible. But George Cohen convinced them and actually exemplified the principles of architectural honesty that Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernists championed. In many ways, George Cohen is the undersung hero of the Guggenheim, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s respect for him is clear. Right by the front entrance, George Cohen’s name is written in metal, embedded on the exterior wall alongside a red square that serves as Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature. This was the only time Wright ever put the general contractor’s name on a building.

Roman Mars:
For the next stop, head over to the cafe off the ramp on the third floor. Look out the window and you’ll see the outer facade up close. There are two cool things to know about the facade of Guggenheim. First is the color. It’s very different from when the building opened. It wasn’t this whitish gray, it was more of a beige yellow. Frank Lloyd Wright called the original color buff.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
There are really great photos of that. It almost looks more like a sandcastle has a very different feeling than it does now.

Roman Mars:
To create buff, they used a special waterproof paint called cocoon. Eight years after the building opened, the exterior needed to be repainted. So the museum staff went to the manufacturer of cocoon paint and discovered they no longer had buff.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
So that original color buff was no longer on the market, the first time they repainted the building. So they ended up going with a slightly lighter shade. And over the years, they used a bunch of different colors, more of a stark white, and currently, it’s gray. People perceive that to be white, but it’s actually gray.

Roman Mars:
After the building was awarded landmark status, the Guggenheim went through a restoration, and it created an interesting conundrum paint wise. Should the museum stick with the light gray everyone had grown accustomed to or roll back time and repaint the Guggenheim, the original yellow buff color? In the end, they chose light gray. It’s the color everyone associates with the museum today. The second thing to know about the facade is that it’s not structural. The concrete just hangs off the framework of the building and doesn’t hold anything up. It’s super thin. In places, the concrete is less than five inches thick. There are notes in the archives, warning workers not to use nails that are too long when hanging the artwork. The nails could go right through to the outside.

Roman Mars:
Okay, stay right here. This is the second cafe stop. So right now, you’re in the cafe, which is also standing on the third floor of a second smaller rotunda. I know it doesn’t look like it. Right? Originally, Frank Lloyd Wright wanted all of the Guggenheim staff to work in this building. He called this space ‘the monitor’, although nobody’s entirely sure why.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
I really couldn’t find a good description. But Frank Lloyd Wright always referred to it as the monitor in all correspondences, like he really dubbed it that. My guess is that because it was the administrative building, it’s kind of monitoring everyone else.

Roman Mars:
People used to have desks and lamps and family photos and they sat right where you’re standing, but it was a pretty cramped space and awkwardly shaped.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
This overall almond/football shape that you see as a stairwell, that shape kind of repeats throughout the building. And all of this is original. It’s always been here. So if you’re trying to imagine this being an office space, everything had to work around these forms.

Roman Mars:
The offices were kind of like railroad apartments. There was no hallway. So if you had a desk at the back window, you had to walk through everyone else’s office just to go to lunch. Today, the museum staff mostly work off-site in a downtown location and the monitor has become public gallery space and home to the Guggenheim cafe and gift shop. Now, you see that little wall in the corner, the one that looks like a balcony, well walk over there and take a look down. You’ll see a gallery. That gallery is actually part of a 10 story tower that’s connected to the museum. You probably didn’t notice the tower behind the main building when you came in. Nobody does. And that’s kind of the point.

Roman Mars:
It was built in 1992 by the architecture firm Gwathmey Siegel, and it replaced an older tower built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law. The problem with the old tower was that it was just a bit much. Ashley pulled out a photo of it and just listen to her, try to describe it.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
So this tower is kind of two intersecting boxes, one tall vertical box which is the elevator core, and then this rectangular box which is cantilevered so it’s hanging off of that thing. And both of them have these vertical stripes, hexagonal windows. It’s just a pattern of hexagons all over the facade. It’s wild too because I feel like it’s completely fallen out of everyone’s memory.

Roman Mars:
Seriously, look it up on your phone or when you get home. It was wild. It looks a bit like 70s sci-fi architecture. I kind of love it. But it actually stole attention away from the museum.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
And the Gwathmey Siegel tower does such a good job of just looking like it was always meant to be there and allowing the original Frank Lloyd Wright building to really shine. It just acts as a backdrop. And so I think that’s why that design is so great.

Roman Mars:
We’re going to place a billboard right here in the middle of the Guggenheim so we can pay some bills. We’ll be right back.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
The next stop is by the fourth-floor elevators on the main ramp. Take a look at the ramp you’re standing on. If you hang a picture with a slanted floor like this one, how would you do it? Would you make it straight or would you try to hang it to match the angle of the floor? Frank Lloyd Wright designed a third option. He made bays throughout the building which slope backwards where you can hang paintings.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
Wright really thought about a bay as a comprehensive display system. So the back wall is at an angle, approximately 105 degrees, which is really similar to an easel.

Roman Mars:
The problem with the easel plan is that it’s hard to look at paintings when they’re tilting away from you. That’s not how artists and curators wanted it. Look out into the rotunda. If the exhibition on display right now has paintings, you’ll notice that many of them appear to be floating in space. That’s the Guggenheim’s signature way of hanging paintings.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
You can’t see the hanging mechanism. It’s hiding behind the painting. If we were able to get on a real angle and look back, you would be able to see where that hanging mechanism is, and all of it is behind there. And so that’s why you get that really nice shadow there and the shadow doesn’t have any of the hanging mechanism. It’s just the piece itself.

Roman Mars:
I’m not going to sugarcoat this. The installation team has a very hard job here. They have to figure out a new plan for each work of art and for each part of the building, because the bays get larger as you go up. Now here’s another thing about the rotunda. If you look up, you’ll see works of art. If you look across, you’ll see works of art there too. Down, there’s more art. You’re surrounded by art.

Roman Mars:
Nancy Spector is the artistic director and Jennifer and David Stockman chief curator at the Guggenheim.

Nancy Spector:
For some people, it can be a religious experience. It’s so profound to stand there with that work of art or works of art. Then on top of that, you have the ability to look across the rotunda, and see where you’re going and where you’ve come from. So you have a chance to revisit from a distance.

Roman Mars:
The Guggenheim is the only museum in town without a backstage area where staff can prepare new exhibits. And that means if you come during a change over period between exhibitions, you get to see the new exhibit taking shape right before your eyes. Nancy says installing art in the Guggenheim is a totally unique challenge, but it’s a challenge she loves.

Nancy Spector:
My education has been in a round building with very strange leaning walls and inclined ramps so it is my normal. I’ve always spoken about the building as a catalyst and that it challenges us over and over and over again.

Roman Mars:
And one of those challenges is that Nancy has to literally walk laps around the building to see if the placement of each work of art is just right.

Nancy Spector:
When you’re installing, you’re constantly walking around the circle. It changes at every vantage point. So one has to kind of understand that.

Roman Mars:
The progression of the continuous ramp encourages viewers to look at each piece of art in a particular order. The order of the art tells a story.

Nancy Spector:
In terms of the structure of the museum, it really invites sequential looking in a way that a square or rectangular room doesn’t. I really do like building a story, making an argument in space. That, for me, having worked here for so long, it’s easier to do on the ramps, which again, unfold sequentially versus a room that basically tells you the story immediately.

Roman Mars:
But you as a visitor to the Guggenheim also have control over the story. You can choose to take in the art across the rotunda or the bay right in front of you. You can follow along with the story being told or choose your own adventure and see what you discover.

Roman Mars:
The next stop is by the fifth-floor elevators, on the main ramp.

Christopher George:
My name is Christopher George. I’m the director of the fabrication department.

Richard Avery:
Richard Avery, senior facilities manager.

Roman Mars:
Christopher and Richard are part of the team that installs new exhibitions in this building. They’ve hung full-sized cars and oversized cat skeletons to fill the center void. In this unusual space, each exhibition is a feat of engineering that has to be planned perfectly, but there’s only so much planning that can happen.

Christopher George:
Obviously, there’s no Guggenheim rotunda that we can go to and practice. We make the best with the spaces available. And then hopefully everything comes together well when it’s time for the actual installation.

Roman Mars:
Once you solve the problem of hanging a chandelier made of nine cars, you do not want to have to start from scratch the next time an artist wants to display something audacious in the rotunda. So some of the anchor points are still left in place. Look up. There are concrete support walls, they’re called web walls, that hold up the whole building and converge in the skyline. If you look very carefully, you’ll notice stainless steel circles all over them. Those are rigging points, places where cables and pulleys have been attached over the years. Each point has a name.

Christopher George:
So we’ve actually named them according to the artists that they were initially installed for. So we have rigging points that we call the Flavin points for when there was the Flavin Light Tower installed. We have them for Frank Gehry, the Gehry points from when we installed the sets of hanging aluminum.

Roman Mars:
Throughout the museum, there are lots of bolts and hooks that unveil how old exhibitions were displayed. These are the leftovers of something amazing that happened here. It’s not just on the ceilings and walls. The floors have them too. As you walk on the ramps, look down to the terrazzo floor.

Richard Avery:
You’ll see a lot of dark circular depressions in the floor.

Roman Mars:
Installing level sculptures on a slanted floor requires a lot of forethought, and power tools.

Richard Avery:
Say for installing pedestals or platforms or stanchions, or even some pieces of art, they need to be affixed to the floor.

Roman Mars:
But here’s the thing with a sloped floor, if a sculpture needs to be moved for any reason, you can’t just pick up the pedestal and shift it a couple of inches. The angle might be wrong, so you have to recut the whole pedestal and do it over again, affixing it to the floor at another point. That’s why the anchor points in the floor aren’t as reusable from exhibition to exhibition. There’s no point in leaving them there, so the Guggenheim fixes them. But fully repairing the terrazzo isn’t easy. There are only a few companies that know how to fix this kind of flooring, including one guy who has worked with the Guggenheim. His name is Larry. Larry’s good, but unfortunately, Larry’s now retired.

Richard Avery:
We’re having him actually train some of the museum staff so that we’ll still have the skillset in hand to continue with these repairs ourselves.

Roman Mars:
These divots and pockmarks are ghosts, tiny reminders of past exhibitions.

Richard Avery:
Some you’ve done yourself and you kind of remember putting those holes in the floor, but one day they’ll all be gone and they’ll just be memories.

Roman Mars:
The final stop is by the sixth four elevators, on the main ramp. When you reach the final revolution at the top of the spiral ramp, look down at the terrazzo floor. You’ll notice that the pattern changes. Most of the floor in the ramp has a repeating circular pattern, but at this point, the pattern turns to square.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
And so that, initially, showed the boundary between public and private space.

Roman Mars:
In the early days of the Guggenheim, you could not go past this line. There’s some debate as to what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted, but as best we can tell, this part was not supposed to be gallery space.

Ashley Mendelsohn:
This was never exhibition space, which is hard for you to imagine, it’s so beautiful up here. Everyone loves these spaces.

Roman Mars:
In the early days, this space was used for storage. But here it is now open to the public, and you have a lovely opportunity to transgress and trespass into what was once forbidden territory. Do it with me. Take one step over into the squares. According to the original plans, you were not supposed to be here. Now step back. The ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright is at peace.

Roman Mars:
Okay, step over again into the forbidden zone. Look at you, you urban explorer. It feels good, doesn’t it? Now step back and keep going, back and forth, and dance with the Guggenheim. If there is any piece of architecture worth dancing about. This is it.

Roman Mars:
This tour of the Guggenheim museum, which I called ‘An Audio Guide to the Imperfections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Perfect Masterpiece’, was produced by me, Roman Mars, Chris Berube, and Sofia Klatzker. Mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef. Music by Sean Real.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to everyone at the Guggenheim Museum for allowing me to make this. Especially Caitlin Dover and Laura Kleger, who cooked up this whole idea, and Ashley Mendelsohn for being our guide in this guide.

Roman Mars:
We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. 99% invisible is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. We have pictures of the different Guggenheim museum stops and all kinds of fun stuff at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

The tour, called “An Audio Guide to the Imperfections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Perfect Masterpiece,” was produced by Roman Mars, Chris Berube, and Sofia Klatzker.

Special thanks to Samantha Lee for production assistance, and to Caitlin Dover and Laura Kleger from the Guggenheim Museum, who cooked up this whole idea. A very special thank you to Ashley Mendelsohn of the Guggenheim for guiding the tour and for her editorial input.

  1. Kokoro

    I love this and I haven’t even finished the episode yet.

    I hope you can do episodes like this for all the museums in New York City, if not across the US. I’ve had to play this role when showing friends around museums. Even if they’re not interested in what the museum might have to offer, I try to get them interested in the architecture and it always works!

  2. Isherwood

    Great episode!

    Just a thought, the monitor section of the building when seen from above is a very similar shape to the civil war ship The Monitor. From the right angle, it looks like a tiny ship being sucked into a whirlpool. Just a thought, and thanks again!

  3. John Horne

    I loved this episode! Came to see the photos as I have never had a chance to visit the museum.

  4. Theodor Rzad

    I have what I think is a reasonable explanation for why FLW referred to the 3rd floor Admin space as the “Monitor”. The space is captured by raising a section of the elevated plinth which also serves as a roof over the garage. A popped-up section of roof, often glazed as is the Guggenheim’s admin wing, is commonly called a ‘monitor’.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monitor_(architecture)

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