Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (DVD)

“Noble life demands a noble architecture, for uses of noble men.”

The Guggenheim Museum opened in New York City in 1959 and has, of course, since become one of the most famous museums in the world. Despite some of the world’s greatest works of art on display inside, it is normally considered to be famous more for the building itself, with a truly unique spiral design unlike any other public building in the world. One of the reasons why the building’s success has never quite been duplicated is because of the conflicting personalities that brought it to life. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright allegedly didn’t like either New York City or modern art, and was yet tasked by mega-millionaire Solomon R. Guggenheim to create a tribute to both. The building went through years of plans, debates, and controversy before it opened, and all that history is captured in this new documentary, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.

Our host for this 84-minute flick is Andy Levine, Harvard professor and architecture historian. He’s the only person interviewed throughout the movie, but that turns out to be a great choice, as Levine is an expert storyteller, spinning anecdote after anecdote about the museum’s history. He starts out with an overview of how Guggenheim was first introduced to Wright through artist Hilla Rebay, and then walks us through Wright’s early designs, as we get an intriguing glimpse at several of Wright’s original concept drawings for the building. Wright allegedly had the stones to compare his plans for the building to the legendary tower of Babel, not so much in that it could reach Heaven, but in that it could transcend languages and cultures.

The movie also covers other topics, such as changes from the original designs made during construction, some of Wright’s other famous buildings around the country, Levine’s personal history in studying Wright’s work, criticisms that some have argued are flaws in the building, and ending with a look at some of the more notable art installations that have made the most of the unusual open interior space. Along the way, Levine informs us of all this some genuine excitement about it all, as well as a hint of Woody Allen-style humor, keeping the whole thing moving along nicely.

Other aspects of the movie aren’t bad, exactly, but perhaps don’t work as well as they should. The filmmakers get to take their cameras into the museum, but it’s not the all-access walkthrough some viewers might have wanted. There’s a 10-minute stretch of movie where Levine goes off about his “blank Dadaism” approach to viewing architecture, and this doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Yes, I’m aware that “not having anything to do with anything” is what Dada is about, but this isn’t a Dada documentary (dadocumentary?), and instead it distracts from the subject at hand.

The movie is presented in good but not great full frame picture and standard 2.0 sound. Not flashy, but it gets the job done. There are no extras. In fact, the disc is so bare bones that the chapters don’t even have titles. They’re just “1,” “2,” “3,” etc.

The documentary isn’t action-packed or mind-bending, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, provide an overview of the museum and its history. If that interests you, give it a spin.

The Verdict

Not Guggen-guilty.

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