PRINT January 2001


the “Wall Street Guggenheim”

LOS ANGELES ARCHITECT Frank O. Gehry’s voluptuous designs for the new downtown Manhattan headquarters of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have often been described as “cloudlike.” With its sweeping, expressive forms, the massive building that will rise on stilts from the East River certainly merits the adjective. But the term applies just as aptly to the tensions that hover over the project. A nimbus, after all, describes not only an aura of splendor, but also the harbinger of storms.

Supporters say the ambitious new museum Gehry’s first major building project in New York City, will create thousands of permanent jobs, generate millions of dollars for the city, and put Manhattan back on the architectural map. New York city mayor Rudolph Giuliani has pledged four city piers and $67.8 million in city assistance; Robert Rauschenberg, one of the project’s most high-profile fans, has promised to donate 2,000 of his works to the Guggenheim on the building’s completion. Opponents of the project argue that it will pose environmental problems for the river, congest traffic, and disfigure the city’s beloved skyline and waterfront. The operatic structure, which is to rise forty stories, will sit high atop a series of “super pylons” attached to the riverbed, so as not to obstruct views of the water from the financial district’s streets or deprive the area of light; still, some community groups claim that the sprawling building will block views of a neighboring architectural wonder, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Despite such fears, in late November the Guggenheim won a major victory: The city’s Economic Development Corporation rejected competing plans (including those for a floating hotel) to develop piers 9, 11, 13, and 14 and chose the museum’s proposal. “Our expectation is to immediately begin the two-year design and development phase,” said Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. “Once this process is complete, we anticipate the construction will be carried out in three to four years.” Before construction can start, however, the institution faces a series of obstacles: city, state, and federal approval, as well as a hefty fund-raising goal of a reported $200 million for an endowment, beyond the $678 million needed to build the structure—a drive that goes head-to-head with the Museum of Modern Art’s $650 million campaign for its own expansion plans.

Gehry’s vision for the waterfront should come as no surprise to the public: Last April the Guggenheim mounted an exhibition featuring plans for the new building. Although reminiscent of his popular Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, whose undulating curves of slick glass and shiny titanium were applauded by architecture critics and lay people alike when it debuted in 1997, the new museum is even more outré than its precedent and, at a whopping 570,000 square feet, double the size of the Bilbao building. The project may be the latest in Krens’s ongoing quest to add to the growing Guggenheim empire, which currently includes five branches around the globe, but it is also fueled by the institution’s need for more exhibition space. Though the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright edifice on Fifth Avenue was supplemented with a ten-story wing and a SoHo branch in 1992, the museum required still more galleries to showcase its permanent collection as well as house large-scale contemporary installations. The new complex will provide 200,000 square feet of exhibition space, four times that of the Wright building; about 75,000 square feet will be used to show the Guggenheim’s postwar permanent collection, and 60,000 square feet will be devoted to architecture, design, and multimedia art. (Uptown, the Guggenheim’s permanent collection of prewar art will be continuously on view.) Additionally, 23,000 square feet is parceled out for a Center for Arts Education. Gehry’s building will also include a Performing Arts Center, consisting of one 1,200-seat and one 400-seat theater. About 279,000 square feet of public park, encompassing a skating rink, walkways, and outdoor sculpture areas, will complement the museum. The design, however, isn’t final, and already has been modified: Between the April exhibition and early December, plans to include condos in the tower were scrapped.

Gehry is known for his insistence that his buildings refer to the culture and context of their environs. That the new Guggenheim will rise like a leviathan in the Financial District, the epicenter of the capitalist world, near South Street Seaport, a tourist attraction flush with popular chain stores like J.Crew, is appropriate: With its monstrous size, steep price tag, and brand-name recognition, the structure, already unofficially dubbed the Wall Street Guggenheim, will ostensibly stand as a monument to the ultramaterialism of its surroundings as well as to Krens’s aggressive, big-budget bid to ensure the institution’s ubiquity. Still, perhaps it’s time to inject some new life into Manhattan’s increasingly dated architectural landscape. Skeptics may claim that the new building will disrupt the city’s mythic silhouette, but the twin towers of the World Trade Center did so a generation ago, and now it’s hard to imagine New York without them. How easily some forget that even Wright’s treasured Fifth Avenue spiral once seemed incongruous on the Upper East Side. Gehry’s Wall Street colossus would carry on not only the Guggenheim’s legacy of architectural risk taking, but New York’s as well.

Reena Jana is an arts journalist based in New York.