Architects, Critics, Curators, and Museum Directors Reflect on Twenty Years of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
On October 19, 1997, a new art museum opened in Bilbao, one with a curving titanium form unlike anything built before it. Seemingly overnight, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao became one of the best-known buildings in the world. For those in the architectural community, as New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp noted at the time, Bilbao became “a pilgrimage town” even before that opening date: “People have been flocking to Bilbao for nearly two years, just to watch the building’s skeleton take shape. ‘Have you been to Bilbao?’ In architectural circles, that question has acquired the status of a shibboleth. Have you seen the light? Have you seen the future?” Two decades later, that future is arguably here: we are still living in the world that Gehry and the Guggenheim created. To mark the occasion, I asked leaders in the architectural community and within our institution to share their recollections and thoughts about the meaning of the Bilbao museum, then and now.
Built alongside a river of an ancient city, inaugurated by a king, reminiscent of naval architecture, and engineered like an aircraft: what more can one ask of masterful architecture? Upon entering, I was awed: this building is engineered like a symphony but experienced like a late quartet. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has come to represent a rare unity between technique and expression. It is what happens when the soul of a city in Basque Country meets the spirit of the time; when the timeless overlaps with the timely. In that sense, it represents a moment of inevitability in architectural design, the mark of a masterpiece.
from its inception as a sketch on a napkin to its opening in 1997 and now its 20th anniversary. Like the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, it is a catalyst for artistic brilliance. Exhibitions need to rise to the occasion when presented in its flowing, organic galleries, and artists respond to its architecture in expansive, paradigm-changing ways. Bilbao, itself, has grown around the building to embrace and reflect its unprecedented design. The residents making their evening stroll around the museum, which, more than anything, proves to me its power of attraction and its rightful place as an architectural anchor in the still-evolving city.
Twenty years on, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao continues to affect. Its magic is best understood when considering that it seems to have fallen from the sky. It may resemble an asteroid, but its mechanics parallel what Jacques Vallée says of UFOs: its reality lies in the way it affects our imagination. This is the oldest trick in the architect’s book, yet it is rarely achieved. It is precisely what distinguishes architecture from building.
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