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FROM WRIGHT TO GWATHMEY SIEGEL: The case of movement in the Guggenheim Museum

(Authors: Ana Rolim, Luiz Amorim and Mariana Castro)

Paper presented and published in the proceedings of the 11th Space Syntax Symposium, Lisbon, 2017.

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1943-59) he defined and activated space simultaneously because the movement of bodies - suggested in his words before sketches existed - configured the space. Activation referred to the user’s experience, which was utilized by Wright since his Taliesin Fellowship (1931) where students learned through embodied knowledge by focusing on their receptive and experiential basis. The main goal of this paper is to evaluate to what extent the extension by Gwathmey Siegel and Associate Architects, in 1992, altered Wright’s original concept for the building.


Museums are complex structures whose spatial layouts seem to have a probabilistic effect upon patterns of visitors’ movements, which consequently affect awareness and encounter. In tune with these aspects, we argue that Wright adopted three main premises to design the Guggenheim: Influence how people moved through its layout; consider the configuration of galleries as differentiated social spaces, and assure the organization of spaces and artwork a decisive role in the experience of the visitor.

We utilized configuration analysis of floor plans and field observations, including recording static activities in the atrium, tracing 12 pedestrian flows, and counting number of visitors in relation to their chosen means of ascending the space. Besides comparing the original 1959 layout with its later addition, this paper brings some of Wright’s ideas for the emblematic building to light, to find out, in agreement with the architect, that the system is highly intelligible due to its key design feature, the atrium. Oppositely, interpersonal interaction and co-presence are weaker away from this space, where concave isovists are recurrent. Despite alterations intended to strengthen its connection with the main gallery, the segregation of the old monitor (lower tower at North) in relation to the main gallery is maintained as thought by Wright.


On the other hand, some findings also point towards discrepancies: Contrary to Wright’s idea of ​​visitors floating upwards in the elevator and descending through the ramp (main gallery), we found out that the majority of visitors used the ramp to ascend in space. Consequently a greater interaction with the artwork happened during the ascending movement, as on the way down visitors had little or no interaction with the art, establishing regular contact with the atrium instead. Findings also challenge the emblematic study by Peponis (1993) in regards to the museum’s circulation being impeditive of probabilistic effects in the layout on exploration and encounter, as visitors frequently stopped to take pictures of the space, themselves and their peers, even while located at different ramp levels.

In the Guggenheim Frank Lloyd Wright simultaneously sets and activates space through movement.

Goal and backdrop of research

Paper's abstract

Paper's abstract

Sample of analysis of results

Sample of paper's conclusion

Sample of paper's conclusion and some of the references used

Tracking visitors in the museum

Isovists established in structural spaces of the building

Convex maps of museum at its opening in 1959 (upper part) and after the 1990's renovation by Gwathmey Siegel (lower part)

Justified graphs of museum layouts in 1959 and in 1992 show that the transformation of adjacent spaces into galleries and the annex added later on created two different spatial experiences: The highly controlled progressive gallery in the ramp and the relatively connected adjacent galleries offering more route options

Axial maps of museum at its opening in 1959 (upper part) and after the 1990's renovation by Gwathmey Siegel (lower part)

Snapshots taken from upper level at fixed time intervals juxtaposed to integrated most integrated axial lines shows coincidental patterns of movements and clusters of visitors

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