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December 31, 2002

Guggenheim Drops Plans for East River Museum

By DAVID W. DUNLAP

After months of growing fainter and fainter, the gigantic titanium cloud that was to have been the Guggenheim Museum on the East River dissipated completely yesterday, victim of the Guggenheim's financial straits and a weak economy.

In a three-paragraph e-mail message, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced that it had withdrawn its proposal to build a polymorphous, 400-foot-tall building designed by Frank Gehry on Piers 9, 13 and 14, south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan.

Thomas Krens, the foundation director, acknowledged as unrealistic the prospect of financing the $950 million project at a time when the museum is cutting budget, staff and programs. Beginning Sunday, for example, the Guggenheim Las Vegas is to go dark indefinitely.

Mr. Krens said the Guggenheim would still need to expand within the next decade and still believed that a strong cultural presence would help revitalize downtown. "But given the current situation," he said, "the Guggenheim project has to be rethought, perhaps on a more modest level, and certainly in the context of the city's master plan for the development of Lower Manhattan."

In November 2000 Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani designated the Guggenheim Foundation as developer of the piers and pledged a $67.8 million contribution to the project. The Bloomberg administration has accepted the museum's withdrawal.

"A new Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry could have been a marvelous addition to the downtown cultural community," said Andrew M. Alper, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. "However, given the museum's current financial difficulties, we understand and support their decision."

The city seems to have anticipated the decision.

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg released "New York City's Vision for Lower Manhattan" on Dec. 12, the fantastic cloudlike building was conspicuously absent from renderings showing the possible future of the East River waterfront. Although the city envisions museums there, none would be remotely close to the scale of the proposed 572,000-square-foot Guggenheim project.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised," said Carl Weisbrod, president of the Downtown Alliance, which runs the Lower Manhattan Business Improvement District. Working with Community Board 1, the alliance developed its own East River plan last year that accounted for a reconfigured Guggenheim museum.

As planned, the East River museum was to have some 200,000 square feet of exhibition space (about four times as much as the original museum on Fifth Avenue by Frank Lloyd Wright), a center for arts education and 400- and 1,200-seat theaters. Around the enormous structure were to have been six acres of open space and sculpture gardens. It would have been built on connecting platforms extending from Old Slip to Maiden Lane.

Just the prospect of a New York building designed by Mr. Gehry, the architect of the remarkable Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, drew large crowds to the Fifth Avenue museum in 2000 and 2001 to see a 12-by-5-foot model of the East River structure, surrounded by smaller models and renderings.

The museum anticipated three to four years of construction after a two-year review. The project would certainly have been challenged on environmental grounds and criticized for its potential impact on light, air and views along the riverfront.

But it was welcomed in The New York Times by Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic, who declared in April 2000, "Here comes architecture."

"If New York is a perpetual gift to the future," he wrote, "this design is its bow: a flourish of titanium ribbons (Mr. Gehry calls them wrappers) curled around half a million square feet of gallery space." Whether or not it was ever built, Mr. Muschamp wrote, it would serve as "an icebreaker of a design, a plan for crunching through rigid streetscapes and frozen minds."

As recently as August 2001, just before the attack on the World Trade Center, it appeared that downtown was poised for a cultural renaissance, with several ambitious projects, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of the City of New York, which planned to move into the Tweed Courthouse. That landmark building was instead designated by Mayor Bloomberg as the new headquarters of the Department of Education.

With most everyone involved out of reach yesterday, it was not immediately clear whether the shelving of the East River project might in turn open the door to the Guggenheim's presence in the redevelopment of ground zero, which has been the subject of some discussion recently.

Mr. Weisbrod said the alliance continued to support the idea of a cultural or performing arts magnet on the East River. Mr. Alper said that the Bloomberg administration's "commitment to developing cultural institutions as an integral part of Lower Manhattan's revitalization is stronger than ever."

And Peter B. Lewis, chairman of the Guggenheim Foundation, did not entirely foreclose the future in his valedictory to the East River project.

"I remain personally committed to supporting an extraordinary architectural and cultural project for Lower Manhattan," he said. "I am looking forward to seeing this project, on another scale and perhaps at another place, realized in the years to come."


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