Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is ‘the greatest building of our time’

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is ‘the greatest building of our time’

Next in our deconstruction series is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the building that reignited the city’s economy and started a global trend for historical museums.

Located on the west bank of the Nervion River, which flows through Bilbao before reaching the Cantabrian Sea, the Guggenheim Museum immediately attracted attention and critical praise upon its completion in 1997.

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was designed by Frank Gehry

When legendary American architect Philip Johnson visited the Guggenheim Museum shortly after its opening, he called Gehry “the greatest architect we have today” and later called the museum “the greatest building of our time.”

Although Gehry does not define himself as a Deconstructivist architect, the Guggenheim Museum has become a symbol of the movement due to its distinctive appearance that includes a fragmented arrangement of non-linear volumes.

Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry
Philip Johnson (left) visited the museum with Frank Gehry (right) shortly after it opened

When viewed from the river, the museum resembles a ship anchored at the dock, while its shimmering titanium skin evokes the scales of a wriggling fish.

At the time, the building’s complex and bold architecture was unusual for a large-scale, publicly funded cultural institution.

Guggenheim Museum
It was designed to be a landmark

However, from the beginning, the museum was intended to form the cornerstone of a larger economic development project.

The Basque government has already engaged architects including Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava to implement major infrastructure projects as part of its plan to transform the industrial city into a cultural tourism destination.

The Canadian-born Gehry was known mostly for Expressionist works in his native city of Los Angeles when he won a competition organized by the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation in 1992 to design a museum for a site in a dilapidated harbor district.

Guggenheim Foundation Director Thomas Krens recognized that such a project would require a historic building and cited the Sydney Opera House as an example when describing the impact it could have on the city.

“We define ourselves in terms of strengths, and architecture is one of our strengths,” he added.

Frank Gehry with Guggenheim Bilbao model
Gehry won a competition to design the museum

Gehry’s design was selected based on proposals submitted by Arata Isozaki & Associates and Coop Himmelb(l)au, following an invited competition.

“He (Gerry) was chosen for the strength of his vision,” said Krenz, who also claimed in a television interview that the building “will set a precedent for what 21st century museums can be.”

Museum on the Nervion River
The museum is located on the Nervion River

Gehry claimed that the design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was the culmination of the personal design language he developed as a response to the prevalence of postmodernism in architecture at the time.

He rejected postmodernism and the way it created imitations of previous architectural styles, claiming that he preferred to look back 300 million years to forms that predated humanity. In particular, he was fascinated by fish.

“I was interested in movement and when the fish moves it’s very beautiful,” he said in a 1997 interview with television journalist Charlie Rose. “I started making shapes like that and I was able to achieve that feeling of movement and I developed an architectural vocabulary.”

Building of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
The dynamic shapes are made using a steel frame. Photography by Aitor Ortiz

The dynamic forms that define the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao were made possible thanks to computer modeling programs developed by the French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.

Using a 3D design program called CATIA, the architect’s office was able to visualize surfaces with multiple compound curves and, more importantly, show contractors how these expressive shapes could be built.

The steel frame of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
The steel frame was designed using computer modeling software. Photography by Aitor Ortiz

Jerry proudly recounted several times how the building was completed on time and on budget (about $89 million).

He attributes this feat to the ability of computer programs to accurately design all the necessary components, and to close collaboration with various building trades during construction.

The museum is located on the edge of the city center in what has become the rundown Docklands area. Its design responds to the urban surroundings as well as to the river arch to the north and the Salve Bridge to the east.

Bilbao Museum lobby
The museum has a large lobby

The ship-like profile seen from the river is reminiscent of the area’s industrial heritage, while from above the outline of the building resembles a flower, with petals spread around the central atrium.

The museum’s galvanized steel frame is externally clad in limestone and glass, as well as 33,000 paper-thin titanium panels, chosen for the way the metal reflects natural light.

Visitors enter the building through the lobby, which features large glass curtain walls connecting the interior and exterior. The light-filled space contains curved corridors, glass elevators and stairs connecting the three interior levels.

Lobby at the museum in Bilbao
The atrium connects the three internal levels

Exhibition spaces totaling 11,000 square meters are provided in the museum’s 19 galleries. Ten rooms feature a standard perpendicular plan, while the others vary in shape, with many designed to house permanent works.

The largest gallery, 30 meters wide and 130 meters long, contains Richard Serra’s massive steel sculpture, A Matter of Time.

The social and economic impact of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has achieved its goal of transforming the city’s image, with calculations in 2017 indicating that the museum generates around €400 million annually for the local economy.

In subsequent years, cities around the world sought to replicate the Guggenheim’s success by creating high-profile cultural buildings, in a trend dubbed the “Bilbao Effect.”

In an interview with Dezeen in 2021, Gehry said he did not care about global copycats or the trend its construction started, although he accepted that the project had changed the city’s economy and social dynamics.

“People always tell me how it changed the city,” Jerry said. “I didn’t mean to change the city, I just meant to be part of the city.”

The main museum in Bilbao
The museum had a huge impact on the city

There are critics of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, some of whom claim that it is too dominant and that some of its spaces are not suitable for displaying works of art. The “Bilbao effect” has also led to the creation of many projects in other locations which have failed to provide similar benefits to the local community in terms of the amount of money invested.

However, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Paul Goldberger called the project “a defining moment in architectural culture,” adding that: “The building blazed new trails and became an extraordinary phenomenon.”

In a 2010 Vanity Fair survey, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was named “the most important piece of architecture built since 1980.”

Gehry would go on to receive widespread recognition and acclaim for projects including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Gehry New York Residential Tower in Manhattan, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

The architect’s firm is also behind the design of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which was first unveiled in 2006 and is finally scheduled to open in 2025.

Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

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Illustration by Jack Bedford

Deconstructivism is considered one of the most influential architectural movements of the 20th century. Our series profiles the buildings and the works of their key proponents – Eisenman, Gehry, Hadid, Koolhaas, Libeskind, Tschumi, and Brix.

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