Bilbao’s spectacular Guggenheim Museum has not only distinguished itself as one of Spain’s greatest modern architectural gems. The museum attracts so many visitors that it has once again put Bilbao on the tourist map of the world.
Updated January 2020
Heavy clouds had darkened Bilbao, and the city was one big puddle when I first drove along the Nervión River one early evening. The titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum glittered in the dark, magically reflected in the river. Already there, on the other side of the river, I was sold, and as soon as I checked into the hotel, I ran to shelter from the rain under the red La Salve bridge so I could admire the organic shapes and the play of colours of the titanium plates of the 57-metre-high museum. I found it difficult to detach myself again, and never have I waited so impatiently for a museum to open.
Spider and dog as welcome committee
The next morning, the Guggenheim Museum was beaming with the sun as I walked over the La Salve bridge towards the museum.
The Canadian-American architect Frank O. Gehry has created the museum with its fish-like shape and 33,000 titanium plates that change expression according to weather and light.
Whether you enter the museum from the back or main entrance, the sight is overwhelming enough to take your breath away. As you walk along the back of the museum, you are greeted by Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider, Mamen, who embraces you like a large protective mother animal as you stand beneath the iron beast’s body and are encircled by its thin legs.
At the museum’s main entrance, Jeff Koons’ 23-metre-high Puppy, covered in some 60,000 brightly coloured flowers, guards. According to Koons, the terrier is meant to create optimism and instil “confidence and security”. Outside, you’ll also find Koons’ Tulips, as well as works by artists such as Yves Klein, Eduardo Chillida and Fujiko Nakaya. I can only recommend that you take plenty of time to walk around the 24,000 square metre building and closely study how, from all angles, it interacts beautifully with the riverside area.
Inside, a large bright atrium with limestone walls, glass and titanium facades is the heart of the museum, connecting the three floors of which 11,000 square metres are exhibition space. From here, the 20 galleries are accessed via walkways, stairs and glass elevators. On the ground floor you can look out over the river, the outside of the building and the art outside and see how well the inside and outside of the building blend together.
Works by Spanish and international artists
The Guggenheim Museum houses only modern art. On the ground floor you will find the museum’s permanent works such as the interesting installation The Matter of Time, created by the American sculptor Richard Serra. The installation consists of seven sculptures made of thin, rolled steel plates, which together form a passage that fills the entire 130-metre-long, asymmetrical gallery, the museum’s largest. As you walk through the passage of sculptures, the shapes change from spirals and ellipses to torsos of different sizes and heights. You can only look up, and you have to go back the way you came in. The Sierra challenges our claustrophobia, but if you surrender to the shapes and changing colours of the steel plates, the trip is a fantastic experience.
The Guggenheim Museum’s permanent exhibition includes works by Spanish and international artists such as Jorge Oteiza, Antonio Saura, Miquel Barceló, Joeeph Beuys, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Italian artist Francesco Clemente, who has dedicated an entire gallery to his work Mothers Room.
The museum has a varied range of changing exhibitions, where you can discover both local and international artists. Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois and Andy Warhol have had exhibitions that show more than the permanent works they have in the museum, and artists such as Francis Bacon, Yoko Ono, Antoni Tàpies and our own Asger Jorn have also been shown. The ongoing exhibitions also regularly have themes such as photo and video art.
No doubt Frank Gehry’s building contains interesting art, but the sculptural building is a work of art in itself, greater than the art it houses.
The Bilbao museum, funded by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, was inaugurated in 1997.
It was commissioned by the Basque government, which wanted to modernise Bilbao, which had historically gone from being a renowned port and industrial city to, by the 1980s, a struggling and polluted city with economic problems. The Guggenheim Museum was one of a series of new attractions built to complete that mission.
The museum was strategically built on the formerly vital port and industrial site, which now lay deserted and abandoned. In his choice of materials such as titanium and in the fish-like shape of the museum, Frank Gehry created a building with reference to the area and Bilbao’s history.
Already at the opening, the public flocked, as attracted by the famous architect and his spectacular building as the exhibitions. Since then, the number of visitors has increased so dramatically that it has changed the city in the desired direction. Bilbao has new hotels, shops, restaurants and a cleaner city with more green spaces and cycle paths, not to mention more cultural attractions.
The Bilbao Effect
According to the Guggenheim Museum’s latest published figures, over 1.1 million people visited the museum in Bilbao in 2015, an all-time high. The museum has had a desired impact on the city, to such an extent that people around the world are inspired and talk about the “Bilbao effect.”
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 8pm. Open some Mondays. Check the website for dates.