Daring in concept and brilliant in execution, the Guggenheim museum has driven a boom in the local confidence as well as, more prosaically, the economy; its success gave the green light to further ambitious transformations of the formerly industrialized parts of the city.
It all started when the Guggenheim Foundation decided to build a new museum to enable more of their collection to be exhibited. Many cities around the globe were considered, but Bilbao was keenest and the Basque government were prepared to foot the US$100 million bill for its construction.
Frank Gehry was the man who won the design competition and the rest is the reality of what confronts visitors to Bilbao today: a shining temple of a building that completely fulfils the maxim of ‘architecture as art’. Gehry’s masterstroke was to use titanium, an expensive soft metal normally reserved for Boeing aircraft and the like. He was intrigued by its futuristic sheen and malleable qualities; the panels are literally paper-thin. The titanium makes the building shimmer: it seems that the architect has managed to capture motion.
One of the most impressive features of the design is the way it interacts with the city. One of Bilbao’s enjoyable and surprising experiences is to look up when crossing a street in the centre of town and see the Guggenheim perfectly framed, like some unearthly craft that’s just landed. Gehry had to contend with the ugly bulk of the Puente de la Salve running through the middle of his site, yet managed to incorporate the bridge fluidly into his plans. The raised tower at the museum’s eastern end has no architectural purpose other than to link the building more effectively with the town upriver; it works.
The building also interacts fluidly with the river itself; the pool at the museum’s feet almost seems part of the Nervión, and Fuyiko Nakaya’s mist sculpture, when turned on, further blurs things. It’s entitled FOG, which also happen to be the architect’s initials. The same pool also hosts Yves Klein’s Fire Fountain pyrotechnics.
A couple of creatures have escaped the confines of the gallery and sit in the open air. Jeff Koons’s giant floral sculpture, Puppy, sits eagerly greeting visitors. Formerly a touring attraction visiting the city for the opening of the museum in 1997, he couldn’t escape the clutches of the kitsch-hungry Bilbaínos, who demanded that he stayed put. On the other side of the building, a sinister spider-like creature guards the waterside approach. Entitled Maman, we can only be thankful that late sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s mother had long since passed away when it was created. It’s a striking piece of work, and makes a bizarre sight if approached when the mist is on. More comforting are Koons’s colourful bunch of Tulips by the pool under the gallery’s eaves.
On the western side of the building is Quantum Field-X, two huge cube-like structures covered in panels onto which are projected coloured laser beams.
So much for the exterior, which has met with worldwide acclaim. What about the inside? It is, after all, an art museum.
Gehry’s idea was that there would be two types of gallery within the building: “galleries for dead artists, which have classical square or rectangular shapes, and galleries for living artists, which have funny shapes, because they can fight back”. The embodiment of the latter is the massive Gallery 104, built with the realization that many modern artworks are too big for traditional museums. This has been dedicated to Richard Serra’s magnificent The Matter of Time, an installation now consisting of eight monumental structures of curved oxidised steel centered around Snake, whose curved sheets will carry whispers from one end to another. A hundred feet long, and weighing 180 tons, it’s meant to be interactive – walk through it, talk through it, touch it. Other pieces, including one that’s disturbingly maze-like, play with space, angles, and perception in different ways. Off the gallery is an interpretative exhibition on the pieces.
This, however, is one of only a few pieces that live in the museum; the rest are temporary visitors, some taken from the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Foundation, others appearing in a range of exhibitions. This, of course, means that the overall quality varies according to what’s on show.
Architecturally, the interior is a very soothing space, with natural light flooding into the atrium. It’s a relief to realize that this isn’t one of those galleries that makes you feel you’ll never be able to see everything unless you rush about; it’s very uncluttered and manageable. In the atrium is Jenny Holzer’s accurately titled Installation for Bilbao, an arresting nine-column LED display that unites the different levels of the building. The effect created is a torrent of primal human sentiment expressed simply in three languages. Nearby are Jim Dine’s towering but headless Three Red Spanish Venuses.
There are three floors of galleries devoted to temporary exhibitions radiating off the central space. For a look at some smaller-scale Frank Gehry work, drop into the reading room on the ground floor, furnished with his unusual cardboard chairs and tables, which are surprisingly comfortable and solid. The cafés also feature chairs designed by him. As well as the usual gallery shop, the museum also has an excellent modern art bookshop....
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