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1997 December: Guggenheim Museum by Frank O. Gehry & Associates (Bilbao, Spain)

[ARCHIVE] Catherine Slessor’s essay on Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, first published December 1997. Photography by Paul Raftery, Dennis Gilbert and Christian Richters

Set on the edge of Bilbao’s River Nervion, the new Guggenheim Museum is a fantasia of complex, swirling forms and sensuous materiality that responds to an ambitious programme and an industrial urban context.

Set amid rolling green hills, Bilbao cuts a scabrous dash on Spain’s northern Atlantic coastline. The muscular vigour of its architecture reflects the city’s success as a nineteenth-century industrialised maritime centre, but in recent years it has been struggling to overcome the narcotic effects of defunct heavy industry and perilous regional politics.

Light-years from Fifth Avenue, it seemed an implausible location for the newest and most glamorous satellite of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Yet for all its apparent geo-cultural dislocation, Frank Gehry’s remarkable building forms part of an energetic civic reinvention, fuelled by the Basque Country’s highest GNP of any area in Spain (coupled with fiscal autonomy from Madrid) and the Guggenheim Foundation’s imperative need to expand and redefine its operations in Europe.

As a result, an ‘Atlantic axis’ of political, economic and cultural collaboration between Bilbao and New York has emerged. The regional Basque administration funded the $100 million project and will make annual contributions to its operating budget.

The Guggenheim Foundation will run the museum, providing curatorial expertise as well as the core art collection and programming. Ambitiously conceived as an international centre for modern and contemporary art (much of it European in origin), the new museum complements the existing, smaller Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Since it was founded on the banks of the Nervión in 1300 as a trading and fishing port, Bilbao has stubbornly prospered, despite periodic assaults and upheavals. From catastrophic fires of the sixteenth century to Spanish Civil War bombardments (Guernica is just along the coast), the city has become accustomed to rebuilding itself.

The nineteenth-century grid of the Ensanche (literally ‘broadening’) was constructed in the wake of civil wars and its handsome streets on the west bank of the Nervión contain Beaux Arts eclecticism mixed with early excursions into Spanish Modernista.

At the end of the twentieth century, however, Bilbao’s circumstances mirrored those of many other European cities historically reliant on the muscle of industry. The decline of shipbuilding and manufacturing has left large tracts of dereliction, some conspicuously close to the city centre. In 1991 a strategic plan was drawn up to revitalise metropolitan Bilbao, with the aim of precipitating the city into the post-industrial age.

Drawing on the experience of Barcelona (another marginalised regional centre which has vigorously and successfully remodelled itself). the plan embraces a range’ of measures, including modernising transport links, strengthening cultural amenities, promoting training initiatives and general improvements to the urban environment.

So far, a new metro system (with stations by Foster and Partners, AR May 1997) has been built, linking the city centre with the suburbs. A graceful new pedestrian bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava spans the Nervión, and a conference and performing arts centre by the Madrid-based partnership of Soriano and Palacios is currently under construction downstream from the Guggenheim. All these major proyectos are seen as confident indicators of the latest phase in Bilbao’s dogged evolution.

That the Guggenheim came to Spain at all is due to a fortuitous interplay of cultural aspirations and politics. Initial plans to locate the new European outpost in Salzburg fell through because of the demands placed on the city following the collapse of Communism. To the bemusement of the art world, Bilbao proved a willing substitute partner in a delicate transatlantic mating ritual.

But the site originally proposed by the city for the new museum - a redundant wine and oil warehouse in the Ensanche - plainly did not suit the scale of the Guggenheim Foundation’s ambitions. Instead, a much larger and more prominent site on the edge of the Nervión was selected, the location apparently chanced upon by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens during a morning jog.

In June 1991, just three architects - Gehry, Coop Himmelblau and Arata Isozaki - were invited to compete for the project. Each was given three weeks and one site visit to produce a proposal. Coop Himmelblau’s design’was a curiously muted amalgamation of translucent cubes; Isozaki opted for a series of inscrutable, free-flowing volumes.

The chosen short-list starkly distilled both geographical and architectural diversity (Old World, New World and Pacific Rim). After a breathlessly brief competition, Gehry’s New World exuberance won the day, The Guggenheim Foundation is acutely aware of the power of a building to define an institution.

The choice of Frank Gehry signalled an ambition to match (if not supersede) the radical and original qualities that characterised Frank Lioyd Wright’s gleaming Expressionist vortex on Fifth Avenue, completed in 1959. Nearly 40 years later, Bilbao now inherits an equally extreme piece of architecture that also, paradoxically, embodies an equally intense search for new forms.

The commission for the Guggenheim represents a maturing, both in scale and execution, of Gehry’s compelling, ‘computerassisted Cubism’, based on poetically fractured planes and contorted curves. One immediate impression is that remarkably little seems to have changed from the model submitted for the competition. Initially Gehry used sheets of paper rolled and taped by hand to generate form, like a sculptor working clay.

As the proposed curves exceeded the capabilities of conventional construction, Gehry turned to CATIA software (developed by the French aeronautical firm Dassault) to translate his concept into a built reality. Essentially, CATIA digitises points on the edges, surfaces and intersections of Gehry’s hand-built models to construct on-screen models that could then be manipulated in the manner of animated cartoons.

The computer has enabled Gehry to generate formal and spatial complexity that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. The notion that uniqueness is now as economic and easy to achieve as repetition, challenges the simplifying assumptions of Modernism and suggests the potenctial of a new, post-industrial paradigm based on the enhanced, creative capabilities of electronics rather than mechanics.

The new museum lies at the centre of a cultural and civic triangle defined by the austere Jesuit Deusto University and wedding cake Neo-Classical city hall (both on the opposite bank of the Nervi6n) and the Museo de Bellas Artes to the west. The riverside site is on the northern edge of the Ensanche, with a vast container marshalling yard to the west, a road and railway line to the south, the sluggish river to the north anq, the sweeping concrete structure of the Puente de Salve to the east.

The gawky, angular bridge connects the Ensanche with the eastern part of the city. Gehry claimed to savour the raffishness of the context; in particular, the intense proximity of the suburban train line reminded him of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where the rattling U-Bahn mingles with contemplation of Classical antiquity.

Unlike the Getty on its antiseptic mountain top, the Bilbao Guggenheim makes a tangible physical connection with the city. The building oozes and extrudes around the Puente de Salve, creates a curved riverside promenade and forms a generous new public plaza on the south side of the site, where the Ensanche grid ends.

The prominence and exposure of the site is curiously well suited to Gehry’s architecture, which generally works best on a tabula rasa. Bilbao is his biggest stage yet, and it is attacked with an evangelical brio. The building languidly scrolls and coils its way along the riverside, its boggling conflation of titaniumclad forms shimmering serenely like a pile of improbably huge fish or a fractured tinfoil flower.

The famous titanium scales (seized upon when a price fluctuation in world markets made titanium briefly affordable) impart an extraordinary lightness and iridescence to the overall composition. Fixing clips make a shallow central dent in each of the very thin (0.38mm) tiles, so that the surface appears rippling and ethereal in the changing light.

Like the vast hulls of ships that used to loom over shipbuilding towns, the warped, metallic flanks of the museum surreally terminate vistas in the long straight streets of the Ensanche. The plaza on the south side acts as a public focus and collection point. Here the titanium is partnered with creamy, ashla red limestone and a discrete cobalt volume which houses administrative functions. (Here too is a rather fatuous piece of topiary shaped like a giant dog, by Jeff Koons, which appears to be a permanent fixture.)

Visitors descend a papally ceremonial flight of limestone steps to the entrance, pausing, perhaps, to inquisitively fondle the titan ium cladding that comes just within reach. The steps gradually narrow, like a canyon, propelling you into the entrance hall. Dog-Iegging to the left is a cloakroom, bookshop and 350 seat auditorium; to the right a kind of man-made fissure which leads through to the start of the gallery tour.

This momentary compression is quickly followed by release as you enter the atrium, the spectacular fulcrum of Gehry’s dervishly whirling volumes. The soaring, 50m high space (one and a half times the height of the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York) stimulates fanciful free-association - Marilyn Monroe’s wind-assisted skirts, the moulded sinews of a Willem de Kooning drawing, an exploded artichoke heart.

Light is diffused through slashes of glazing in the inclined walls, casting perpetually changing shadows through the lustrous, luminous, cathedral like space. On its north side, stone and titanium are peeled away to reveal a soothing water garden, the river and the city framed by the steep hills beyond.

Despite the wilful complexity and apparent formal chaos, the plan is really quite simple. Twenty one galleries of varying size and configuration are arranged in three storeys around the dramatic, pivotal atrium, so that progress around the building is logical and circuitous, by means of a (frequently uncomfortably vertiginous) network of walkways, stairs and glazed lifts.

The vast, often highly sculptural spaces offer provocative creative opportunities for both artists and curators. The largest of the galleries is a 130m long volume in the form of an upturned hull that extends eastwards towards and under the Puente de la Salve, where it nuzzles a signpost tower that rises above the bridge like a limestone exclamation mark.

With its specially reinforced floor, this ‘boat gallery’ houses a collection of massive Pop and Post-minimalist installations and paintings, among them Richard Serra’s monumental ‘Snake’ a sitespecific work consisting of two sinuous, rusted planes of steel 31 m long and 4m high.

The smallest gallery is an intimate alcove containing exquisite works on paper by Giacometti, Arshile Gorky and Ellsworth Kelly. On the first and second floors, calm enfilades of conventional orthogonal spaces are variously devoted to the European AvantGarde and American Abstract Expressionism.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the building is the gallery where Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was supposed to hang; sadly, the painting still languishes in Madrid and instead Sol LeWitt has customised the walls with a jovial mural.

The galleries combine artificial light sources with natural, overhead light. For the permanent collection galleries on the lowest level, this is collected by lightwells rising through the floors above. Generally, the art works benefit greatly from the generosity of the spaces; Anselm Kiefer, for example has a huge, dedicated gallery, which does appropriate justice to his frenzied, ossified paintings, but whether English enfant terrible Damien Hirst deserves a nook of his own (at the north-east corner of the atrium on the second floor) is debatable.

However, these are issues of programming and curatorship; the building seems sufficiently accommodating and flexible to assimilate the most perplexing (and invariably large-scale) vacuities of contemporary art. Through its extraordinary formal vigour and material presence, it succeeds in squaring up to both its context and the ambitious mandate of its client, while clearly sustaining a logic and life of its own. The international art world has a new dot on its map and Bilbao has a new Atlantic star.

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