Frank Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilboa

By George Hornbein

I had finished my hike on the Camino de Santiago a couple of days early and decided to go to Bilbao to visit Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. It was dusk and the wind had picked up when I first saw the museum. It was easy to see the building’s sail-like forms that Gehry used to pay tribute to the ocean commerce that was once the lifeblood of Bilbao. Jeff Koon’s ten-story tall, benign and florid Scotty dog invites the visitor to take the stairs down to the museum entrance.

Inside, the sculptural treatment of the space is captivating. The materials are floor tiles, limestone wall tiles, painted gypsum board, glass panels, exposed structural steel supports, and the iconic titanium sheathing shingles. The layout patterns of the floor tiles, wall tiles and titanium sheathing skin follow the same rhythm. The courses are offset a few inches and repeat the patterning every four to eight courses depending on the slope of the substructure on which they are laid. The sky lights, fifty meters above provide shades and shadows on the curved surfaces below.

In numerous ways visitors become part of the art work. They provide scale to the diverse sculptural elements, and, at times, their images are reflected and multiplied in the faceted glass panels. As well, visitors unwittingly perform a ballet choreographed by the building’s layout. Two glass prisms, three stories high, track elevator platforms filled and emptied of folks who are alternately revealed and obscured by the elevator counterweight as others walk by and provide counter tempos.

The Guggenheim is divided into nineteen galleries on three levels around the central atrium. The largest of these houses a permanent installation by Richard Serra of 2” thick curvilinear steel panels that visitors can walk through, touch and sense the steel’s patina that has changed colors over the years since the first piece was installed in 1997. The strength of the concrete floor had to be increased to support the weight of Serra’s sculpture. The arched steel span that allows for a column-free exhibit space was covered in gypsum board. The effect is unadorned arches along vertical planes that answer Serra’s sculptural spirals that snake along the horizontal plane of the floor.

Unlike most museums, the size of the galleries, their arrangement around the atrium and the ability to view many exhibits from multiple floor levels allow the art works to spill into the atrium. Jenny Holzer’s installation of LED text scrolling up a line of square columns is red on one side in Spanish and English and blue on the opposite side in Euskera (the Basque language). The columns’ light fills the exhibition space in blue and spills red light into the atrium. Children walk through a wall of blue light. They don’t try to read Holzer’s LED messages of hope and loss. If they were to follow the text as it scrolls toward the ceiling, for a few seconds the text appears not to move while the whole atrium beyond appears to sink toward the floor.

I hear a church bell tolling. At first I think it is a call to mass from outside the Guggenheim and I recall the tolling of church bells in the small villages I hiked through on the way to Santiago. But the sound of these bells spilled into the atrium from a gallery within the museum from a video “The Tropical Pharmacy” made by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla documenting an American pharmaceutical company’s Puerto Rican lab being demolished. At the end of a hydraulic wrecking boom the backhoe shovel was replace by a church bell and clapper. As we watch and wait for a wall or ceiling to be demolished, we can hear the ringing bell getting closer until it bursts through a wall and destroys that part of the structure. I had to wonder whether the Puerto Ricans no longer needed the pharmaceuticals that were produced in the lab or if they didn’t have the means to pay for them, and the company decided to move on.

The museum is a tour de force, revolutionary and exceptionally complex. The complexity means there is a lot that can go wrong with the building. Already the joints between the 1/8” thick limestone tiles on the building’s exterior are taking on water, and during freeze and thaw cycles are losing grout and silicon sealants. Rust is forming at certain junctures where structural steel intersects, and rainwater doesn’t drain properly. Some to the titanium shingles have tears at corners where the material is bent to engage support clips. The Guggenheim Bilbao will be a nightmare to maintain. But it must be constantly cared for, so the world doesn’t lose this magnificent architectural treasure.