When we think about museums, what conjures in our thoughts are images of educational school tours from our childhood. These museums, more often than not, were dreary buildings with barely any capacity to inspire awe in the onlookers. These buildings might harbor invaluable pieces of art, but their façades could be just as rigid and repetitive. This perception fed to our minds time and time again was shattered by architect Frank Gehry with one of his most iconic works, The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. This structure redefines and remodels the stale ideas pertinent to typically “boring” structures like museums.
This captivating swirling form stands nestled on the banks of Nervión River in Bilbao, Spain. The project was funded by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation on the proposal of the Basque government that a museum be built in the port area of Bilbao. And since its commencement, the economy of the city grew manifold as this monument attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. The inventory of incredulous elements in this piece of architecture is vast as it encapsulates so much, from art to technique, from aesthetics to functionality, and from traditional to dramatic expression.
The shimmering titanium-clad exterior is an intricate composition of audacious curves, a sight that gives the viewers a fresh experience the moment they lay their eyes on it. It is a vision one cannot look away from, despite the presence of a thirty feet high monumental sculpture of a spider (the Maman) right beside it on the riverside. This work is a paradigm of the language Frank Gehry uses in his art; the free movement of forms, the textures, the experience, and the sense of humanity. Although inspired by the shapes and textures of a fish, from the ground, the museum closely resembles a boat that serves as a tribute to the past industrial life of the port of Bilbao. But when looked at from above, its view is almost flower-like.
The materials involved in its construction – titanium, limestone, and glass – are schematically arranged along the façade to catch the light and respond to the sun and weather. Fixing clips make a shallow central dent on each of the titanium tiles – every tile exclusive to its position – creating an illusion of a rippling surface in changing light and adding an extraordinary iridescence to this avant-garde composition. A brightly lit atrium acting as an organizing center of the museum, the 11,000 square meters of exhibition space is distributed into 19 galleries. Ten of these fall under the same category of typical orthogonal plans and a limestone finish on the exterior. The remaining nine are free-flowing organic forms that can be identified by the titanium cladding from the outside. What is created is an interplay of distinct volumes with distinct skins. And the glass skin acts as the mediator or the connection between these volumes. What is striking is that this gigantic structure rests on load-bearing walls and ceilings, which have an internal system of metal rods that form grids with triangles. The load-bearing design was used as a solution to successfully execute the organic shapes of the museum.
The contrast created by the traditional stone-clad forms, the curved titanium-clad forms, and the glass walls imposes chaos of its own. The building is built around a central axis with a hall, fifty meters high under the canopy of a massive dome. This central space is surrounded by a system of curved bridges, glass elevators, and stair towers,maintaining the connectivity between the nineteen galleries sprawled across three floors, unifying the contradicting spaces into one harmonious picture. The most extensive gallery is 30 meters wide and 130 meters long, used for temporary exhibitions and large-format works.
This single work of art speaks volumes about the architect and his style. Frank Gehry’s passion for treating architecture as a sculpture or a painting instead of fitting it inside a box is conspicuous in this project too. Manifesting buildings that respond to time and the constantly changing world and not allowing the past to burden the innovative ideas of the present is achieved by humanizing architecture and giving people and their experience a priority. Building structures not faceless; instead, oozing with expression and character, challenging the sense of order is an apparent trait of all of Frank Gehry’s work. The Guggenheim Museum delivers all of these traits; asymmetry, exaggerated proportions, distorted organic forms, and unconventional materials.
Despite its extravagance, the museum manages to settle in with the surrounding city, both in height and in the materials used. It stands out just enough to not surpass the rest of the city’s buildings. Keeping the building’s stature within the benchmark and using the correct tone of limestone were strategic decisions to make it an intrinsic part of the city. The Guggenheim Museum did not only play a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of Bilbao but also became an indispensable symbol for the same. This iconic building is an epitome of innovative design with an anti-modernism approach. The grandeur of this project rests in the fact that the museum not only houses masterpieces of art but is also a magnum opus in itself.