Guggenheim Bilbao – 1997

It catapulted architecture into the mainstream and had museums scrambling to copy the “formula.”

When the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao—Frank Gehry’s signature building—went up in the heart of Spain’s turbulent Basque region in 1997, it symbolized three things: the so-called globalization of art and architecture, the worldwide boom in museum building, and the priority of culture in the economic life of communities. In terms of the Guggenheim itself, Gehry took on the unenviable task of creating an iconic bookend for Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York original, a building capable of advancing the Guggenheim brand globally. Nine years out the Spanish version appears to have succeeded in every way, as architecture, catalyst, and brand. But for museums seeking to emulate Guggenheim Bilbao’s success, the lessons turn out to be hard to interpret and harder to follow.

“You have to understand that Bilbao represents a unique set of conditions that may not be duplicated,” director general Juan Ignacio Vidarte says. “The Basque government and the city of Bilbao approached the Guggenheim with a proposal because we understood that to develop the city and the region, culture would be essential, and we had to make an investment.” That investment amounted to $100 million to get the building up and running, and an initial $1.5 billion to develop the city, including the Santiago Calatrava airport, the Norman Foster metro, the construction of a conference and performing-arts center, and the Cesar Pelli-designed riverfront park. Few communities can afford to make such massive investments in so short a period. On the payoff side, the museum is doing what it is supposed to: annual attendance is about a million, nearly twice the original estimate, 60 percent of it from outside Spain. Tourism and business growth haven’t yet peaked, and the riverfront around the museum is a social catalyst, even in the gray winter. “We had a beautiful art museum,” Vidarte says. “We could have expanded it, but we needed to do something inappropriate to make a new association in people’s minds with Bilbao.”

A similar goal was voiced by the Denver city planner about the new Daniel Libeskind addition to the Denver Art Museum, a design more extreme than Gehry’s. But Vidarte’s “unique set of conditions” reveal why Bilbao’s risk and ambition are on a whole other level. In 1978, when the new Spanish constitution set relations between the regions and the central government, it granted the Basque greater autonomy than that of most other areas. While the revenues of the other regions go to Madrid and are redistributed, the Basque region keeps its own and pays what amounts to a tax. With one of the largest ports in Spain (connected to Bilbao by the Nervión River), the region had the deep pockets to take the risk, which involves owning the museum and the collections acquired under its rubric. There are good reasons why the Basque government felt it had no choice but to act inappropriately.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, in anticipation of a borderless and expanded European Union, cities across the Iberian Peninsula from Lisbon to Valencia began planning to cash in on the growth of tourism and global business. Both of those cities have initiated redevelopment projects that visually dwarf that of Bilbao. Valencia’s vast futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, whose planning began in 1991—about the time Gehry was being selected for the Guggenheim project—is a complex of cultural centers and surrounding commercial and residential development, with designs by Calatrava and Felix Candela. Solely in terms of contemporary art museums, Bilbao was a latecomer behind two major players, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (1988), the renovated sixteenth-century hospital recently expanded by Jean Nouvel, and the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM, 1989). Pursuit of the Bilbao bounce is most intense in Iberia, where a Darwinian struggle for regional preeminence is being waged.

What U.S. museums see when they look at this landscape is rather different. Currently, something like 40 major museum projects are either recently completed, under construction, or on the drawing board. This includes marquee contemporary art museums in New York (SANAA), Boston (Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Chicago (Josef Paul Kleihues), and Cincinnati (Zaha Hadid). It also includes sometimes less buzzy and often much larger projects to retrofit or expand important existing museums, including the Whitney (Renzo Piano), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Foster and Partners), the Cleveland Museum of Art (Rafael Vi–oly), the Walker Art Center (Herzog & de Meuron, who have also completed the deYoung earthquake rebuild), the Peabody Essex Museum (Moshe Safdie), and the Denver Art Museum (Daniel Libeskind). Although Walker director Kathy Halbreich has insisted that “Bilbao was an aberration,” it would be absurd to maintain that these museums have not paid close attention to the potential benefits of an iconic building, even when they already have one. And in more than a few cases, cities have rolled the dice that art in the right container can be a mapmaker. But Halbreich is right in another way: just as unique conditions apply to Bilbao, they also apply to many museums in the United States.

It’s worth pointing out that fancy architects and art have gone together for decades. The current boom should be seen in a continuum of expansion dating at least from Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Pompidou Center (1977). In the United States important art museums and additions went up throughout the 1970s and ’80s in Los Angeles (Richard Meier’s Getty Center; Arata Isozaki’s MOCA), Houston (Rafael Moneo’s new MFA building), Dallas (Edward Larrabee Barnes’s Dallas Museum of Art), Boston (I. M. Pei’s MFA addition), and Atlanta (Meier’s High Museum). No one needed Bilbao to help these museums understand that great architects can create great spaces for art, even if the art seems to be an afterthought.

But none of these communities has made the degree of public investment or attempted the kind of civic jump-start that Bilbao has. Big cultural buildings in the United States come from big donors, not from the state or even from large corporations. The vast majority of MFA Boston’s $425 million fund-raising campaign for its Foster plan came from a relatively small number of Bostonians. The Getty didn’t have to go outside its own resources, and much earlier, the National Gallery’s East Wing (I. M. Pei), perhaps the most successful museum addition in the country, was paid for solely by Paul Mellon. It’s a point of pride and programmatic necessity given the politics of culture that American museums don’t function primarily as civic-development arms. States and municipalities may give tax breaks and zoning easements, but they never go into the museum business.

One thing that American museums, including those burned by dramatic designs that never got off the ground, point to in order to distance themselves from both the success and the fascination of Bilbao is the overwhelming primacy of Gehry’s design, that it is not “mission centered” but masturbatory—that, as MoMA president emerita Agnes Gund remarked, “Sexy architecture is very good, but it doesn’t work for the purpose that it’s supposed to serve.” That purpose is, one presumes, the contemplative relation between the individual spectator and the work of art, for which the museum is a container (with an entrepreneurial attachment). Yet the Guggenheim’s true significance for a museum-mad epoch may be exactly what the hoopla of its economic and visual impact has obscured: how a building that doesn’t play by the rules complicates—and enriches—the relationship between art and audience.

Based on my recent visit to Bilbao, the pejorative word spectacle must be reinterpreted. I arrived early on a winter morning, when the hills around Bilbao were covered in mist and the city appeared utterly brown. The museum’s frozen eruption seemed caught Laocoön-like in the coils of a serpentine highway bridge. The river itself was barely noticeable. I have rarely experienced as weird an urban sight. But over the next several hours as the sun came out, the transformation of building, city, and riverfront was astonishing. Everything took light from the sky, and the museum became at least as much a symbol as a spectacle of the day’s juvenescence. The word theater would be more appropriate, a public communal event with cathartic, even transformative power.

Inside it is clear that Gehry has understood Wright’s radical building far better than he has been credited. For one thing, both are based on the elevator, and the recognition that going up and down should be exciting, that an art museum should be more inspiring than a trudge from room to room. You want to climb to the tops of both buildings to see what you can see inside and, at Bilbao, out. Both feel grand but track small, and both can be done in a day, if not in an afternoon. It will be a while before Bilbao develops the kind of programming (and nightlife) that makes people feel they need to come back real soon. So the notion of “doing it in a day” is still a powerful attraction.

The gallery spaces—much criticized for their wildly varying heights and depths, and confusing communication with one another—deserve another think. Eight Richard Serra works have permanently muscled their way into the hangarlike Arcelor Gallery, which works spectacularly with its wavelike ceiling and complicated vaulting. The installation represents a Basque coup as bold as the museum itself. It is the only place in the world to see such a collection of Serras, and in such dramatic relation. Is it worth a trip just for this single experience? That is a question every museum wishes it had the ability to provoke among art lovers.

The other spaces—some pedestrian, some surprising, some bizarre—suggest that the real problem with the art-viewing experience is not architecture but programming, or rather, curating. In this museum the art has to adapt to the space, and not vice versa. Each space has to be curated, the art selected specifically for it. Of course, this frustrates the programming of most large-scale exhibitions, where the main requirement for continuity is lots of unobtrusive space. The point here is exactly the opposite of the new MoMA, where Modernist gigantism reduces all manner of objects to a tasteful common denominator and makes them more curatorially manageable.

For any museum it’s still what happens inside that counts most. But what happens inside museums these days is changing because the kind of art being made is changing, from stable objects to unruly, often outsize, heterogeneous experiences. In this sense container and contained are—or will be—in perfect harmony. For the Guggenheim Bilbao heralds a time when not just the physical museum but the art it contains is the spectator sport (here today and probably gone tomorrow, but boy, something just happened). This art doesn’t need a tomb to live forever, rather it needs a place to play and maybe (in the case of Serra) a gym to work out. Artists are already making the kind of art that would fit better here than Warhols or even Koonses, and curators are just beginning to get a sense of how to adapt to such opportunities. When they all find their way to Bilbao, the real Bilbao effect will be felt around the world.

Recent Programs