museumgoing (or, my continued attempt to remind myself that there's more to life than politics)

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to spend some time in two buildings that I hadn’t been in for some years: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and I. M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art on the Mall in Washington. Some thoughts that struck me as I contemplated these buildings and compared them to each other:

First, the geometrical playfulness that each exhibits. Wright’s Guggenheim is all about the spiral, Pei’s East Building all about the triangle, but both architects have fun with the shapes. If it weren’t for all the New Yorkers striving for reverent solemnity in Wright’s Temple of Modern Art, you’d want to smile upon entering the Guggenheim and crane your head to the ceiling. No stairs! Just a long smooth ramp up up up! The non-European tourists do smile, God bless them. (On the day I was there there were a lot of Germans — the big annual German-American parade started around noon just a few blocks down Fifth Avenue: relevant? — and they were just as solemn as the locals.)

The outside of the building ought to be just as much fun but isn’t, quite, because it’s notoriously hard to get a good look at. Because it sits opposite a walled section of Central Park you can’t get far enough away from it to frame it in relation to its neighbors — you have to go up or down Fifth Avenue and view it at an angle. This prevents you from seeing just what a huge practical joke it is on its rectilinear neighbors. Oh well.

Establishing a proper distance for seeing is really the whole problem with the Guggenheim. Just as the pedestrian on Fifth can’t get a good perspective on the building, so the art viewer within can’t get far enough away from the artworks (at least the larger ones) to see them well — the arcing ramp is too narrow. And very low boundaries keep you from getting too close either, while simultaneously making you feel that you’re going to trip and crash headlong into a Louise Bourgeois. In fact, nothing really looks that good in the Guggenheim, in my experience, at least within the spiral; it’s an odd space in which to hang artworks, and the viewer’s choice of angles and sequences is strictly limited: you can start at the bottom and walk all the way up, or you can ride an elevator to the top and then walk all the way down, and that’s it. The line of people going up mirrors the line of people going down, as in an M. C. Escher etching.

Moreover, the hand-plastered concrete walls — this is true of certain other elements of the building as well — are just sufficiently irregular to seem sloppy. The building doesn’t look worn so much as not-quite-finished. I think this is a function of Wright’s habit of designing buildings that his engineers and builders couldn’t quite realize. (Think of all the ongoing problems with keeping Fallingwater from falling into the water: PDF.)

It remains a wonderful, delightful building. To see what a lesser architect does with a similar strategy, just look at the forbidding and utterly humorless Hirschhorn, across the Mall from the National Gallery. (Interesting that you can go all through the museum’s website without being able to figure out what the building looks like. Are we embarrassed? I keep thinking of Ada Louise Huxtable’s description of its style as “neo-penitentiary modern.”) So you can’t look at the Guggenheim without being aware of what an intrepid and masterful genius Wright was. But the delights are not especially long-lasting, for the visitor, and if you’re there to see the art, they may be outweighed by the frustrations.

Pei’s building, I think, is holding up extraordinarily well. In his case the playfulness was imposed, to some degree, by the wedge-shaped lot on which he had to work; but rather than trying to cover that fact up, he decided to run with it, to intensify it — so wedges become triangles, triangles everywhere. It was such a pleasure to come back for the first time in many years and see how dark the stunningly sharp edge of the southwest façade has become over the years from all the hands that have touched it. I walked up to it and was standing there when a small group of Japanese tourists arrived just behind me and let out a collective “Whoooaaaaa!”

Inside, it’s a magnificent place to look at art. The great Calder mobiles above, plenty of space for even massive sculptures, rooms of different sizes and shapes — and the array of lines always converging and diverging, thanks to the triangles, which mean that you can sit almost anywhere in the building and get a feeling of pleasantly purposeful movement. There are more modernist buildings on and around the Mall now, so it doesn’t seem quite as much of a challenge to the older and more monumental spaces as it once did — and even when it was new, I think, it wasn’t a threat so much as an alternative vision of great space. I couldn’t have enjoyed my visit more, and I can’t wait to get back.