by David cohen

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is a supremely successful work, both artistically and economically. Its high-profile introduction into a capable but economically depressed locale has led the tremendous revival of this Spanish city.

The Guggenheim Bilbao opened to much fanfare and acclaim in October 1997. The striking silhouette of the building and the world-class art collection were an enormous draw. By one year later, attendance had far outstripped projections, as over 1.3 million people had passed through its doors. Expectations that the museum would deliver a wave of new visitors (and ancillary tourism money) to the city have been realized: A survey in 1998 found that 79% of all visitors traveled to Bilbao expressly to see the museum. By the end of 2000, 3.6 million visitors had seen the museum. According to surveys, 83% of those people came to Bilbao because of the museum.

Conceiving the Rebirth:
Bilbao is the sixth largest city in Spain, with a metropolitan area numbering about one million people. It is located in the heart of the Basque country: seven provinces gripping the border between Spain and France, draped across the Western Pyrenees Mountains. Three of the four Basque provinces in Spain comprise the Basque Autonomous Community, which has been the local governmental authority since 1978.

For centuries, Bilbao has been a commercial and industrial center because of its location on the Nervión River and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The area is rich in iron ore, which fueled a large iron and steel industry. Shipbuilding is also a major industry. Wealthy shipping magnates and industrialists populated the town.

Unfortunately, in the 1970’s the area experienced a major economic recession. Many shipyards and steelworks closed down. Much of the steel business was lost to Asia. In order to revive the economy, the Basque government started formulating a plan in the 1980’s and 90’s to redevelop Bilbao and the Basque region.

Although Bilbao had never been known as a tourist destination, the government determined to change that with an ambitious plan that included bringing a high-profile art museum to the city. The plan also included developing the riverbank alongside the museum, building a new conference center, renovating the airport and creating a new public transportation system. To support a major source of income for the city, the plan also included enlarging and modernizing the city’s shipping port.

The Basque authorities pitched the idea for a new museum to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of New York, which had already established an objective to expand its collections into Europe. The Basque government would provide the financing and political clout to get the project approved, and the Guggenheim would provide its art collection and expertise in running museums. An agreement was struck, and in 1992 Frank O. Gehry was chosen to design the museum complex. To the delight of officials and the public, the project was completed early and below budget.

The Man and the Museum:
Frank Gehry is a Los Angeles-based architect whose career has soared in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In 1989, a few years before his commission for the Guggenheim, he received the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, the most prestigious award in the field. His adventurous work on such buildings as Santa Monica Place (Santa Monica, CA), Chiat/Day Offices (Venice, CA) and the Loyola University Law School (Los Angeles) earned him this award. Another significant work was the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, completed in 1993.

Since his success with the Bilbao museum, accolades have poured in for his designs of Seattle’s Experience Music Project (completed 2000), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (completed 2003), and the Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge in Chicago’s Millennium Park (completed 2004). [See companion article Built for the Arts.]. Last fall, Gehry was selected to design the performing arts complex at the World Trade Center site.

I have seen a lot of Gehry’s work and, in my opinion, Bilbao is his best — his signature project. It is a powerful design. You can see the man’s genius by looking at the building from every angle. The towering, irregularly shaped structure commands the riverfront. Monolithic blocks of limestone contrast with glistening curves of metal. The thin “fish-scale” titanium panels encasing the structure cause it to change color throughout the day, based on the reflections of the sunlight and the river.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of one of Bilbao’s traditional strengths, Gehry designed part of the building to jut out like the prow of a mighty ship. Enormous glass curtain walls draw light inside. One of the focal points of the interior is the atrium, lighted by a skylight in the ceiling 55 meters above the floor.

The museum houses a wide selection of modern and contemporary masterpieces. By a unique arrangement, the collections of three museums — the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Guggenheim Bilbao — are shared among the three locations. The NYC collection includes such luminaries as Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró and Jackson Pollack. The Peggy Guggenheim collection contributes Surrealist and Dadaist art from Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others. Bilbao’s own collection features works by Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. In a nod to the spectacular setting — a work of art in its own right — the Guggenheim commissioned several works specifically for the museum. In addition, Bilbao’s collection features some leading Basque and Spanish artists like Txomin Badiola, Cristina Iglesias and Prudencio Irazabal.

Seeing this magnificent building in photographs doesn’t do justice to its enormous presence. To truly appreciate Gehry’s masterpiece, go to Bilbao and stand beside it or across the river from it, or on the hill high above it. From every angle and viewpoint you will discover something new about this amazing work.

When you go:
The huge uptick in tourism has led to the construction of new hotels, including the strikingly modern Sheraton Bilbao, designed by architect Ricardo Legorreta and located very near the Guggenheim Bilbao. The Sheraton (www.sheraton.com/bilbao) boasts luxurious rooms appointed with technological touches such as wireless internet access and, in the suites, plasma tv’s.

I found that Bilbao’s gay nightlife scene is pretty much dead Monday through Thursday, only coming alive on weekends. So if you’re there during the week, you'll have to content yourself with a broad range of restaurants and several performing arts venues.

If you’re traveling to Bilbao and the Basque region, we recommend that you take a side trip to Donostia-San Sebastián. This resort town is about an hour from Bilbao and has plenty to recommend it, including beautiful beaches, delicious cuisine and internationally known Jazz and Film Festivals.
To plan your trip, visit www.bilbao.net or www.basquecountrytourism.net, or call the Tourist Offices of Spain at 312-642-1992.