Selected excerpts from an interview with Laurie Beckelman, chairwoman of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, shortly after her tour of the newly expanded and renovated Guggenheim Museum:
"But . . . Still, . . . On the other hand, . . . Having said that, . . . . "
The normally decisive and articulate Beckelman, who as a teen-ager wanted be a Shakespearean actress, is not the only one who begins to sputter qualifiers like Hamlet when discussing the Guggenheim.
Closed for two years, the museum reopened last month with an addition that some believe has diminished its greatest work of art--its own building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Famed for the top-heavy concrete spiral that seems about to float away, the Guggenheim was completed in 1959, shortly after Wright's death. The museum contains an excellent collection of early 20th-Century art, including major works by pioneers such as Kandinsky, Dubuffet and Mondrian. Its great spiral, or rotunda, contains one of the world's great man-made spaces.
But Wright had to build his masterpiece on the cheap; by the early 1980s it was leaking, cracked and cramped. The sloping interior ramp of the great rotunda had proved better suited for experiencing the architecture than viewing the paintings. There was space to display only 3% of the museum's collection, and almost none for large canvases.
So museum officials decided to renovate, restore and, most problematically, expand. In 1985 architect Charles Gwathmey and partner Robert Siegel unveiled their solution: a big green annex that rose from behind the Wright building and jutted out over it.
The Guggenheim's fans, including neighbors such as Woody Allen and Jacqueline Onassis, complained that the addition was too intrusive. Some said it made the museum look like a giant, two-tone toilet.
So the Guggenheim compromised: Gwathmey designed a slighter, 10-story slab that now rises from behind the Wright building. The limestone facade, carved into squares, evokes a sidewalk more than a bathroom.
Much of the work on Wright's own structure has been well-received. A skylight over the top level of the spiral was uncovered. Passages were cut between the spiral's ramp and the galleries in the annex, affording visitors a break from their decline. A smaller rotunda, which had been taken over by offices, was converted to gallery space and its roof made into a sculpture garden.
But it is the addition that stands out on Fifth Avenue, either--depending on your point of view--looming over Wright's building, or providing a fitting backdrop for it.
Since there is nothing approaching unanimity on the architectural merits of the addition, the Associated Press asked a cross-section of interested and disinterested parties what they thought.
Edgar Tafel, a veteran architect who worked for Wright: "The addition is as good and as bland as it should be. It does not take away from the force of the Wright building."
Anthony Wood, president of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District: "When I look at that addition, I'm more convinced than ever that it wrongs Wright. The museum has disfigured the greatest work of art it owns. It's a different building now, and a lesser one. And there was no need for that addition. The extra space could have been achieved off-site, or underground."
Brendan Gill, architecture critic of The New Yorker and a Wright biographer: "It looks better now than it ever looked--you'll be seeing the museum as Wright dreamed of it. The new gallery space (in the addition) reduces the pressure on the large rotunda and allows it to become what Frank had in mind. On the outside, the addition seals the museum off from the incongruity behind it."
Jed Perl, Vogue art critic: "The new addition . . . robs that great exterior of its autonomy and idiosyncratic force. Wright's illusion of liftoff has been lost. . . . The new building presses down on (Wright's) poetic volumes, denying the Guggenheim breathing space. Gwathmey & Siegel has managed to turn Wright's glorious curves and conceits into a sort of oversize Art Deco marquee."
Marjorie Iseman, a member of Guggenheim Neighbors, a group that opposed the addition: "It's turned out to be a travesty, comparable to removing the waterfall from Fallingwater (the house Wright designed for businessman Edgar Kaufman). I could see it being demolished in 2050 to restore the Guggenheim to its original state."
Frances Halsband, president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects: "We should be able to add on to a great building. St. Peter's (Basilica, in Rome) was added on to for hundreds of years and no one complained. The (Guggenheim) addition doesn't try to compete with the original. It adds on to a good thing."
Martin Filler, editor of Design Quarterly: "What Gwathmey, Siegel and its complicitous client have done to Wright's sublime structure is no less extreme and scandalous than if a museum conservator had taken a Mondrian canvas and repainted its red, yellow and blue rectangles green, purple and orange."
Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club, whose clubhouse is next to the Guggenheim: "I don't like the fact they didn't match the colors properly between the old building (concrete) and the new one (limestone)."
Christopher Collins, chairman of the community planning board: "I don't have a strong opinion either way. I'm just real glad the museum is reopening."
Robin Schwinn, a passerby on Fifth Avenue: "If they're going to charge seven bucks (admission, up from $4.50), it better be something special."
And finally, to boil down and paraphrase the aforementioned Laurie Beckelman: Loved the inside, hated the outside.