Guggenheim: Bilbao Places its Bets

The European Magazine  London, 1997, 1,900 words; extracts
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3/cont. Gehry, like Krens, is clear that the Basque approach to the building work was fundamental to its success. "If you reach any kind of agreement here, you have to respect it. And that created an excellent discipline for the project."

Certainly, the idea of working process was an unusual one. "I was convinced that we had the Picasso of architecture working here for the Basque Country," comments César Cicoya, the architect who ran the project's local team. "I didn't want him to stay only six months, but the entire five years of the construction schedule. So we decided to design and build at the same time. It was a risk, but we decided to do that."

Thomas Krens / 'Some of the galleries are simply the best spaces in the world to show contemporary art and my objective is to make them take second stage to the art in them.'

For Gehry it was not a straightforward commission. The riverbank site is cut by one of the city's bridges, La Salve bridge, and could easily be flooded. The client was set to be demanding: Krens, who had already worked on five museum designs, was prepared to stand up to Gehry over what the design would give the Guggenheim. Yet in the end the working relationship between the two men was a key to the project's success.

Gehry admits that Krens motivated him. "Yes, he's a visionary prepared to take great risks. There are few people like him. He spoke with artists, dealers and all kinds of people about what they thought was needed. I showed him the possibilities, I told him where I wanted to go with them and he put them to good use."

Krens is more direct.

"Usually, when you say  to an architect that you want to change something, you have a fight on your hands. But not with Frank. He has no problem setting his own work aside I used to joke with him saying he had the biggest ego of any architect in the world because he was always convinced he could do even better in the redraft. I don't expect to ever enjoy a working relationship like this one again in my whole life."

For the transatlantic architectural team, the complexity of the building presented two major challenges: one, the translation of the American design to a working process that fitted with European legal and technical norms, and, two, the curves – or rather, how to simplify building them so they came in within the budget. Finally an aeronautics computer software was used to achieve a three-dimensional model of the building's curves, to give the project’s engineers and construction teams reliable data to work from, and to develop an automated fabrication process that could deliver mathematically precise cut replicas of the forms.

"For sure, it is the front line of architecture," comments Gehry, "but the important thing was the efficiency and economy it gave us."

A third challenge was the metallic cladding evoking the city's earlier industrial and ship-building history. Gehry wanted it to work under Bilbao's characteristic northern skies, bouncing back the light with a welcoming sheen. Stainless steel was too shiny and hard, alloys of copper and lead were illegal, and so in the end titanium was used.

"It was a real struggle," he says, "because it had never been used on that scale before. But it was worthwhile."

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