Guggenheim: Bilbao Places its Bets

The European Magazine  London, 1997, 1,900 words; extracts
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Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum was an unprecedented project in Spain. Its creation sparked a long debate about cultural politics and investment. The depth of architect Frank Gehry's involvement signalled that something thought-provoking was under way, but there was much scepticism in Spain. Gehry explained the project to me as a mix of dialogue and risky experiment.


Frank Gehry is taking a break from television crews on the riverbank in downtown Bilbao. In the background work goes on around the clock to finish his Guggenheim museum in time for its official opening by Spanish King Juan Carlos on 18th October.

Gehry himself has no reason to be nervous. Fellow architect Philip Johnson has already called the mass of curved metallic forms "the greatest building of our time". More important to Gehry, one suspects, the city's residents have taken a liking to the gleaming building as a symbol of the feisty Basque spirit.

An inner-city implant on the River Nervión's abandoned industrial waterfront, the museum's sculptural profile erupts above a grid of bourgeois streets.

"I sketched the main outline in ten days," says Gehry affably. "But the miracle was getting it built."

One sees Gehry's point of view. In retrospect it seems miraculous that in the early 1990s, when no flagship museums existed in Spain, Guggenheim director Thomas Krens persuaded Basque politicians to come up with $171 million for such a high-risk arts venture. Krens, considered by some a genius and others a megalomaniac, had established an expansionist policy when he arrived at the Guggenheim in 1988. By then the collection created fifty years earlier by Solomon Guggenheim had become one of the world’s most important, with some 6,000 works tracing the complex history of  the 20th century’s avant-garde movements.

Krens's early attempts to set up branches in Massachusetts and Salzburg, and to expand the museum in Venice, had all foundered. So it was a crucial breakthrough for him when Basque politicians first announced the 1991 deal to set up a Bilbao Guggenheim museum - with Gehry's design sewn into the package. But it met with strong local opposition. Sculptor Jorge Oteiza summed up the project as an "extravagant Disneyland". As time has gone by, and the opening comes close, it has been Gehry's spectacular design of colliding forms that has won local support.

"We have received local criticism about spending and there have been quite a few jokes about the idea of an international museum here,"says Krens. "But as the building began to go up, it began to work magic."

Designed as an inner-city implant sitting on the River Nervión's abandoned industrial waterfront, the museum's sculptural profile erupts above a bourgeois grid of streets.

Viewed from the opposite riverbank, the forms of its curving titanium-scaled walls evoke memories of the shipbuilding, steel industry and fishing fleet that once fuelled the city's economy.

But the impressive scale - it covers 24,000 sq m and is twice the height and length of the Centre Pompidou in Paris - was not conceived for external effect. Gehry's brief from Thomas Krens was to build a 21st-century museum which could accommodate today's outsize art and that of the future. All this would have be impressive enough in other European cities at the heart of the contemporary art scene. But in the early 1990s Bilbao was hardly even a cultural destination within the country.

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