The Guggenheim Bilbao: the museum that became a work of art

Frank Gehry’s building is a masterpiece of modern architecture, a museum that is itself a work of art

A museum that triggered the international renaissance of an entire city. These are the most appropriate words to introduce the unmistakable Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a building that has captivated visitors from all over the world to this port city in northern Spain. Here, amid the mountains of the Basque Country, stands the best known work of the Canadian architect Frank Gehry, regarded as an absolute and, in some ways, unrivalled icon of modern architecture. Conceived as a museum to contain art, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao itself became an admired work of art. It was built alongside the river Nervión and a small artificial lake in a former industrial area. The museum has hosted and continues to host a vast range of artistic works, mostly produced in the twentieth century with a small selection of classic works. As the name suggests, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation network of museums which has branches open in New York, Venice, Bilboa, Abu Dhabi and Helsinki, whereas the museums of Berlin and Las Vegas were closed, respectively, in 2013 and 2008.

Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Before looking at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, it is worth considering the architect who came up with its design. Frank Gehry, universally recognised as one of the masters of modern Deconstructivism, was able to show humanity another way of imagining and designing buildings. No longer are there recognisable geometric shapes or pure outlines, instead the lines are unusual and fanciful, simply unprecedented.

But the shapes aren’t the only surprising aspect of Frank Gehry’s body of work. The Canadian architect is also known for his use of many different, often unusual materials, such as titanium, corrugated sheet metal and other metal alloys. As he has stated many times, Frank Gehry seeks fracture, if not actual chaos.

The architect, now in his nineties, has designed a great number of projects. For example, in recent years, he created two large silvery skyscrapers in Toronto, his native city, as well as the audacious twisting Luma Foundation tower in Arles in the south of France. Frank Gehry’s works have always caught the public off balance: the architect himself has said: ”If you know what you are going to do before you do it, don’t do it.” Gehry won the Pritzker prize, regarded as the Nobel Prize for Architecture, in 1989, so a long time before he designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

The structure of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Frank Gehry has always taken a sculptural approach to architecture and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the quintessential demonstration of this. A structure like this, it should be emphasised, would have been utterly inconceivable in previous eras, that is, before modern programmes for computer design came into play. The Bilbao museum has hosted almost 200 exhibitions since it was opened but there is no doubt that the astonishing shape of the museum’s exterior façades intrigue visitors even more than the exhibitions.

The museum’s outline brings to mind a ship, as if in confirmation of its aquatic nature, not least for its structure in titanium plates, which are similar to fish scales. Inaugurated in October 1997, the museum site covers an area of 350,000 square feet.

As mentioned, the structure is clad with characteristic titanium plates, designed to last for more than 100 years. In total, there are 42,875 titanium plates that certainly make no attempt to reduce its impact on the surrounding landscape yet manage to create a unique harmony. The plates underwent a long journey before reaching Bilbao. They were made from 60 tons of metal mined in Russia and then molten in France. From there, the titanium was taken to Pittsburgh to be laminated and then transferred to the United Kingdom for pickling. The penultimate stage was carried out in Italy, in Milan, where the plates were assembled. At the end of this journey, extremely thin titanium plates were produced that can be admired in the museum’s structure.

In addition to titanium, two other materials were used for the twisted exterior façades, that is, slabs of limestone, quarried in Granada, carefully polished before installation, and thermal double-glazed glass sheets. The outcome is an enormous sculpture with curvilinear and twisted lines that, seen from above, take on the appearance of an irresistible flower. Indeed, it is a flower that visitors see when looking up inside the museum’s large atrium.

The interiors of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The irregularity of the external structure the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is repeated inside, with complex volumes interconnected in a varied and surprising way.

The central point of the museum is the atrium, which covers an area of 9687.5 square feet and is 180.45 feet high. It is lit both by an upper window, which ensures stunning lighting from above, and by the windows overlooking the river.

In all, there are 20 galleries on three levels arranged around the atrium, connected by lifts, stair towers and suspended walkways that follow the curved lines of the structure. In certain cases, the galleries have traditional shapes but others are absolutely astonishing. For example, the Fish Gallery, 79 feet high and 426.5 feet long, is designed to host enormous installations, like the colossal exhibits of Richard Serra.

The area outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The area surrounding the museum designed by Frank Gehry is also worthy of attention. For example, the small artificial lake alongside the structure, which became the stage for the installations of Yves Klein, with the characteristic multicoloured flames that are combined with masterful plays of water on the lake’s surface.

The ingenious connection between the museum and the Puente de La Salve is an important link to the city, which can be reached through a special tower. The aim is to highlight the integration between Gehry’s building and the rest of the city, aided moreover by the position of the Guggenheim Museum, located behind one of the most important roads in Bilbao, thereby connecting the building to the beating heart of the Basque city.