Guggenheim-under-construction-nycThe Guggenheim Museum under construction, from Library of Congress.

Museums are lightning rods for criticism. The most public of all buildings, they’re also the most vulnerable, and even long-accepted classics faced scorn in their infancy. Today we’re taking a look at vintage photographs of New York City’s famous museums while under construction. It’s hard to believe now, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum endured fusillades of derision. Before it was finished in 1962 (six months after Wright’s death), it was called “the building that should be put in a museum to show how mad the 20th Century is.”

Guggenheim-under-construction-new-yorkThe Guggenheim Museum from Library of Congress.

The criticism most frequently leveled at the design was that it gave only slight attention to its stated purpose: displaying art. The low ceilings limited painting size and the outward slant of the wall prevented paintings from being hung on the plane they were designed to be seen on. There were also concerns about lighting, which were only alleviated in 1992 when the skylight was enlarged (p.s. Untapped highly recommends the Futurism exhibit up now!).

Another museum with a contentious history is the Museum of Modern Art, though the building that currently stands at 11 w. 53rd street is pretty well liked. Taniguchi’s re-design, completed in the early nineties, has been feted by critics. Using perhaps the most hackneyed descriptor in architectural writing, New York Mag called it a “light-filled temple.”

These pictures were taken by Michael Wesely, a German photographer who specializes in ultra-long exposures. Invited by the museum to record the construction of the museum, he set up pinhole cameras at strategic locations and then walked away… for two years.

Now MOMA’s going through the painful process all over again. Overwhelmed by visitors, they’ve decided to expand at the expense of their neighbor, the former Museum of Folk Art.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art ran into more mundane problems. Following successive financial panics in 1893 and 1901, funding for the project dried up and the façade was never finished. Those large stone piles you see on top of the columns were originally meant to be sculptures. Unlike MoMA or the Guggenheim, the Met was built successively over time. In fact, it’s still not finished. (Read more about the unfinished Met and the secrets of the museum in this Untapped article.)

The Whitney Museum under construction August 2013, from our guide to 13 of NYC’s Most Important Architectural Sites on the Hudson River

The new Whitney building in the Meat Packing District seems to have escaped the critics’ knives, though a few bloggers wryly noted that it was being built on the site of one the last buildings in the neighborhood where meat was actually packed (and, as this skateboarding Untapped contributor would like to note, home of one of the best ledges downtown). Now that the hotels have moved in and we’ve begun calling the neighborhood MePa, the criticism seems barely relevant. The Whitney takes up residence in its new home in 2015.

Whitney Museum-Under Construction-Meatpacking-NYCWhitney Museum under construction April 2014