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Powerful Play—Inside the Models of the Guggenheim

Sectional model of the Guggenheim's rotunda. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Interior of sectional model of the rotunda. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

Interior of sectional model of the rotunda. Photo: Grace Franck © 2014 SRGF

The Exhibition Design Department’s many models. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

The Exhibition Design Department’s many models. Photo: Grace Franck © 2014 SRGF

The rotunda floor. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

The rotunda floor. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

The Guggenheim’s oculus. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

The Guggenheim’s oculus. Photo: Caitlin Dover © 2014 SRGF

This 1959 elevation model was used to plan the Guggenheim's inaugural exhibition.

This 1959 elevation model was used to plan the Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition. Shown here are the maquettes and artwork layout for Inaugural Selection (1959–60), as created by the Guggenheim’s second director, James Johnson Sweeney. Photo: © SRGF.

Melanie Taylor, Director, Exhibition Design. Video still: Gutai: Splendid Playground, © 2014 SRGF

Melanie Taylor, Director, Exhibition Design. Video still: Gutai: Splendid Playground © 2014 SRGF

I saw the working model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim the first time I visited the museum’s offices: there it was, that oh-so-familiar white spiral, but at dollhouse scale and made out of Foamcore. There is still something satisfying about seeing that scaled-down version of the museum on a daily basis. Decked with tiny renditions of artworks destined for various exhibitions, the models—there are actually many more than just that eye-catching section of the rotunda—are appealingly tactile. For those of us whose work revolves around a monitor and keyboard, these little constructions are happy reminders of what can be done with hands-on creation and play.

For the exhibition designers, of course, the models are an integral part of their daily work, as they plan and oversee the installation of shows in all the Guggenheim museums (and in other venues for traveling exhibitions). In addition to the sectional model of the rotunda, the designers have models that represent the ramps and the rotunda floor; an elevation model that shows the entire museum in orderly, exposed rows; models of the museum’s annex galleries; and models of the Guggenheim’s museums in Venice and Bilbao. The latter, and some of the representations of New York ramps and galleries, are made from durable polystyrene by a professional shop; others, including the rotunda, the designers constructed themselves using Foamcore and matboard.

The process of using the models has its own fluid pattern for each exhibition. After receiving a checklist of objects from the curators, the designers create maquettes—scaled-down representations of each object that can be as simple as an image of a painting pasted on a piece of poster board or as detailed as a complex sculpture recreated with twists of fine wire mesh. Once the maquettes are ready, curators and designers begin deploying them in the models to see how the show might work. Says Melanie Taylor, Director, Exhibition Design, “Space planning and developing the art layout is a collaborative process, though usually the curators will start just so they can organize their own thoughts and make the shift from research to the exhibition space. Then we jump in to help them shape it. Once we start working on specific design solutions, we’ll work more independently in the models, generating ideas for their consideration.” When the subject of an exhibition is a living artist, his or her input can also shape the way that show is planned.

The designers do use Rhino, a 3-D modeling program, and they create architectural drawings for each exhibition. Still, as Kelly Cullinan, Exhibition Designer, points out, the physical models can offer a different perspective. Sometimes, she says, when she’s having a problem and is focusing on a plan or rendering, she realizes she needs “to look at the model, and move paper, and cut, and play, because it helps me think in a different way.”

The models are also essential to the designers because the Guggenheim is a unique exhibition space. At other museums, notes Taylor, exhibition designers may use SketchUp to mock up a standard, box-shaped gallery for the curator to look at. Wright’s museum resists anything so straightforward. Says Taylor, “It’s not a conventional building, so all our tools are helpful in some respects and deficient in others.” For instance, while the plan models work well on a schematic, space-planning level, they don’t stack together, so they can’t depict the Guggenheim’s grand vertical volume. Plans, too, don’t quite capture the building’s quirks. “You can draw a circle on the plan but that won’t match what you actually have up there. It’s not platonic,” explains Taylor. Thus placement of artwork within the building becomes subject to a range of variables. “It’s not just about spatial planning,” says Jaime Roark, Associate Director, Exhibition Design and Production. “Depending on where you put an object on the ramps, it changes the scope of the work for lots of people. It’s not just as free as ‘let’s put something here.’ It depends on what needs to happen when it shows up, or, depending on its size, how it gets to that location; then, how it gets put together, and put into the schedule that you have.” There are other considerations, too, says Taylor: “How heavy is the object? Is it too heavy to go out by the edge? Does it have to stay where the building is stronger?”

The designers use the models to address these questions—and it shows. “We have to repair them all the time,” says Roark. “Pieces break off of the buildings. They take a beating.” The maquettes, too, tiny as they are, require time, attention, and upkeep. Roark says the amount of time they put into creating the maquettes varies depending on how much they will need to use them. Sometimes, due to time constraints or lack of information, they will just create representative “boxes” using the object’s basic dimensions. Roark notes, though, that “the adorable factor,” as she calls it, goes up when they make the maquettes more detailed—and those extra details also help convey how that particular object will look and feel in the space. Cullinan points out that, for one exhibition they are currently planning, “There are a lot of boxes that are going to have to be remade at some point once we get a general layout going, because they don’t express the object enough to really understand how it feels in the space. So, we’ll get some adorable factor.”

Planning an exhibition is serious business, but for all who are hands-on with the models, there’s an element of play that can’t be denied. The exhibition design team agrees that the models have a dollhouse quality that is appealing to all who encounter them. Says Roark, “I think that makes them a good tool, because they’re so inviting.” Adds Taylor, “It’s powerful, too. You get to pick up that Oldenburg sculpture and say, ‘I want it there.’ That’s exciting!” She adds that, if they are working with outside parties or lay people on any given exhibition, “It’s really helpful to go in the models because it’s so intuitive: they’ve got the actual objects, they know how big it is, they can see how big the space is, and they don’t need to be an architect in order to work that out. They can just play.”