Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building.

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum: Not Just A Building: An Experience.

Introduction. How the Bilbao Guggenheim came to be.
If ever the fortunes/ public image of a city can be said to have changed dramatically for the better thanks to one building, it would be hard to find a better example than the impact of the spectacular Guggenheim Museum on the Basque city of Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque). In a short time, it has become for Bilbao what, for example, the opera house became for Sydney, Australia: an immediately identifiable structure suggesting vision, taste and boldness. It has also given rise to the controversial term “Bilbao” or “Guggenheim” effect, a narrative whereby the construction of a building is seen as responsible for the transformation of a city from (relative) cultural obscurity to world-wide fame. [Some Basque nationalists even objected to the construction of the Museum, seeing it as nothing more than a piece of American imperialism and an insult to Basque culture. Indeed, a Basque policeman was killed when he foiled a grenade attack on the Museum by separatists less than a week before it opened. The Guardian Newspaper. See under Sources for website.]

The construction of the Guggenheim forms part of a wide and ongoing cleanup and transformation of a city whose history was long dominated by fishing, heavy industry (iron, steel, chemicals, shipbuilding), and commercial pursuits (banking, Stock Exchange and trading). Although not the capital of Euskadi i. e., the Basque Country (the capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz.), the city was the economic hub of the region and a major contributor to the Spanish economy. But it was largely a gritty, dour, colourless city that suffered badly in comparison with its glitzy Basque neighbour, San Sebastian, long a favorite summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy and the wealthy.

However, at the end of the 20th century Bilbao suffered a severe economic decline, a decline that, nevertheless, gave the city authorities –with the support of the Basque government– the opportunity to clean and modernise the city.

Besides the Guggenheim, there is also a state-of-the-art rapid transit system, an ultra-modern airport terminal, and a massive new super port, Bilbao’s impressive maritime gateway to the world and entry point for cruise ships attracted by the Guggenheim. In the centre of the city, the sleek 165-metre (541-foot) Iberdrola tower dominates the skyline. Opened in 2012, it is the headquarters of a multinational utilities company,

Green spaces have sprouted where smokestacks from grimy factories spewing pollutants from smelters and furnaces once dominated the skyline, and the River Nervión has been cleaned and its banks become prime development land.

The Guggenheim as Work of Art.
The stunning Guggenheim Museum –designed by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect, Frank Gehry– opened in October 1997, and rightly takes pride of place in the renovation of the city. The building –a stunning art complex administered by the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation– has been acclaimed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

Prado Museum. Madrid,

A walk around the Guggenheim is an eye-opening experience and a must-do before entering the building. Traditional ideas of what an art museum should look like –e. g. classical structures, such as the Prado Museum in Madrid, the original Tate Gallery, London or the Louvre, Paris– are constantly challenged if not shattered by the irregular changing perspectives, which seem to defy structural logic. But then, the Guggenheim is not simply a museum, it is itself an avant-garde work of art.

Edged by a park and canal on one side and by the river Nervión on the other, its dynamic impact is immediate and changes according to where you view it from. From the park side, where the entrance is located, the museum rises above the trees in an imaginative combination of different shapes at odd angles.

The Guggenheim from the Salve bridge.

The dynamism of the odd angles and shapes is enhanced by the different construction materials visible: glass, cream-coloured limestone, and titanium cladding. 

However, look at the building from the Puente de la Salve bridge (officially the Puente Príncipes de España) spanning the Nervión river, and it transforms into a ship with its sleek, shimmering titanium siding conjuring images of sails riding the river. What could be more apt to capture Bilbao’s historical shipping connection tradition?

Five must-see Exterior Art Works before entering the Museum.
The stunning and unconventional exterior undoubtedly impresses, but walking around the building also brings visitors face to face with a disparate variety of art works or sculptures that are in many ways as surprising and unconventional as the building itself. They are an integral part of the experience.

What are a gigantic dog, an enormous spider, a tower of metallic balls and a bouquet of huge multicoloured tulips doing in this place? And perhaps even more unconventional, a “piece” of art created out of fog! Yes, fog! Known simply as Fog Sculpture #08025, its form varies according to weather conditions and the time when it gets activated. In other words, you may see it or you may not! And should you happen to see it more than once, it will never be the same.

The dog and the tulips are the works of the American artist, Jeff Koons. You can’t miss the dog. It’s seated directly in your path to the entrance.

Guggenheim Museum. Puppy.

Fondly known as Puppy, it is an enormous, floral sculpture of a lovable West Highland terrier towering just over 12 metres (40 feet). The fur is made up of multi-coloured pansies and other vivid flowers, embedded in soil and supported on a steel frame, and fed by an internal irrigation system.

Guggenheim. Tulips.

Koon’s Tulips are located at the rear of the building. Made of stainless steel, the seven blown-up, coloured, flowers measure 5 metres (16.5 feet) across and 2 metres (6.5 feet) tall. The gleaming, flawless surfaces and various colours add a bit of dashing bravado against the grey of the tiles on which they stand and against the background regardless of whether it is the glass, titanium cladding and cream-coloured limestone of the museum or the apartment blocks and tree-covered hill across the river (as in the photo above).

Guggenheim Museum. Maman.

The spider (9 metres/30 feet x 10 metres/33 feet) is the work of the French-American sculptress, Louise Bourgeois. One of a series of spider sculptures, Maman (Mother) –as Bourgeois called it—is a warm tribute to her mother who died when Bourgeois was 21 and whom she recalled fondly as protective and caring. But why a spider? For many people the spider evokes fear (arachnophobia), but in Bourgeois’s case it turns out that her mother was a weaver and the spider has long been the archetypal image of the weaver. Furthermore, in Bourgeois’s view, spiders rid the world of mosquitos (which spread disease) and so are helpful and protective “just like my mother.”

Tall Tree and the Eye. Note the mist from Fog Sculpture.

The tower of metallic balls, called Tall Tree and the Eye (2009), is the work of the prolific British-Indian sculptor, Anish Kapoor. The title is an immediate challenge. It is not difficult to see the relationship between name and image in Puppy and Tulips, and even Maman can be understood in the terms outlined by Bourgeois. But the Tall Tree… does not look anything like a tree. It is a 15-metre (45 feet) tall structure made of 76 stainless steel spheres clinging together irregularly in a way that seems to defy gravity. Seated on an island of sandstone blocks, the spheres reflect and distort all views around them, each ball offering — like an all-seeing eye in constant motion– a different perspective. What we see via the spheres is ambiguity, and ephemerality and a delicate balancing act that suggests instability (despite the permanence suggested by the steel which the spheres are made of)… nothing is fixed, everything depends on the standpoint of the viewer, possibly the Eye. What’s to say that we can’t call a tower of stainless-steel spheres a “tree!

If Kapoor’s Tall Tree… suggests ephemerality and instability, what are we to make of Fog Sculpture #08025, a work that defies our usual and traditional understanding of sculpture. Created by the Japanese artist, Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture… was installed in 1998 and has no fixed form. Created out of pulverised water, it is activated for about 8-9 minutes every hour between 10.00 am. and 8.00/ 9.00 pm.

Guggenheim. Walkway between Maman and Tall Tree…

It emerges under the walkway between Maman and Tall Tree… and wafts its way over the shallow lagoon, occasionally obscuring the Tall Tree… and parts of the main building. It can even embrace viewers on the walkway as it swirls uncontrollably over the area. As it withdraws, the fog sometimes looks sea foam hitting the shore; other times, it slides silently back under the walkway.

Fog Sculpture #08025

Fog Sculpture #08025 is in effect, a self-creating phenomenon since once it is released, the creator loses control of the form it will eventually take. It is common place to say that works of art/literature etc. take on a life of their own independent of their creators, but Fog Sculpture…, transitory by nature, is perhaps the most extreme and maybe the most original example of art as defying any restriction or limitations that words or formal structures (e. g. a picture frame or the material that a sculpture is made of) impose on traditional forms.

The Guggenheim Inside.
Inside, from the moment you descend the entrance steps, pass through the lobby and enter the atrium, the Guggenheim is as unconventional as the outside.

Guggenheim. Atrium.
Guggenheim. Atrium.

There is the same lack of logical order and a deconstruction of accepted structural designs. Soaring upwards, there are large, leaning windows, steel girders, tilted cream-coloured stone pillars, white walls, suspended walkways, and paths that lead off in all directions. It is not a labyrinth, but it is a challenge, even with a brochure, to find the individual galleries. There are three levels reached by glass-enclosed elevators (lifts); the suspended walkways that link the galleries might not be to the taste of those with no head for height!

Of the 19 galleries, nine are unconventionally shaped, the rest classically rectangular in shape. Moving from gallery/room to the other is in itself an adventure since doors are not always in predictable spots. It is possible to be so easily absorbed by the structure that its art collections might be easily forgotten.

And there is nothing conventional about these art works inside. Appropriately, the Guggenheim specialises in modern and contemporary art, and its holdings are complemented by exhibitions including works drawn from other Guggenheim collections.

Kiefer. Blackened sunflowers.

On a first visit, it might be wise to limit viewing since the galleries themselves are unusually designed and the avant-garde works they contain require constant reconsideration against our more traditional perspectives on art.It is easy to be moved by e. g. Anselm Kiefer’s war imagery and blackened sunflowers, and struck by Andy Warhol’s One Hundred and Fifty Multicoloured Marilyns (silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe). The former are a touching evocation of the senseless destruction and desolation caused by war; the latter demonstrate the endless permutations potentially contained in an image. By comparison, Mark Rothko’s large-scale Untitled is cold and could be more aptly called “Unfinished.”

There is much more (for another page?), but everything about the Guggenheim –the building itself, its contents and its immediate surroundings— is a constant questioning about the nature and limitations of Art. Gehry has overthrown accepted norms in architecture, and Koons, Kapoor, Bourgeois and Nakaya engage us in a dialogue on the role of their works in the context in which they have been placed. Together, these works, both outside and inside the Guggenheim, issue an ongoing challenge. What, if any, are the limits of art?

Stich, Sidra art-Sites Spain: contemporaray art and architecture. San Francisco: art-Sites 2001 1st Edition.
Image of Prado Museum:
Image of Tall Tree and the Eye from Global Stainless Artworks, New Zealand: Click Stainless Steel Spheres to access image.
Image of Fog Sculpture:
Image of Anselm Kiefer’s Sunflowers:
The best way to appreciate Fog Sculpture #08025 is through videos. Google, for example: guggenheim bilbao fog sculpture.
For a succinct background to the building of the Museum (and an excellent photo of the old, industrial Bilbao), see