A NEW VISION : THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM IN BILBAO
In a March 1999 article of the Washington Post, journalists questioned whether "[Can] a single building bring a whole city back to life? More precisely, can a single modern building designed for an abandoned shipyard by a laid-back California architect breath new economic and cultural life into a decaying industrial city in the Spanish rust belt?" . These speculations are referring to one of the world’s most spectacular buildings: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Basque Country: Spain. Designed by Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, and built by Ferrovial, the free-sculpture Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a modern and contemporary art museum of curvaceous metal-clad forms. It sits alongside the Nervion River, which runs through the city of Bilbao to the Atlantic Coast, in attempt to help an urban redevelopment project. Construction for the structure began in 1991 with a tight budget and time period, resulting in public viewing in 1997 . The Guggenheim is made up of three levels around a central atrium that is “interconnected by a system of curved walkways suspended from the ceiling, glass lifts and stairs” . All this area is composed of 20 galleries, an auditorium, a restaurant, a store, bookshop, and two cafes. The galleries present work both permanent and visiting of both Spanish and International artists. In the style of Deconstructivism, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is one of the most groundbreaking pieces of architecture of the 20th century.
For Guggenheim to achieve the standard it as been given, it must be recognized to have incorporated the three elements of overall good architecture and design: commodity, firmness and delight. In terms of commodity, the Guggenheim has achieved great meaning and understanding of its forms and function. It has developed a sense of hierarchy and a system created by design that establishes understanding of arrangements for ordered space in the museum. The building has an unprecedented scale of a central atrium that rises to a height of more than fifty meters above the river  and 24,000 square meters on the ground plane . A sense of hierarchy is also controlled by the random structures that seem to point or flow or feel like they are moving up further into the sky. This large, unusual structure creates a sense of importance, as if it is bigger and better than the rest.
As the Guggenheims forms create different emotions, its random pieces and overall structure also service to function. In terms of tectonic and mechanic properties, its forms demonstrate how a more concealed structure can bring certain systems that impact the use of the building. The public plaza at the entrance of the site is a great source that allows, and encourages, pedestrian flow between the Guggenheim . The sections of random curves create different entrances and pathways around or through the building that serve as function and enlighten peoples’ curiosity to explore the museum. These pathways and bridges that circulate people to where they are destined to go is mostly clear, but sometimes not so clear as some paths are in the open and some are more enclosed.
In addition to administering circulation and use, the Guggenheim incorporates cultural and social meanings through gestures and symbols. The organic shapes are to appear like a ship as it is on the water, followed deeper as the surface of the brilliantly reflective panels are to resemble fish scales, shadowing other organic life . These panel forms serve as a single idea that explains an overall concept that distills the observations and manifestation of the building. Guggenheim is intended to be a museum of the arts. Architecturally, the design is far more than appropriate for art in general, but more specific, modern and contemporary art, which is what this museum holds. Modern art practices new ways of seeing and using ideas of nature. Gehry definitely incorporates this modern design in his large, curved panels that have a type of organic shape. They are shapes that make up a whole that are not common; it is a completely new idea. In a contemporary sense, Gehry creates a nature of beauty that is art now.
This new form of art and design wished to substantiate ideas, values and hopes materialized by the building. The city of Bilbao wanted to emphasize culture in its efforts to attract new businesses, create a tourist industry and maybe even support new jobs. The Guggenheim Museum became that key component for this Revitalization Plan of Metropolitan Bilbao. This city plan aimed to transform the city into a service metropolis within a modern industrial region in the European arena . As the saying goes, “location is key”, the Guggenheim accomplishes this theory very well by bringing the community to the water and attracting tourists from all over. It is also an industrial area providing the focus for numerous other urban regenerations that are transforming the city and is a catalyst for development in the former warehouse district. This has become known as the Bilbao Effect .
A structures impact on the area surrounding it makes it necessary to recognize the basic form and component parts of the building that create these impacts and firmness of architecture. The Guggenheim Bilbao has a “large central atrium, where a system of curvilinear bridges, glass elevators and stair towers [that] connects the exhibition galleries concentrically on three levels” . It is designed with random curves as Gehry wished to experiment with surface and shapes that eventually come together as one intriguing piece of architecture. The only way this was possible was through late 20th century technology as computer simulations of the building’s structure made it feasible to build shapes that architects of earlier eras would have found nearly impossible to construct . Geometry and arrangement of how symmetry and balance affect the relationships of various parts as a whole is achieved in the building. Although there is no direct symmetry in the layout of the museum, the building still comes together to feel balanced with the random shapes enclosed together on one side of the building with long structural pieces running horizontally on the opposite side. This concept represents a balance between smaller, multiple pieces and larger, long and straight pieces. The innovative large-span columns in the interior that free exhibition spaces further enforce firmness.
To understand the composition, relationships and arrangement of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, it is prevalent to recount the predominant materials, color and texture that make up these relative qualities. Gehry took much thought when considering what materials would work best for his design- needs. He first considered stainless steel, but found that it was too bright in full sun and too dull under cloads. He then examined titanium under many of the possible conditions at the site. Gehry found that titanium “always appeared to have a ‘velvety’ sheen, whether in sun or shade” . What he liked the most about titanium, however, was its “reflective properties and its dramatic ability to take on the color of the current light” . This was extremely important for Gehry because “the randomness of the curves [were] designed to catch the light” . He also wanted something soft looking and handmade, which titanium could achieve . After experimenting, Gehry decided that titanium was the right material alongside limestone for the interior and exterior walls, steel frame, and glass walls.
Titanium panels and Spanish limestone were the main materials providing the rectangular shapes and more sculptural shapes of the building clad . Some walls and the ceiling were then made out of “2,200 glass panels, 2,000 of them were uniquely shaped, and most of the shapes were quite complex” . Using glass as another material that linked the limestone and titanium to the walls created a remarkable transparency throughout, allowing exuberant amounts of natural light to shine inside. Besides transparency, another benefit of using glass was because it “protect[s] the interior against heat and radiation while letting light stream into the entire building” . Other material is also used within the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao such as a steal frame that holds the structure of the glass and flooring for all exhibit galleries are wood maple panels, creating just the finish it deserves.
All the specific materials and relationships between these materials create a uniqueness of details and spaces. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao can be considered the one of the world’s most spectacular buildings of the Deconstructive era. Although Gehry did not consider himself in this field of architecture, his work proved it by “stimulating unpredictability and a controlled chaos” . Guggenheims sense of delight is through deconstructivism that takes an “interest in manipulating ideas of a structure’s surface or skin, [including] non-rectilinear shapes which serve to distort and dislocate some of the elements of architecture” . These qualities affect the interrelationships among various views of the building such as the section and elevation. None of the sides of the Guggenheim appear the same, making none of the sections or elevations identical to one another. Its overreaching forms create a spectacular monument from the river, when on street level, it is quite modest and does not overwhelm its traditional surroundings. Guggenheim has achieved architecture delight, as it has become a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the globe. The only negative design of the building, I would think, would be that if the building was no longer used for its current purpose, it would be hard to vision anything but an art museum occupying the space.
Whether Gehry predicted this or not, his creation of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is effective at reflecting the most important aspect of architecture; As architect Philip Johnson called it “the greatest building of our time” . As the Washington Post pondered back in 1999 whether or not this was possible should be a simple answer now. Any individual structure with meaning and proper construction can influence spaces, which is what the Guggenheim has achieved. There is no doubt in my mind that the Guggenheim has brought Bilbao life, culture and individuality. Gehry “makes architecture that makes people feel like they’ve been given an unexpected gift” . The greater question that should be considered now is: Can the success of the Guggenheim Museum be repeated?