Blown away by Guggenheim Bilbao


The city of Bilbao sits at the northern edge of Spain where Basque country attaches itself to southwestern France. It wasn’t too long ago that Bilbao exported iron ore; it was also a major ship-building centre on the estuary of the Nervión River. Cobbled as it is to either side of the Nervión, the river divides the city into two distinct zones: on the eastern bank unrenovated working-class neighbourhoods and ship-building works; on the western arm historic, residential and urban areas. As for the origin of the city’s name, in both Basque and Spanish the word alludes to water. One of the likeliest theories is that it derives from the Basque term ‘billa-ibaia-bao’ meaning ‘river cove’.

It was, of course, visionary architect Frank Gehry’s museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao, that raised the profile of this degraded factory landscape, slowly luring designers, artists and, later, visitors back to the city. At the time, the museum director’s challenge was to stimulate economic renewal and create new development in Bilbao. Apparently in conversation with Frank Gehry, the director implored him: ‘Mr Gehry, our town is dying. We need the Sydney Opera House.’

Canadian-born Gehry, famous for the fluid shapes and innovative materials of his buildings, built the museum in 1997 to be a symbol of the city’s renaissance. It also led to the clean-up of the Nervión River and a rejuvenation of industrial Bilbao into a cultural centre. The bronzed metal skin, imprinted with tile shapes, of the museum’s architectural lines hint at boats and water and even fish scales. The Guggenheim’s major success (20 million visitors) is a clear indication that the plan worked.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is definitely what makes the city’s heart pump. And as guidebooks have already said before me, the architecture is almost more of a showstopper itself than the Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso and Mondrian artworks displayed inside. The building is breath-taking. It is all gold titanium curves, sensuous folds, lattice structures and glass fissures. Inside are spirals and crossed beams and carefully curated kaleidoscopic views outside to Jeff Koons’s colourful Tulips sculpture.

In front of the museum building, arresting sculptures bring wide-eyed visitors to a halt even before they’ve ventured inside. A towering (9m high) spindly-legged bronze spider, ‘Maman’ (mother) features a sac beneath its abdomen carrying 10 marble eggs. Jeff Koons’s ‘Tulips’ are evidence of how the artist turns banal or mass-produced objects, used at birthday parties and festive events, into ‘something hard, gleaming, and iconic’. A mass of silver bubbles by Anish Kapoor, named ‘Tall Tree & The Eye’, drew on complex mathematical and structural principles for inspiration. A mirror effect allows the orbs to reflect and refract one another, ‘creating and dissolving form and space’ says the artist.

Inside, the permanent exhibition comprises mostly Modern Art, but there is a rotation of temporary exhibitions. A notable piece is Andy Warhol’s screenprint featuring 150 negative-style images of Marilyn Monroe. However, it’s that architectural masterpiece of a building that simply should not be missed if you just happen to find yourself in Bilbao one day.

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