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“If it’s not the most controversial building since the Tower of Babel,” read a story in south Carolina’s venerable News and Courier on 22 October 1959, “it comes close.” The article noted, too, that President Eisenhower was discreet in his praise of the design of the building that had opened the day before – so discreet, in fact, that he did not mention it at all. “This museum,” he said, “is a symbol of our free society, which welcomes new expressions of the creative freedom of man.”

This museum was New York’s Guggenheim. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the six-storey construction was – and remains – remarkably modern in its helical structure. With art hung on a wall that ran alongside a corkscrew ramp, it was compared by some to a washing machine. The New York Times declared it, “A war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed.”

The New York Herald Tribune, however, dubbed it “the most beautiful building in America” – a description more in tune with how it was received on the night by the public, thousands of whom lined up on Fifth Avenue to get in.

Among those present was the late Dennis Stock. Inextricably linked with his portraits of James dean, the Magnum photographer documented just as poetically subjects from newly arriving immigrants to the jazz greats – and, here, not only the elegance of the building, flooded with light from its glass canopy, but also the glorious contrast between guests dressed up to the nines and the informality of his fellow snappers, sprawled on the floor to get the perfect angle on a building the likes of which had never before been seen.

The Independent on Sunday

15 Dec, 2013

Robert Epstein