The Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side is one of the most famous—and most photographed—buildings in the world. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure has been an object of fascination for shutterbugs since it opened 60 years ago, thanks to its unusual shape, which has been compared to a nautilus shell and a concrete ribbon.
But photographer Andrew Pielage, who spent several days over the summer exploring the museum, knew that he would be able to find a unique perspective on the oft-Instagrammed structure. Pielage is on a quest to photograph every single extant Wright building; so far, he’s made it to more than 65 structures, and that familiarity with Wright’s work has informed how he approaches new projects.
“There are similarities in all of Wright’s sites,” Pielage says. He points out recessed triangular lights that are embedded in the ceiling on the museum’s first floor, which also feature prominently in the Stuart Richardson House, located in Glen Ridge, NJ. “These little details get lost when you take the bigger photos of the space,” he explains.
Pielage started his photography career by taking landscape images, which he says was crucial to developing his Wright project. But he didn’t get into the architect’s work until 2011, after a trip to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s complex in Scottsdale, AZ. “It’s a beautiful place,” Pielage says. “It’s not like the McMansions that we have now. It’s super low-profile, you can’t even really see it until you’re in front of it. Those long, dusty roads up reminded me of my childhood driving on dusty roads in Arizona.”
At that time, photography wasn’t allowed in the home, but a friend with a connection to Wright’s personal physician helped connect Pielage to the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation, the stewards of the architect’s legacy—and the rest is history. Now, Pielage has photographed many architect’s most famous works around the United States, including the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, the Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL (“there’s just something about that building,” he says); and Fallingwater in Mill Run, PA.
But it wasn’t until this year that he was able to get into the Guggenheim. The building, completed in 1959, is one of only a handful of Wright structures in New York City, and is widely considered one of his masterpieces. Pielage has been trying to photograph the museum for about two years, and the building’s 60th anniversary presented a good opportunity to get inside and explore.
The days in June that Pielage spent shooting the museum were the first time that he had ever been inside the museum, an experience that he calls “powerful.”
“I stepped in, and it blew me away,” he says. “The size was one of the biggest things that surprised me. It’s a very intimate, smaller experience—and it’s better that way. It’s more approachable as a museum.”
That approachability made it easier for Pielage to find some of the museum’s unheralded spaces, such as the Aye Simon Reading Room, hidden behind a keyhole doorway. “It doesn’t fit so much that it does fit,” he says of the small nook. “It’s so out of place that it works.” Spaces like this, Pielage notes, make the structure feel more playful than you might assume if you’re unfamiliar with it. “I had the Guggenheim up on this pedestal,” he explains. “[It’s] this trophy, this idol we all bow down to, this serious thing with world-renowned art in it.”
Still, Pielage says he was most impressed by the oculus at the top of the building, which is the largest source of natural light into the spiraling structure. “If you had something simple up there it would be a totally different design,” he notes.
Now that Pielage has captured the Guggenheim, he still has about 430 or so Wright structures to go before he has photographed every one—but he’s not rushing things. “My intent is to document Frank Lloyd Wright in the 2000s,” Pielage explains. “What is it like? These sites are disappearing left and right. It’s not necessarily about the destination—although I want to get to the finish line—but it’s about the journey.”
The Guggenheim will hold several events on October 21 for its 60th anniversary; visit the museum’s website for more details.