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The Architect's New Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Emerges as a Testament to One Man's Optimism Amid a Landscape of Industrial Decay

June 02, 1997|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

BILBAO, Spain — It stands amid industrial ruin. Rooted at the crossroads of a gray urban stretch of the Nervion River and a sweeping roadway, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is an ecstatic celebration of all we have learned to hate: the dying industrial landscape, an urban infrastructure that rings our cities and is the true legacy of our century. By audaciously embracing this site, Gehry's design is a radical affirmation of the spirit of our age.

Gehry's not-yet-completed building, which will officially open in the fall, has already been touted as one of the great architectural works of the decade, and at Saturday night's award ceremony for the annual Pritzker Prize for architecture--given this year to Norwegian Sverre Fehn--it was the building that was the event. Architects came from around the world to decipher its elusive beauty. But beauty is not the point.

Built at a cost of $89 million and financed by the Basque regional government, Gehry's 256,000-square-foot museum is more than a great architectural composition. A descendant of projects like his 1989 Vitra Museum in Weil, Germany, and his proposed Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall--designed in the late 1980s--Guggenheim Bilbao is an explosion of sculptural forms that the architect has doggedly honed to perfection. Like few buildings of its time, Gehry's design twists together urban and building elements and transforms them into a sincere expression of what our culture means.

Guggenheim Bilbao began with a meeting between Gehry and New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens in the fall of 1993. The project is an answer to the Guggenheim's desire for satellites worldwide that will allow it to exhibit more of its holdings. For the industrial port city of Bilbao, the museum is part of a larger plan to become a cultural center. While climbing a hill overlooking the city, Krens and Gehry spotted the current site. As Gehry put it later, "I couldn't imagine a more perfect spot for a museum of Modern art."

The structure they built matches the powerful sweep of the adjacent roadway bridge. There is no signature facade; two simple blocks, clad in a pale Spanish limestone, anchor the composition, while a fantastic clutter of shimmering forms bursts out of the top of the museum, asserting its importance among the surrounding large urban elements. The organic-shaped, titanium-clad galleries emerge from the base like the gleaming bodies of slippery fish.

The largest of these forms--nearly 440 feet long--is the most dramatic. Its swollen body stretches out along the water, up to the bridge's rail, where it swells to create a huge gaping window. A steel open-frame tower twists up on the bridge's other side, wrapping the bridge into the museum and providing a pedestrian stair down to the waterfront.

That deep connection to the tough landscape continues inside. Visitors enter from the roadway side and descend a grand stairway between two flanking wings, as if they were cleaving the site in two. The building tightens as you pass through the threshold and then bursts open as you reach the atrium. In front of you, a towering window looks out at the river and the profile of the massive bridge.

It is impossible to describe the emotion of this space. Gehry claims that the titanium skin of the exterior actually trembles in a strong wind, as if the building were breathing. But it is here, in the atrium, that the building comes to life. Its undulating, erotic form twists up toward the sky, as if to suck the visitor up into some wonderful dream.

Krens saw this building as a direct response to the perceived arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the famed New York Guggenheim museum, which opened in 1959. Gehry's atrium is inspired by Wright's rotunda, but it does not mimic it.

Here, as visitors wander up the stairs and walkways that encircle the space, the forms pull apart, offering views both out into the urban landscape or back into the many galleries. There are a series of different spaces to show art: simple galleries for the permanent collections and more complex spaces to show contemporary work. By weaving both together, Gehry creates a world of the unexpected. Each turn provokes shock and delight; tranquillity alternates with deep emotion.

The galleries themselves are industrial in scale. On the first floor, the smallest is 9,000 square feet, the largest 20,000. The scale of the latter is almost unwieldy, the distance across the space is so great. Once you reach the end of the hangar-like space, there is no way out. You must turn around and go back. A newly commissioned work by sculptor Richard Serra--the only artwork installed in the museum to date--is made of three curving walls that weigh 168 tons in all, yet despite their grandeur, they look modest here.

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