Monday, August 27, 2012


"The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the greatest building of our time."
Philip Johnson

Love it or hate it, nobody can deny that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum put Bilbao on the map. Since its opening in 1997, millions have included the capital of Biscay as their destinations because of this building, including us.

And while the international media have pondered the genius (or madness) of the Canadian-American architect of Jewish origin, the fact is that the museum's success is due to the confluence of 4 main actors:
1) The Basque Administration, who created the plan for revitalizing Bilbao, contacted the Guggenheim Foundation and paid for the construction of the museum.
2) The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who lent its name by way of "franchise" and provided the collections to ensure the quality of the exhibitions.
3) Frank O. Gehry & Associates Architects, who proposed a futuristic and attractive project and revolutionized the practice of architecture, by including computer assisted programs during the complicated process of design and construction.
4) The Basque firm IDOM, who carried out the construction of the project within cost and time scheduled, a rarity in buildings like this one.

Photo courtesy of Orvaratli

But the success was not only confined to the museum, as it became a catalyst for the urban and economic renewal of th  city in what has become known as "the Bilbao effect."


Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque country, flanked by green hills, spreads along the Nervion River valley, crawling and twisting into an estuary that finally meets the Cantabrian Sea.

I liked the cozy scale of its streets -some of them traced during the middle ages-, the proportion of its buildings of elaborated facades and the contrast between the green landscape and the red roofs, including some churches that appear in the skyline.

Cathedral of Bilbao

Undoubtedly the quality of its vernacular architecture was linked to the economic progress of the city, historically linked to industry. However, the economy began to decline from the 80s, due to competition from Southeast Asian countries. Many factories closed, reaching levels of unemployment of 35%.

Metro Station by Norman Foster


In the early 90s  Bilbao Metropolis was formed, a public-private institution who made a plan to revitalize the city. This plan included the environmental recovery of the Nervion River and the construction of an art museum as a catalyst of the city, but not necessarily both projects at once (in fact the proposed site was on another location).
For its part, the foundation Solomon R. Guggenheim was going through a serious economic crisis, despite the enormous wealth he possessed, 95% of which was held in storage by the museum in New York. Thomas Krens, director of the museum, was looking to create a branch of the Guggenheim in Europe.
Although initially Krens was not very keen on developing the museum in the little-known Spanish city, the seriousness and enthusiasm of the local authorities convinced him: the city of Bilbao would build a museum and upon payment of the franchise the foundation would provide some works of art from its costly and unique collection, as well as assessment.


Krens was jogging along Princes of Spain Bridge when he noticed an abandoned industrial land along the Nervión River, and immediately suggested this location to the Authority of Bilbao. Located on a bend of the river and in a lower level than the rest of the city, it was an elongated area extending slightly below the De la Salve Bridge.


In 1992, the foundation  invited 3 offices of architects to develop schematic designs. Arata Isozaki, Coop Himme(l)blau and Frank Gehry. Proposals should be developed in 3 weeks.
Isozaki schemes pointed to an elliptical cylinder base, which then would be more or less materialized in Centennial Hall in Nara . Meanwhile, Coop Himme (l) blau proposed a series of cubic transparent volumes, achieving interesting reflections at night. Finally they chose Gehry's proposal, the most innovative project of the three.

Proposals Isozaki, Coop Himme (l) blau and Gehry for the museum in Bilbao.


Since its inception, Gehry tried to involve the project within a larger urban scheme, revitalizing the waterfront, exploring the places from where better views could be enjoyed and those where the museum should have a more modest scale.

The museum's sculptural forms came from various references. Towards the city, covered with limestone brought from Andalusia, the most stable volumes dialogue with the urban surroundings.

Towards the river, the most dynamic metal elements express the fluidity of water, elements of nature (like a flower), figures of boats and even representations of fish (fish are common in Gehry's repertoire, such as the sculpture on the coast of Barcelona). In addition, the architect draws a reference to sculptures workshop Constantin Brancusi (of different sizes and shapes), the film Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927) and the very energy of the city of Bilbao.

Gehry used a rich repertory of materials and languages, alternating stone, glass and metal in a studied composition that produces different sensations from the place you see it. For example, our first contact with the building was coming from the west along the riverbank, where we welcomed by a group of box-shaped volumes coated in stone. A metallic volume of horizontal proportions seems to float over them. It is followed by another dramatic volume similar to the bow of a boat. Next, there is a glass wall, built upon a metal structure.

Photo courtesy of Martin .

In front of that glass wall there is a large cylindrical column supporting a vaulted roof, that from the distance gives the impression of being the entrance to the museum. But we deceive ourselves, and when we get there we found no entrance, just a giant spider, the famous Maman, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois .

Photo courtesy of Mick h 51 .

Next, a series of elongated volumes simulating a fish form the great gallery, which is accompanied by a huge stone staircase leading to the  De la Salva Bridge.

Photo courtesy of Arrano .

Photo courtesy of gatogrunge

Another important urban component is the circulation along the riverfront. Using a pond in front of the museum, the architect reflects the adjacent waterfront, and using the circulation in a theatrical and dynamic way (it reminds me of the promenade cinematique in Tschumi's Parc de la Villette), gives the impression that the river reaches the edge of the building. What is missing is a public space in the waterfront itself.

Photo courtesy of Rawarma .

Photo courtesy of rafallano .

However, a different sensation is experienced if coming from the city. While the metal forms are clearly distinguishable from the narrow traditional streets, as one approaches the urban scale is changed and becomes less monumental, and we are received by stone volumes, whose rectangular windows dialogue with the other surrounding buildings.
A large square, an expansion which covers a route that passes beneath the complex, organizes the volumes and serves as a prelude to the building.

Here we met Puppy, a floral sculpture by Jeff Koons, which had been intended as temporary, but became so popular that it ended up as a permanent exhibit.

However, the entrance itself is a bit odd, since it is almost hidden, sunk respect to the street level, which is reached after descending a wide staircase.

Details of  the entrance


The museum's design process was very complicated and in many respects innovative. After the architect's expressive schematic design and the scaled models were built, the complex as built plans had to be implemented. Gehry's team pioneered the use of CATIA, a software used in the airplane industry, in order to generate three-dimensional volumes of the building and calculate its materials and cost estimate. The program was used in both the design as well as the construction of many building elements and finishing details, since, given the building's sculptural character, no single element was repeated  (particularly the titanium plates).

As we saw in other works by Gehry, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago, sculptural forms are achieved by means of a structural steel frame which is covered with metal plates (this is especially evident at the Guggenheim in the tower alongside the Salve Bridge). Hence the theatrical, superfluous and dynamic nature that has characterized Gehry's works.

The architect chose to coat the surfaces facing the river with 0.3 mm thick sheets made of an alloy of titanium and zinc, with posses outstanding durability and ductility as well as provide a better color than steel due to the cloudy climate of the city -according to the architect.

The building is organized into around a central space, around which 20 galleries are arranged in  3 levels. Towards the west end we found a shop, a cafeteria and an auditorium.

First level is organized around the great court.
1. Auditorium. 2. Gallery. 3. Store. 4. Fish Gallery. 5. Atrium. 6. Tickets. 7. Store. 8. Facilities. 9. Ponds.

Second level, where the galleries are connected by air bridges. Note the succession of square galleries, ending in an irregular space.
1. Accessible. 2. Library. 3. Restaurant. 4. Galleries. 5. Atrium.

Third level, many of the spaces correspond to double heights of the lower levels.
1. Roof. 2. Stairs. 3. Void. 4. Galleries. 5. Atrium.

Longitudinal and cross section, at the height of the central atrium.

The interior is dominated by the central atrium, 50 feet high, one of the most impressive and monumental spaces I've seen, displaying the dramatic and convoluted volumes and circulation galleries that connect them.

In addition, both the atrium and the galleries the space visually integrate to the external landscape, incorporating the cityscape as part of the building component.

The elevators are covered by these glass plates resembling flakes, another reference to the aquatic world that were formerly used in "The Dancing House", designed by Gehry and Milunic on the banks of the Vltava River in Prague.

The largest room (130 m long), an elongated nave that evokes the shape of a fish, is intended for monumental sculptures. In fact, the works of Richard Serra housed there were made ​​especially for the gallery, and assembled during the the process of construction of it (as was done in the Salon De Maria in the Chichu Art Museum by Tadao Ando, for instance). The rusty-metal color undulating forms swing echoing the space that contain them, to establishing a dialogue with the building. In contrast, the labyrinth is a group of sculptures based on triangular geometry.

In contrast, a sequence of galleries on the second level has identical square shapes, which is accessed by a lateral movement.

Gehry also studied the sunlight, so that the works are illuminated generously but in controlled way, especially during the summer months.


Many critics have pondered the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a masterpiece, a contribution to the profession and a catalyst that has brought economic and cultural development to the city. Gehry has been catapulted  almost to a sidereal fame and received several awards, becoming one of the most sought after architects of our time, despite his 84 years.

For some other critics, however, Gehry's architecture is personalistic and megalomaniac, the building lacks an appropriate scale and does not offer a free connection between the city and the river. Some of the blind walls the building houses favor the development of crime and in general the lack of adequate public space prevents social interaction, which itself exists in other areas of Bilbao.

Contrast between solitary and unfriendly public space of the Guggenheim and the busy and vital Doña Casilda Park, located near the museum.

Moreover, as the case of New York's Guggenheim , the museum's architecture is still far more striking than the works of art it contains.

Nevertheless, I think the Guggenheim museum shows the best Gehry, it is both an innovative and mature sculpture but somehow related to its surroundings. However, it seems to me that after Bilbao his works  became repetitions of the Guggenheim but without same success or consistency of design. One such case is designed for the Guggenheim Museum New York, among many other projects that followed the pattern of "twisted cans piled on stacked  boxes."

Proposal not built by Gehry for the Guggenheim in Lower Manhattan, New York.

Something different, however, is its proposal for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi , which together with other monumental projects from famous architects  will form an impressive urban development in the capital of the UAE. We will take it a look from the next post. Until then.