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Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, USA

Invited architects and designers imagine fanciful schemes for the museum’s core space

Frank Lloyd Wright, who likened his design for the Guggenheim Museum to a teacup and saucer or an upside-down ziggurat from ancient Middle-Eastern architecture, would delight in the current exhibition in his spiralling galleries. Freshly painted in a luminous white, they are completely empty for the first time since the museum’s founding in 1959. People are flocking to experience the pristine architecture itself, along with the complex design of the massive skylight overhead and the central well of the rotunda.

This novel experience of open space complements a brilliant exhibition in a side gallery called Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum, for which artists, architects and designers were invited to imagine fanciful schemes that address the museum’s core vacuum. With 193 entries, mostly works on paper, collages and digital prints pinned to the walls or laid out in showcases, the show is a feast of innovative responses expressing cultural overtones and social engagement.

Immediately striking is the amount of red that participants have splashed across their clean renderings of the inner spiral. Anish Kapoor leads the pack (Royal Academy redux) with Ascension (Red), a plume of red smoke shot up from the rotunda floor that escapes through the skylight in a series of three digital prints. Studio Arne Quinze achieves similar results with a video of a red stilt-house - a wooden scaffold that rises up through the central space in computer-generated images.

Many architects deconstruct the building: Snøhetta spreads sections of it decorously around the cityscape, while Studio Daniel Libeskind predictably turns the spiral into a cubist tower. Doug Aitken parades an upside-down architectural model through Los Angeles on a set of pretty legs, whereas Doris Salcedo integrates the spiral into a photograph of a New York tenement to make a point about privilege and poverty.

There is no end to the irreverent sense of play, with WORKac’s waterslides flowing down the spiralling ramps and Josephine Meckseper’s offshore oil rig in the rotunda’s deep pool. For regional flavour, Geneva’s group8 moulds the void into solid milk chocolate. A major Japanese contingent follows suit with, for example, Kengo Kuma & Associates’ scroll that unfurls around the spiral, Itami Jun Architects’ blossoming cherry trees surrounded by forest, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s museum-cum-camera obscura.

From all this fantasy also evolve projects of serious intent with future possibilities, like Bruce Munro’s elegant Beacon, a 12-sided tower of illuminated panels in the rotunda that conveys the romance of New York’s skyscrapers at night, or Zaha Hadid Architects’ Z-Wave, a fibreglass structure that merges with the ramp’s balustrade to extend the seating area into an aerial lounge. Another group, including Toshiko Mori and Alyson Shotz, chose to cloak the emptiness in diaphanous veils, whose ethereal quality contrasts with Luzinterruptus’ clothes lines that crisscross the atrium, turning it into an Italian street scene.

Finally, recalling Hubert Robert’s evocative 1790s paintings depicting the Louvre’s Grande Galerie in ruins and overgrown with trees, several entries make a similar statement about the inevitability of time. N55 shows tumbled chunks of the spiral beneath trees and hanging vines; Sou Fujimoto Architects imagines tall trees 10,000 years hence piercing the skylight; and Saunders Architecture’s FLW in His Element places the architect in a grove of trees within the spiral.

The visitor to the Guggenheim observes the masses of people ascending and descending the spiralling ramps in a kind of ritual rotation, becoming moving sculptures silhouetted against the white walls. Watching the last of the crowd coming down the ramp is like seeing a giant spool of thread unwind. In the end, then, the void itself is the art.

Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum

Where: Guggenheim Museum, New York City, USA

When: Until 28 April

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