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 Joel's Blog

Classes and a Visit to the Guggenheim (Things You Can Do With Poured Concrete)


This past Saturday Sally and I spent the evening at the Guggenheim Museum. Saturday nights starting at 5:00 PM the museum has a "pay what you wish" admission fee (rather than $25 per adult) so we were greeted with a line that extended around the corner. The night was relatively balmy, and soon enough we were admitted.

The museum's major exhibit was Hilma af Klint. (1862- 1944), a Swedish pioneer of abstract art -- the first major solo show in the US for this artist. Like most huge retrospectives, the exhibit’s quality was a little uneven, but basically I liked some of it. A secondary exhibit of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe featured selections from the Guggenheim’s large collection. The entire museum had the same issue of a superstar (in this case, the building by Frank Lloyd Wright) overshadowing the rest of the cast (all the exhibits).

The Guggenheim building was Wright’s last commission. I grew up on the Upper East Side in its shadow (just a block and a half away). My father remembers seeing Wright standing outside the building during construction taking in the details. As a exhibition space, the Guggenheim has always had a lot of issues. The spiral ramp interior, the odd cul-de-sacs inside -- it's less of a triumph of a museum than it is a triumph of a building. Maybe that's why the building overshadowed the exhibitions. In theory, an exhibition hall should recede into the background as we are overwhelmed by the contents. In this case, the building, despite being a uniform white color, really gets in the way. The art displays are unevenly lit and seem peripheral against the walls while the soaring use of space --- used to good effect when the exhibits are motorcycles or sculptures -- and the people all around the spiral were far more interesting than looking at the pictures on the wall.

The entire building is (looks like) poured concrete and the walls emerge out of the floor too with curves. Elements like the railings are concrete blended into the floor. The walls curve out of the floor, and the railings are integral to the structure.

Not everything in the design is successful. For example, rather than have standard bathrooms on one or two floors, tiny single-user bathrooms are scattered around the each floor of the exhibition space (which after all is like a giant ramp). Each bathroom is smaller than an Amtrak bathroom, strikingly uncomfortable and awkward to use.

Much more charming: the Aye Simon Reading Room, which Wright had designed as repository for his drawings and models of the museum. The architect Richard Meier redesigned it as a library with specially designed curved furniture in keeping with Wright’s spirit. The library is located through a keyhole door on the second floor.

The last exhibit I saw at the Guggenheim was a major work by Matthew Barney. In that exhibit the structure of the museum became part of the exhibit and the space was complemented by the exhibit and didn't fight it.

If you're in the NY area, you can not only go to its many museums -- you also take classes at Tools for Working Wood! Coming up next: Pate's Knockdown Shave Horse and Daniel Clay's Chip Carving classes. We also have offerings in mind for spoon carvers, wood finishers and a construction class. And of course Festool Fest returns on Saturday, April 6th. So stay tuned for more info.

The unisex single bathrooms, mentioned in the blog are on each floor in the large column dead center in the picture

The Richard Meier designed library is small and in a cul-de-sac. But with it's clever curved door and modern furniture I wouldn't mind at all having a room like that in my house

The wide angle lens used to take the picture presents the entire scene but makes the bathroom look bigger than it actually is

Join the conversation
03/13/2019 Benjamin Weisgall
Hi Joel,

A quick note about the Guggenheim's structure. The exterior spiral is not poured concrete but sprayed concrete, or Gunite, which was invented around the turn of the century. It is a noteworthy innovation namely because of the fact that you need less formwork (or sometimes no formwork). It was a relatively common technology by the 50s, but it was used mainly in industrial or infrastructural applications (e.g., dry docks). Other architects were also using sprayed concrete (e.g., Le Corbusier at La Tourette), but it was usually left with a rough sprayed-on texture. In the case of the Guggenheim, it was sprayed from the inside out and sanded smooth (although you can still see the marks of the plywood formwork on the outside). The ramp and railing as well as the radial "ribs" are indeed poured concrete, but both (poured and sprayed) are acting together structurally. I don't know what the joint between the two looks like.

Thank you for your steady and thoughtful blog posts!

03/13/2019 ken De Witt
Thanks for this, love when you do city stuff and have missed them lately. I grew up in Bushwick in the 40's and 50's before moving to Murry Hill.
If I could afford it I would leave the NJ Shore and come back.
03/13/2019 John Schwerdt
We were in NYC a couple of years ago and I had to go to Guggenheim. I did a paper on Frank Lloyd Wright when in HS and the Guggenheim was a large part of that.

Our visit was somewhat less than perfect since they were preparing for a major show and the first floor was packed with crates containing paintings. A lot of the museum was closed. The people working there were mainly concerned that we, the unwashed public, behave ourselves and ask no questions. New York, I guess.

I still enjoyed experiencing the architecture that I had only read about.
03/13/2019 Jeff Polaski
Thank you again. When I visited the Guggenheim, I did take one of the iconic photographs. It is very unique and very photogenic -- for a short while. Silhouettes of people at the large windows is a given success that's hard to mess up.
The bathrooms? I have more respect for my knees at my age.
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