The Guggenheim Museum is just one of four world-class galleries in New York's swanky Upper East Side. Hamish Mykura says it's the people, more than the art, that make it memorable.
"My optimistic ziggurat", was architect Frank Lloyd Wright's phrase for his big, white, wonky concrete spiral of an art gallery when it opened on 5th Avenue in 1959. The sleek and opinionated residents of the Upper East Side have been less kind to it over the years. Woody Allen called it "a giant lavatory basin" and Jackie Onassis hated it to the last.
But it's still the New York gallery where you're most likely to see Woody Allen, and Alastair Cooke is a near neighbour. On its site facing Central Park, the swirling cartoon of a building mocks the heavy Victorian apartment blocks that stretch away to either side of it. The stretch of Fifth Avenue that runs south from the Guggenheim at 89th Street along the edge of Central Park is the prime location for two of New York's most popular and rewarding pastimes: looking at art, and looking at people. The Guggenheim has three big competitors on the Upper East Side: the Whitney, the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum. The walk between them passes the homes of the most well-heeled and aspirational New Yorkers. Watching the complicated rituals that govern their overstuffed days is a fascinating pastime. The Guggenheim is the most acutely fashionable of the four galleries. Visitors are squeezed through the entrance beneath a heavy concrete beam to emerge into the breathtaking central atrium, where the sweeping spiral ramp of the gallery winds in widening loops to the high skylights above. Here, socialites and tourists rub shoulders. Spotted in the shop - a midwestern tourist holding a print of Marc Chagal's Green Violinist, asking "Do you have this in yellow?" Meanwhile the little restaurant below the gallery is, on weekdays, an ideal spotting ground for the rich: thin, manicured ladies-who-lunch, the "social X-rays" Tom Wolfe described in Bonfire of the Vanities. A pleasant afternoon can be spent listening to the loud exchange of confidences about boyfriends, graded according to value of jewellery received, while watching them push a piece of lettuce and a sliver of goat's cheese around their plates. The ramp is the truly great feature of the gallery. Thronged with visitors, it spirals upward for a quarter of a mile to form the main rotunda. Children love it, and harassed Saturday dads struggle to control their hyperactive six-year-olds. At the top of the ramp the edge wall gets alarmingly low. Stepping back to admire a picture, a glance over your shoulder can induce head-swimming vertigo. …