When Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum opened its doors half a century ago, Robert Moses dismissed it as “an inverted oatmeal dish”. Since then, it’s been likened to a seashell, a corkscrew, a snail, a washing machine and, in a scathing New York Times editorial, “an oversized and indigestible hot cross bun”. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the building as a massive spring so tensile it could resist nuclear attack, declaring that “when the first atom bomb lands on New York, it will not be destroyed. It may be blown a few miles up into the air, but when it comes down it will bounce!”

Whether disdainful or rhapsodic, every metaphor has confronted the chasm at the Guggenheim’s core that runs from the lobby to the roof. That gaping space, encircled by a helix of galleries, has confounded curators and artists over the years, but a handful have managed to turn the flummoxing architecture to their advantage. Nam June Paik planted chattering televisions in a jungle of leafy plants, forcing visitors to pick their way through a thicket of electronic vegetation. Matthew Barney decked the museum out in a memorably ugly ensemble of blue Astroturf, white athletic padding, molten Vaseline and bald fluorescent lights. Architect Jean Nouvel coated the spiral in a deep, velvety black. And Daniel Buren shoved a six-storey mirrored structure into the centre of the rotunda and pasted Day-Glo green tracks along the walls.

Now, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the museum has invited 200 artists, architects and designers to imagine penetrating the museum’s vast emptiness. None of the proposals will actually be built, so participants could yield to their most barbarous fantasies. The result, Contemplating the Void, is a free-for-all of architectural renderings, elevations, posters, computer animations, texts, drawings and collages. It’s a fun hotchpotch, hung in clusters and knots, with no labels or explanations; each piece has a number that can be matched to a checklist available at the door. (Unfortunately, neither show nor pamphlet is organised numerically, so viewers squander as much time matching works to authors as absorbing the feats of invention.)

You might think such an open-ended project would have called forth a more kaleidoscopic range of responses, but most of the participants adhere to a handful of primal themes: vegetation, water, infinity and abyss.

Several designers riff on the building’s organic form and defiance of the city’s grid. Wright originally wanted to site the museum in a Riverdale park; they would bring the wilderness indoors. New York architects HWKN (Hollwichkushner), with “aTreeum”, and Alexander Gorlin, with “A Tree Grows in the Guggenheim”, both advocate planting a tree that rises through the hub of the building. Hariri & Hariri, another New York firm, would deck the ramps in vines, plants and grass. To bring home the point, Saunders Architecture of Norway inserts Wright himself into his museum of the future, now a primeval-looking, post-apocalyptic swamp peppered with redwoods.

Seductive and sensual as they are, all of these “back to nature” schemes interpret Wright too literally. While he based his designs on a range of organic models, they leave out the transcendent leap that makes the Guggenheim both biomorphic and conceptually rigorous.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a museum in the shape of a bucket would invite thoughts of water. Husband-and-wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s pastel drawing depicts a translucent column filled with sapphire-blue liquid. German artist Josephine Meckseper would inundate the lobby and adorn the surface of her miniature ocean with a flame-spouting model oil rig.

Or how about the museum as aquatic asylum? Dominic Stevens of Ireland suggests turning the rotunda into an urban fish farm; Zhang Huan of China sees it more as a giant aquarium. Others make the most of the museum’s latent possibilities for fun. The New York firm WORKac would turn it into an indoor water park, repurposing the ramps as splashy slides. And Phoebe Washburn’s “Guggenheim Scuba Park (Study)” wouldn’t even require the removal of the art. Simply install a windowed metal tank in the rotunda, top it up with water, and – voila! – divers can ogle viewers while making a spectacle of themselves.

Other proposals deal with the queasy experience of leaning over the museum’s central emptiness. Some apply mirrors to the ceiling and floor, extending the spiral into vertical infinity. A few provide nets and trampolines, inviting viewers to face the subconscious urge to jump.

It’s funny, though, how such an imaginative building seems to limit rather than liberate the imagination. Unmoored from practical constraints, most of the participants in this group game of “what if” seem transfixed by the building’s idiosyncrasies. After half a century of wrestling with the architecture, the Guggenheim has commissioned a profusion of fantastical projects that winds up reinforcing the dictatorial nature of Wright’s design.

But resistance is possible, and the most playfully poetic form comes from the Amsterdam architect Joris Laarman, who envisions launching a fleet of motorised paper airplanes through the space, sending them wheeling and swooping like a flock of starlings. Guided by an automated remote control and an indoor GPS system, the paper drones would dive from the ceiling, alight on a recharging station in the lobby and then, re-energised, take off again. You couldn’t ask for a more eloquent metaphor for freedom within constraint.

‘Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum’ continues until April 28.


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