What is it that makes the Frank Lloyd Wright show at the Guggenheim Museum such a disappointment?
Once you notice, it’s obvious. The contents and the container — the exhibition and the museum — have nothing to do with each other.
It would be hard to imagine an exhibition less well suited to the space of the Guggenheim than this display of the architecture of the Guggenheim’s own architect. The work fits the setting the way a hand fits a shoe.
What makes this all so poignant is the fact that Wright, of all major architects, was perhaps the one most deeply concerned with harmonizing his architecture with its contents, its interior art and furnishings. As everyone knows, he carried this urge to extremes, as in the famous case where, staying at the house of a former client, he hated the living-room furniture so much that he got up at night and, with the help of his student apprentices, dragged it out to the front yard and drove off.
Most of the Guggenheim show consists of big, glass-topped steel tables containing drawings. I feel about these boxy vitrines much as I think Wright would have felt about them. Someone should drag them out to Central Park and restore the Guggenheim to its pristine beauty.
I’m not saying don’t see the show. There can never be an unrewarding exhibition of the work of this magical genius. The heart of the show is a collection of more than 200 drawings from the great archive at Taliesin West. The drawings are all from Wright’s studio and most are by his own hand. They range through the whole 60-year history of his work, from the early houses to the late, unbuilt extravaganzas, such as the amazing, sci-fi-like redesign of much of Baghdad. Again and again, I was astonished. Just to name one item: You could spend all afternoon admiring the incredible garden plan and spec for the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.
The drawings are permanently sealed in sleeves of mylar, which certainly makes sense from the point of view of preservation, but that’s where the problems begin. The Guggenheim curators realized that you couldn’t hang them vertically, because the light from the atrium would reflect off the mylar, thus obscuring the drawings. So the drawings are laid horizontally in those steel-and-glass vitrines, either flat or tilted up like old-fashioned drawing boards. A parade of dark boxy vitrines climbs the Guggenheim’s curving ramp like an invading army. The alcoves that line the ramp are largely ignored. An exhibition that might look fine in an orthogonal warehouse feels hopelessly out of place at the Guggenheim.
Spaces for art

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.