Frank Lloyd Wright some would say is the most well known architect of the last hundred years, and one of his best loved projects is the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. It is a twisting, white shelled beauty of a building, an inverted cone with sloping sides that contrasts nicely with the perpetually upright verticality of New York’s highrises. But did you know that white was not originally Wrights plan for the museum?
In fact Wright didn’t like white and in his drawings for the museum the colors were anything but stark white. In various sketches dating back to the 1940’s Wright proposed black, pink, peach, and even a striking cherry red. Red was a color common to Wright’s earlier work including his well known residential building Fallingwater.
But even world class architect Wright had a client to please and Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim’s art advisor, vetoed the red idea saying to Wright “Red is a color which displeases S. R. G. as much as it does me.“
Wright finally relented and gave up his red, and Rebay offered this help in a 1945 letter, “Yellow marble,” she wrote, “and if not, green.” But neither would come to be because as the building neared completion, marble was deemed too expensive and was scrapped for a simpler creamy yellow paint option. In the intervening years the building has been repainted paler and paler until in 1992 when a major expansion was completed the Guggenheim came to be its now trademark white with a dash of gray.
When the building was to be repainted in 2007, the Landmark Preservation Commission did paint forensics, carefully removing paint from the exterior walls. They found 11 different layers revealing shades of white, yellow, and even beige but after much debate the Commission voted to keep the now iconic platinum white.
Though we can only imagine (or photoshop) what the museum would have looked like in a different skin, this sunset time lapse can give us one idea. What do you think? Is white as the main stay of serious architecture just another hold over from modernisms chromophobia or it is a truly contemporary blank slate for the big ideas of the times? Color is never a simple thing, but sometimes more history, and frankly controversy, than you would imagine lies under that crisp white exterior.
– Emily Eifler, Writer, Colour Studio
– Jill Pilaroscia, Principal, Colour Studio