Driving in from the airport, topping a rise, central Bilbao comes into view, nestled in a valley on the River Nervion, which isn’t a river actually, but an estuary wending in from the Atlantic coast. What captures the attention immediately is a tall tower by the river and a gleam of golden light reflected from behind it. The tower, rising in an asymmetrical curve, looks like it might be a raised drawbridge or some sort of crane for handling freight. It turns out to be a purely sculptural element of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a building of such brilliant innovation and esthetic triumph that it has been called a twentieth century Chartres.
Indeed, what Gehry has wrought is a cathedral to art, a soaring sculpture functioning both as exhibition spaceand symbol of civic pride for a provincial city reaching for greatness. The burghers of Bilbao, in the heart of politically troubled Basque country, had the vision and the resources to negotiate for this outpost of Tom Krens’ ever-growing Guggenheim empire. Bilbao has become a place of pilgrimage for architecture buffs and they will not be disappointed.
Composed of a group of freeflowing volumes that seem to have met in a train crash, the building shows sections of its steel skeleton, but mostly is clothed in tissue-paper thin titanium (from whence the startlingly beautiful effects of reflected light, the source of the welcoming gleam from afar), warm limestone, and glass. From the three main materials, paneling of unique sizes and shapes (details generated from computer design, manufactured by computer commanded robots) was created, thus allowing for the organically irregular and curved shapes of the mass. It’s like a mutated kind of shingling, taking that technique to places it has never been before. (Critic Paul Goldberger noted that changes in architecture have already moved ahead of Gehry; while Gehry designs in his head and implements with the computer, a new generation has adopted the computer itself as the generator of design. Still, Gehry’s work could not be implemented without the use of computers.)
If the placement of the building on the shore and out over the river logically birthed a metaphor for a sailing ship, its exotic and futuristic look also gives rise to thoughts of space ships and exotic alien botanies. Another botanical aspect, the flower-clad Jeff Koons sculpture, "Puppy," which greets visitors at the main entrance to the museum, is charming, but hardly seems up to the level of its master. It shares an audacity of scale, but lacks both the complexity and the depth of the sculpture that the building itself constitutes. It’s a playful toy terrier guarding a giant, serious mastiff.
On the other hand, a permanently displayed Richard Serra, "Snake," in the main exhibition hall, exemplifies Serra’s idea of sculpture as architecture, joining with Gehry’s idea of architecture as sculpture in a confluence offering unexpected esthetic satisfaction. This is a more balanced interplay, a dialogue of equals.
Any evaluation of the collections themselves must be held in abeyance, since few are currently on display–not a single painting is to be seen; in any event the permanent collection is more sculpturally and conceptually oriented. The third floor exhibition space, like some mislocated boutique, is filled with clothes by Armaniand the second floor contains the multimedia works of "The Worlds of Nam June Paik" (reviewed here from its New York venue). Both of these exhibits are from the Guggenheim roster of touring attractions, a sort of Barnum and Bailey approach to the dissemination of art. You probably don’t need to travel to Bilbao for the contents, which you might see in New York or Berlin or Venice; you do want to come here to see the Gehry.
The building’s site is challenging, fronted on one side with a freight yard (the stacked up shipping containers creating serendipitous minimalist sculptures, as if emulating their upscale neighbor) and with a heavily trafficked bridge crossing the northern sector. The highrise tower, that first glimpse of the museum from afar, is intended by Gehry to balance and to integrate the preexisting bridge itself into the overall composition of the building. In that it is consistent with the idea of integrating the entire institution into the cultural as well as the visual fabric of Bilbao, a goal which appears to have been gratifyingly achieved. The groups of scrubbed schoolchildren gaining early exposure to the art of their times seem both to marvel at their discoveries and to take the whole experience in stride while doing so.
Gehry has also creatively used the waterfront setting. Building out over the water and using a combination of water-filled pools and the river itself, he clouds the boundaries of both, again finding a flow between building and site. But it is more complicated than that, for from some viewpoints inside, the water feels like a protective moat, adding yet another layer of perceptions. The towering glass sheathing of the central atrium achieves a parallel result, integrating interior and exterior, while the space provides the fulcrum for the surrounding galleries, the stem from which the petals grow.
The view entering the Guggenheim from the front is deceptive; it presents a friendlier scale than the massive building might otherwise offer. Since the building spills down over the bluff that sides the river, much of its volume is seen only from the river side. Taking a stroll across the bridge to get the full effect from that viewpoint or from the far shore is essential to gaining a sense of the whole.
Perhaps taking the cue from the success of Bilbao, Krens has now proposed a new Guggenheim building for the New York waterfront, another Gehry design which, from photos of the model, looks like an iteration of Bilbao, grown to New York City proportions. It would be a mistake to prejudge the proposed building from a mockup, but it takes faith to remain optimistic that it could possibly be as transforming, as innovative, as completely captivating as the masterpiece in Vizcaya.
(Note: Plans for the New York building were cancelled at a later date.)