It’s the Guggenheim’s tenth birthday, and the city is celebrating it in style
This summer, Bilbao quietly celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum. The city falls at the feet of a museum that, given its extraordinary architecture, could be described as works of art within a work of art.
Ever since it was first opened on October 19, 1997, more than nine million people have visited this all-imposing building designed by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry. The spectacular Guggenheim building (main photo) reminds one of an attractive stone and titanium boat which, run aground in the Bilbao river, is capable of capturing all the bright lights of the big city.
It was designed to change the face of the city, and it has achieved its aim. The Guggenheim was conceived as the central piece of a rehabilitation project, set up to give a new purpose to an abandoned industrial estate in the river. It was a risky, avant garde project which suffered numerous setbacks and defects in the beginning.
What appears today to be the perfect marriage between the museum and the city started out with serious problems. At the beginning of the nineties a powerful wave of public outrage arose in the face its construction – throughout Bilbao one could see T-shirts bearing the names of all European cities that had rejected the Guggenheim Foundation’s proposals next to a zero-peseta coin. At the bottom of the list was Bilbao, with the figure that the Basque regional government planned to spend on the project. The people of Bilbao had the impression that they were going to pay the Guggenheim Foundation’s debts – and it was rumoured that the foundation was undergoing serious financial difficulties – and that the budget for this huge project was excessive.
Even the well-known Basque artist Jorge Oteiza called the Bilbao Guggenheim ‘a cheese factory’ and swore that for as long as he lived he would never allow any of his works to be exhibited there. Later, however, he relented and his paintings have in fact been on display in the Guggenheim.
As the years passed, the leaders of this opposition movement revealed that it was Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim’s architect, who managed to gradually win the people of the city round. Gehry’s project slowly began to convince Bilbao’s inhabitants due to its immense beauty, but mainly because of its perfect harmony with its surroundings.
People say that Gehry climbed the Mundana, one of the highest mountains in the outskirts of Bilbao, and from there created the master design of the museum’s architecture. The building, seen from the river, appears to take the shape of a boat paying homage to the port city that has given it its home. The museum’s bright, shining panels resemble fish scales, reflecting the influence of natural forms and shapes that are present in many of Gehry’s works. Seen from above, however, the building takes on the shape of a flower.
To design the museum, Gehry’s conscientious team used computer simulations of the structures that were necessary to support the building, creating shapes that would have been impossible to achieve decades ago. Whilst the museum rises, all-powerful, from the surface of the river, its appearance from the street – which is on a higher level – is much more modest and does not therefore detract from more traditional buildings in its proximity. The tender loving care with which Gehry and his team took on the project is, today, a source of immense pride for the people of Bilbao who reveal, full of satisfaction, that Gehry re-opened a mine in Andalucía in order to find a limestone with a similar tone to that which was used two centuries ago to build the Deusto university just opposite the museum.
Nowadays, hardly anyone remembers those early criticisms since the success of the building, and of the museum itself, is unquestionable. Since the Guggenheim was built, Bilbao has never been the same again – the museum has helped create pedestrianised areas that run from the town hall to the port on the shores of the river, and along this route you will also find famous architect Santiago Calatrava’s contribution to the city in the form of one of his highly distinctive bridges.
If you take this route – which is recommended – the Guggenheim welcomes you with one of its most visually-appealing permanent sculptures, that of an enormous spider by French sculptor Louise Bourgeois, which is titled Maman (second photo). Bourgeois is known for using her personal experience as a woman to influence her work and is an icon of feminist art, since she has been able to express the combination of strength and fragility of the universal woman’s feelings, like no other artist has been able to. Bourgeois’ enormous spider, which welcomes visitors to the Guggeheim, is a magnificent example of her talent.
Another of the wonders within the Guggenheim’s permanent collection are the eight sculptures of the North American artist, Richard Serra. Commissioned by the museum, they are currently displayed in a 130-metre exhibition room without a single column to mar the view – a room that was designed by Gehry precisely with these creations in mind. The sensation of strolling in and out of monumental wrought-iron sculptures is unique, and the story of their arrival in the port of Bilbao and their complex installation has been perfectly documented, illustrating one of the museum’s keys to success – commissioning works specifically created for the building by artists of international prestige.
The last of the museum’s major acquisitions was presented on May 11 this year. The sculpture, named Tulips, by North American artist Jeff Koons comprises a giant bunch of stainless-steel tulips with a coloured finish. Koons is also the artist behind the famous Puppy – the giant pup made of flowers that guards the door to the museum and which has become an icon of the city and the delight of its people, particularly the kids (third photo).
The next permanent sculpture to be installed in the Guggeheim is being created as we speak by Daniel Buren. It will be set up on the Puente de la Salve, a bridge that supports a dual carriageway which was there since before the museum was constructed, and which Gehry felt obliged to include within the Guggenheim’s design. Said bridge now crosses over the top of the museum, and Buren’s sculpture will round off the design of the building.
In truth, the Guggenheim, with or without its pet puppy, is a fantastic structure and the proof of the pudding is that it is a museum which even fascinates kids – because if anything defines the Guggenheim’s character, it is the fact that it is a happy museum.
The most British city
Bilbao is considered, by many Spanish people, as the ‘most British’ of all cities in the country. This is mainly due to its closeness, geographically, to England, which it is linked to by the ferry Pride of Bilbao, and also because Bilbao has always admired the city of London due to the eminently industrial characteristics of the latter’s economy during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The upper class of Bilbao, before falling into the trap of becoming casual fashion victims, used to dress in jackets and waistcoats in the style of the English during that era.
There is even a popular song – practically an anthem – which says, “an Englishman came to Bilbao to see the river and the sea, and on seeing the young Bilbao women no longer wished to leave.”
What can you see in the Guggenheim this year?
The matter of time
Impressive sculptures by this North American artists, installed in a 130-metre exhibition hall designed by architect Frank Gehry and designed with these giant wrought-iron creations in mind (fourth photo).
Until September 3
One of the best anthological exhibitions of the monumental painting by this German artist. In the museum’s atrium you will find this colossal work that the painter dedicated to poet Paul Celan and to his suffering during the Nazi holocaust.
Until September 9
More than 100 engravings by the most celebrated face of the German Renaissance. His drawings are almost perfection.
Installation and Video in the Guggenheim collection
This exhibition shows the best works of installation and video from the Guggenheim collection, which are habitually on display in the Foundation’s other museums.
Minimalism and conceptual art of the 60s and 70s
Between 1991 and 1992, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum incoporated into its collection some 350 minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual works which CAME from the prestigious Panza di Biumo collection. The best selection of these will travel to Bilbao this autumn.
USArt: 300 years of innovation
October 11 to February 3 2008
A selection of 200 works of art from numerous private and public collections that reveal the evolution of North American art in six temporary sections, which run from the War of Independence to the present date. The exhibition reflects the formation of the North American mentality that comes from the cultural, political, ethnic, economic and natural diversity of the USA.
Each to their own (Cada uno a su gusto)
October 16, 2007-2008
To celebrate its tenth anniversary, the museum has launched this temporary exhibition featuring Basque artists who have been invited to produce specific works that blend in with the different parts of the museum. The best works will go on to form part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.
Tenth anniversary celebrations
Puente de la Salve
Artist Daniel Buren is working on a sculpture that will lend a new carácter to the La Salve bridge, on the carriageway that runs over the roof of the museum, and which will remain there permanently as part of the Guggenheim’s collection. Buren won an international contest which also featured entries by Liam Gillick and Jenny Holzer.
Music for the museum
An internationally-recognised Bilbao-born composer, Gabriel Erkoreka is putting together a piece for the museum’s tenth anniversary. In October, the theatre company MOMIX will take over the organising of the Guggenheim’s birthday party. All you need to know about the Guggenheim’s tenth birthday can be found on: www.gubilbao.com
Translated by: Samantha Kett