The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and located in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. The museum was inaugurated on 18 October 1997 by former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Built alongside the Nervion River, which runs through the city of Bilbao to the Cantabrian Sea, it is one of several museums belonging to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and features permanent and visiting exhibits of works by Spanish and international artists. It is one of the largest museums in Spain.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s mission is to collect, preserve, and research into modern and contemporary works of art and to present them in their historical context, offering audiences of every age and type a chance to discover the art of our time. The Museum’s art program, which includes presentations from the permanent collection and special exhibitions, is presented in the building designed by Frank Gehry, an extraordinary architectural landmark on a par with the art treasures it houses. Conceived as part of an ambitious plan to completely transform the city of Bilbao, the Museum is the product of an exceptional partnership between the Basque Institutions and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Since it first opened to the public on October 19, 1997, the Guggenheim Bilbao has been part of the international constellation of Guggenheim Museums, renowned for its iconic buildings and innovative approach to museum model that allows members to share resources, projects, and initiatives.
One of the most admired works of contemporary architecture, the building has been hailed as a “signal moment in the architectural culture”, because it represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.” The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.
In 1991, the Basque government suggested to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation that it would fund a Guggenheim museum to be built in Bilbao’s decrepit port area, once the city’s main source of income. The Basque government agreed to cover the US$100 million construction cost, to create a US$50 million acquisitions fund, to pay a one-time US$20 million fee to the Guggenheim and to subsidize the museum’s US$12 million annual budget. In exchange, the Foundation agreed to manage the institution, rotate parts of its permanent collection through the Bilbao museum and organize temporary exhibitions.
The museum was built by Ferrovial, at a cost of US$89 million. About 5,000 residents of Bilbao attended a preopening extravaganza outside the museum on the night preceding the official opening, featuring an outdoor light show and concerts. On 18 October 1997 the museum was opened by Juan Carlos I of Spain.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation selected Frank Gehry as the architect, and its director, Thomas Krens, encouraged him to design something daring and innovative. The curves on the exterior of the building were intended to appear random; the architect said that “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light”. The interior “is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country”. The atrium, which Gehry nicknamed The Flower because of its shape, serves as the organizing center of the museum.
Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao building represents a magnificent example of the most groundbreaking 20th-century architecture. With 24,000 m2, of which 11,000 are dedicated to exhibition space, the Museum represents an architectural landmark of audacious configuration and innovating design, providing a seductive backdrop for the art exhibited in it.
Altogether, Gehry’s design creates a spectacular sculpture-like structure, perfectly integrated within Bilbao’s urban pattern and its surrounding area.
Surrounded by attractive avenues and squares, the Museum is located in a newly developed area of the city, leaving its industrial past behind. The Museum plaza and main entrance lie in a direct line with Calle Iparragirre—one of the main streets running diagonally through Bilbao—, extending the city center right up the Museum’s door. Once in the plaza, visitors access the Hall by making their way down a broad stairway, an unusual feature that successfully overcomes the height difference between the areas alongside the Nervión River, where the Museum stands, and the higher city level. This way, Gehry created a spectacular structure without it rising above the height of adjacent buildings. The highest part of the Museum is crowned by a large skylight in the shape of a metal flower covering the Atrium, one of the building’s most characteristic features.
It is possible to walk all the way around the Museum, admiring different configurations from each perspective and also a number of artworks installed outside by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons, or Fujiko Nakaya. The Museum site is crossed at one end by La Salve Bridge that, since 2007, supports the sculpture commissioned from Daniel Buren entitled Arcos rojos / Arku Gorriak. Stretching under the bridge, gallery 104—an enormous, column-free space that houses Richard Serra’s installation The Matter of Time—ends in a tower, a sculpture gesture that brings the architectural design to a crescendo that appears to envelop the colossal bridge and effectively incorporates it into the building.
Once inside the Hall, visitors access the Atrium, the real heart of the Museum and one of the signature traits of Frank Gehry’s architectural design. With curved volumes and large glass curtain walls that connect the inside and the outside, the Atrium is an ample space flooded with light and covered by a great skylight. The three levels of the building are organized around the Atrium and are connected by means of curved walkways, titanium and glass elevators, and staircases. Also an exhibition space, the Atrium functions as an axis for the 20 galleries, some orthogonally shaped and with classical proportions and others with organic, irregular lines. The play with different volumes and perspectives generates indoor spaces where visitors do not feel overwhelmed. Such variety has demonstrated its enormous versatility in the expert hands of curators and exhibition designers who have found the ideal atmosphere to present both large format works in contemporary mediums and smaller or more intimate shows.
In addition to the gallery space and a separate office building, the Museum has a visitor orientation room, Zero Espazioa; an auditorium seating 300; a store/bookstore; a cafeteria; and two restaurants: a bistro and a one Michelin star haute cuisine restaurant.
When the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened to the public in 1997, it was immediately hailed as one of the world’s most spectacular buildings in the style of Deconstructivism, a masterpiece of the 20th century. Architect Philip Johnson described it as “the greatest building of our time”, while critic Calvin Tomkins, in The New Yorker, characterized it as “a fantastic dream ship of undulating form in a cloak of titanium,” its brilliantly reflective panels also reminiscent of fish scales. Herbert Muschamp praised its “mercurial brilliance” in The New York Times Magazine. The Independent calls the museum “an astonishing architectural feat”. The building inspired other structures of similar design across the globe.
The museum is seamlessly integrated into the urban context, unfolding its interconnecting shapes of stone, glass and titanium on a 32,500-square-meter site along the Nervión River in the ancient industrial heart of the city; while modest from street level, it is most impressive when viewed from the river. With a total 24,000 m2, of which 11,000 m2 are dedicated to exhibition space, it had more exhibition space than the three Guggenheim collections in New York and Venice combined at that time. The 11,000 m2 of exhibition space are distributed over nineteen galleries, ten of which follow a classic orthogonal plan that can be identified from the exterior by their stone finishes. The remaining nine galleries are irregularly shaped and can be identified from the outside by their swirling organic forms and titanium cladding. The largest gallery measures 30 meters wide and 130 meters long. In 2005, it housed Richard Serra’s monumental installation The Matter of Time, which Robert Hughes dubbed “courageous and sublime”.
The museum notably houses “large-scale, site-specific works and installations by contemporary artists”, such as Richard Serra’s 100-meter-long Snake, and displays the work of Basque artists, “as well as housing a selection of works” from the Foundation’s modern art collection. In 1997, the museum opened with “The Guggenheim Museums and the Art of This Century”, a 300-piece overview of 20th-century art from Cubism to new media art. Most pieces came from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, but the museum also acquired paintings by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still and commissioned new works by Francesco Clemente, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer and Richard Serra.
The exhibitions change often; the museum generally hosts thematic exhibitions, centered for example on Chinese or Russian art. Traditional paintings and sculptures are a minority compared to installations and electronic forms. The highlight of the collection, and its only permanent exhibit, is The Matter of Time, a series of weathering steel sculptures designed by Serra, which is housed in the 130-meter Arcelor Gallery. The collections usually highlight Avant-garde art, 20th century abstraction, and non-objective art. When the museum announced the 2011 exhibition “The Luminous Interval”, a show of artwork belonging to Greek businessman Dimitris Daskalopoulos, who is also a museum trustee, this met with criticism of, among other things, too much curatorial power for a serious benefactor. In 2005, Olivier Berggruen and Ingrid Pfeiffer curated a retrospective of Yves Klein. In 2012 David Hockney’s exhibition drew over 290,000 visitors to the museum.
The museum was opened as part of a revitalization effort for the city of Bilbao. Almost immediately after its opening, the Guggenheim Bilbao became a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the globe. In its first three years, almost 4 million tourists visited the museum, helping to generate about €500 million in economic activity.
In its first three years, almost 4 million tourists visited the museum, helping to generate about €500 million in economic activity. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building cost.
The building was featured in the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough in the pre-title sequence and the 2007 Tamil film Sivaji: The Boss, in which it is the setting for the song Style, composed by A.R. Rahman. Mariah Carey’s music video “Sweetheart”, directed by Hype Williams, shows singers Jermaine Dupri and Carey in various locations at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.