The failure here raises interesting issues about museum design. It makes you realize, for example, why a museum like the Museum of Modern Art prefers galleries that are totally lacking in architectural character. Such spaces will never conflict with their contents. MoMA’s architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, is reputed to have said that if given enough money he would make the architecture disappear. He pretty much succeeds at that dismal task, creating a series of nonspaces in which the artworks on the wall feel not like physical reality but rather like projections on anonymous white screens. Given no place in which to exist, they float in a white Nowhere.
Well, Frank Lloyd Wright was not about to create a Nowhere space, here or anywhere else. He created one that is itself a work of art. That places a special burden on the curators. They must do something that will resonate with the space. Art and architecture must combine to create something larger than either. When this is done, it’s wonderful. In the work of artists who use bold color — like Kandinsky, Miró, Calder — the artworks seem to signal one another across the space like semaphores. They charge the air with energy. A recent show by David Smith worked well, too, where mostly black silhouettes occupied the white volumes of the building’s bays. In such shows, you felt the art and the architecture needed each other in order to feel complete.
The Guggenheim is a physical place, and MoMA is a spatial abstraction. We’ve heard a lot about the unimportance of place in recent years, with gurus like Rem Koolhaas informing us that it’s one big global culture now, in which we’re all privileged to share in the collective aesthetic of shopping in anonymous airports. Nothing could be further from my own view of architecture. Architecture, for me, is the art of making places, places that are specific and memorable. The Guggenheim may be tough to work in, but it’s worth it.