Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

APOLLO Magazine
December 1997

Visiting Frank Gehry’s new building—the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao—is a life-transforming experience. The urban space of the Basque capital and its river, the Nervion, both define and are redefined by the new museum. At first sight its almost unreal, seemingly weightless, resplendent titanium-coated volumes look peculiarly organic despite their geometric shapes. Once inside, the dialogues that take place continuously between the works of art on display and this surprising, ceaselessly flowing building create an experience at once physical intellectual and even spiritual. The Guggenheim building’s sumptuous surface texture, the complex interaction of its disparate spatial units and the fountain of light which falls through the atrium invite comparison with the great Byzantine cathedral, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. indeed” the feeling of transcendence is immanent: its grandeur is tangible, and daunting as it is, it engages all the viewer’s senses utterly. The complexity of the exterior structure belies the simplicity of the interior – the spectator is drawn in effortless movement into its passages, as if into a seashell. Moreover, this building does not just facilitate the act of looking at modern and contemporary art: it transforms it.

Take the skin of the buildlng, for instance: its immediately striking and, it must be admitted, rather weird, Iustrous aura derives from the near-squares covered with titanium, a metal more usually used for golf clubs and aeroplanes. Surprisingly, the effect it creates is soft, almost fluttery, as it gentiy undulates around the edges of each panel of the building. This effect is, of course one which Gehry very carefully cultivated and which he referred to as ‘pillowy’. Though very stable and solid, it looks as fragile as aluminum foil. As Gehry explained, however: ‘It is ironic that the stal bility given by stone is false, because stone deteriorates in the pollution of our cities whereas a third of a millimeter of titanium is a hundred-year guarantee against city pollution. We have to re-think what represents stability’.1 The material perfectly embodies the rich contradictions of the ait of this century and thus can induce the visitor to look for art works inside that will offer analogous properties. For instance, the huge Serra sculpture entitled The Snake exemplifies these two qualities: fragility as opposed to stability, finesse and elegance as against weight and threat. The Snake, commissioned for this space by the Guggenheim Bilbao. offers a wonderful exampie of this dialogue between art and architecture, so present in Gehry,s mind: its swerving lines echo the undulations of the huge gallery w-all. The empathy between the works by Gehry and the Serra indicate that each artist is able to think in the idiom of the other: Gehry often talks about turn_ ing architecture into sculpture; Serra,s sculpture affirms the architecture around it.

But what is it that makes a Severini, a painting by Duchamp, a pair of huge Warhols, a room of works by Ryman, Martin, Marden and Andre, and a gallery of gigantic works by Kiefer all look so stunning there as well? They all force us, if very gently, to rethink the space around us: the Severini of a train thrusting at full speed into space, for example, or the painting by Duchamp of a young man descending the stairs with a staccato rhythm that seems to mimic that of the windmill-like wing that descends from the atrium. The strength of this work by Gehry is that it invites us to a similar dance as the works which are displayed in it.

Gehry is an architect who enjoys looking, both at architecture and at a wide range of art. This doubtless accounts partly for the fact that such a wide variety of works of art, from Modigliani to Damien Hirst, from Braque to Mario Werz, from Bill Viola to Cristina Iglesias, can all look so happy there or, if not happy, so compelling. Gehry can be equally inspired by a still-life by Morandi and a bronze charioteer of. c.470 BC made for the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. The latter in particular seems in empathy with the museum building: both are about freezing swift movement in time. Similarly, the Guggenheim Bilbao is often compared to a truncdted, many-headed fish rearing up from the water on one side of the bridge while its tail – the tall, functionless tower – is still on the other.

In his conversation with Coosje van Bruggeo Gehry comments ‘On this building I looked at the cut-outs of Matisse, at these big, long shapes just casually cut.. . the awkwardness of them…” This may not be incidental. Van Bruggen comments: ‘The cut-outs suggest that the boat gallery and the three leaf-like galleries, having gone through an endless process of refining the same shapes, needed that sense of awkwardness, giving the effect of a more casual disposition of form.” Indeed in this context Ellsworth Kelly’s stunning early drawings look as though they have always belonged there.

Variously compared to a boaf a plane, a fish, a flower, a windmill and a church this building will, it is certain, continue to encourage and to stiinulate deeply the imaginations of its visitors: it offers the ideal complement to the experience of viewing art. In this, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is unmistakably a building of our time. Its playfulness, humour, and vast creative imagination counteract the sometimes more awe-inspiring aspects. One visits too many contemporary art spaces where the quality of wit and wilfulness seem to have gone. Gehry reminds us magisterially that looking at contemporary art without fun is almost a sin.


    1 Coosje van Bruggen, Frank O. Gehry: The Guggenheim Mreum Bilbao, New York 1997, p. 1.41..
    2 Ibid., p. 116.
    3 Ibid.

    • Guggenheim Museum Bilbao