Frank Lloyd Wright designed his iconic Guggenheim Museum as a "temple of the spirit"—a kind of inverted ziggurat whose organic plasticity presented a sharp contrast to the conventional design of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its surrounding Fifth Avenue buildings.
Wright believed that the Guggenheim's spiraling gallery walls created a viewing experience where building and painting existed harmoniously. Of course, his intentions were not always embraced; critics noted that the building envelope tended to overshadow the works of art, while curators complained about the complications of hanging art on curved walls. But the circular atrium would provide the perfect space for protest, and against the institution itself—something we're quite sure Wright would not have anticipated.
During the Guggenheim's pay-as-you-wish admissions hours this past Saturday night, nearly 40 activists staged an intervention in the famed rotunda against the deplorable labor conditions of migrant workers building the future Guggenheim Branch in Abu Dhabi. In the midst of the newly opened Italian Futurism exhibition, affiliates of the Gulf Labor group unfurled banners with slogans reading "Labor Trap UAE," and "1% Museum," while a protestor called out the question, "Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?"
The protest highlighted that the construction of a new Guggenheim on a luxury island in Abu Dhabi is essentially being carried out through indentured labor. This kind of labor forces migrants from South Asia to work in excessive heat even during injury, while living in unsanitary, overcrowded housing near sewers. Furthermore, it prevents workers from organizing, bargaining, or leaving the country without consent of the employers. The demonstration beckoned artists to question if they would want their artworks to be displayed in a museum built on the backs of abused workers.
In a twist of intention, Wright's design enabled activists to communicate their messages more effectively. The stacked arrangement of the atrium's gallery ramp was designed to afford visitors views of several bays of work on different levels. With the protest banners draped over the ramp's walls, the rotunda morphed into a space of dissent—a compilation of grievances amplified by Wright's objective of simultaneous visibility.
The works of art took a backseat to the shimmer of mylar banners and bold painted manifestos. Galleries looking out onto the central atrium immersed museum visitors in the demonstration—the protestors' calls that art should not violate human rights echoing off the rotunda walls.
Effectively, Wright's visionary design for the Guggenheim facilitated such action. The layout allowed for a unique instance where patron could turn against institution. In any other museum, where galleries are arranged in a series of interconnected rooms divided by walls, the activists' messages would not be able to permeate the entirety of the building.
While Wright passed away six months before the Guggenheim first opened its doors, the architect believed the design to be a "beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of art before." Who knew that this symphony would one day transpire in resounding cries to hold the Guggenheim accountable for its complicity in human rights violations?