Remember that massive building with a silver exterior that itself looks more like an installation than a museum? No, not the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles! The other one, is in Spain. The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, that’s right.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao architecture was designed by the world-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry in 1993. Following its completion in 1997, the museum was opened to the public upon inauguration by King Juan Carlos I, the then monarch of Spain. This colossal museum has been the point of discussion ever since its completion, but it has more to offer than its unusual and organic design.

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  • In 1991, the Basque government came up with a proposal to redevelop a dilapidated port on the Nervión River. This port was the prime source of income for the city of Bilbao before the economic tumult of the mid-1900s rendered waste to much of the city. To boost the economy of the city, the government urged the Solomon R. Foundation to fund a Guggenheim Museum at this industrial site.
  • The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, is the most prominent of the three museums, permanently run by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Did you know that the museum is designed on a site with an area of a whopping 260,000 square feet, of which 120,000 square feet is dedicated exhibition space?

The museum peaks at about 53 metres in height. Whereas the top-most walkway is a 26 metres from the ground, this renders the top half of the museum inaccessible. If we were to remove this part of the building, it would still be able to display all the artwork mounted on the walls!

  • Frank Gehry’s inspiration for the design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao architecture came from the famous painting by Picasso, the Accordionist, 1911. Its cubism is reflected vividly in the overlapping Titanium plates and the bold massing of the built form.
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  • Gehry’s unorthodox design for the building sparked something known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’. The ‘Bilbao Effect’ or the ‘Guggenheim Effect’ is defined as a phenomenon of a city’s transformation following the construction of a significant piece of architecture, both socially and economically.

Investing in the construction of this museum was a monumental risk considering the floundering economy of the city. However, the Guggenheim proved to be a resounding success! It is believed that the cost of construction was recovered within 3 years of the museum’s opening! Not only did this museum attract local and foreign tourists, but it also helped enhance the local business with tourists booking rentals, shopping, and eating locally. The museum generated $500 million in profit and $100 million through taxes.

  • The dynamic form of this museum doesn’t allow for any flat surfaces on the facade. The design of the building resembles a floral form from the top. Tourists, however, often identify this Guggenheim Museum as a boat or ship, which is poetic considering the past of this site.
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  • The building facade consists of roughly 33,000 no.s, 0.38 mm Titanium plates screwed into place. Frank Gehry considered 29 different materials including stainless steel, copper, and aluminium, but ultimately choose Titanium after looking at a sample pinned outside his office. Titanium is considerably costlier than Stainless Steel, yet it was chosen. The two main reasons, as stated by the architect himself: Gehry quoted, “I spent a lot of time trying to understand the light in Bilbao. The steel that I was meant to use in the beginning gave off nothing at all in the light of that region. The metal seemed to be dead under a grey sky. But quite by chance, we found Titanium is very suited to this sort of light”

He further added, ”By some miracle, the price of Titanium suddenly dropped lower than the price of Stainless Steel. That has never happened again since, so I have never been able to use it anywhere else.” 

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  • Despite the chaotic exterior, the view of the walkways from the atrium harmonise with Frank L. Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. This similarity is presumably the only design feature that unites the two very differently designed museums. 
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  • The museum’s walls have been designed carefully to be load-bearing. The structure is formed by a system of metal rods arranged as frames and triangles whose design, number, and location were determined meticulously with the help of CATIA. In addition to this, several insulating layers run through the walls and ceiling.

CATIA is a computer-aided design program more commonly used in the aerospace, automotive, and shipbuilding industries because of its ability to design curved surfaces. It is because of CATIA that complex design calculations were made possible. 

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©Guggenheim Bilbao
  • In 2008, an audit revealed that money was missing from the accounts. The former financial director of the Guggenheim Museum, Roberto Cearsolo Barrenetxea, was found to have embezzled $750,000 from two museum funds. He confessed to forging checks and making small fund transfers over 10 years, 1998-2008, eventually confessing his wrongdoings to the authorities. ’Twas quite a scandal!
  • The leftist Separatist group in Basque, the ETA, considered the Guggenheim as a symbol of American Imperialism. Two members of the group were found posing as gardeners, attempting to plant explosives in the museum lawns to disrupt its inauguration. A member of the Basque police force, the Ertzaintza, was shot while trying to stop them.

It is speculated that in order to block its view from the street, Jeff Koons’ famous artwork, the Puppy, was installed, and 2 decades later, it still ‘guards the gates’ of this Bilbao Museum.

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Interestingly, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao architecture is one of the few projects that was delivered on time, within the proposed budget. It is a rare and remarkable feat considering a project of this scale.



Stuti Bhatia is an Architect. When she’s not busy detailing out construction drawings, she loves to read (anything from fiction to science really). She is also an enthusiastic writer who expresses her views explicitly. Fascinated by the subtle and obscure patterns that surround us, she writes to draw parallels and connect the dots.