Go to Top

ART – WHY GUGGENHEIM? WHY BILBAO?

Why Guggenheim? Why Bilbao?

If Thomas Krens, the newly appointed director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, had not gone jogging one April evening in 1991, his brainchild, the Bilbao Guggenheim – a metallic, post-modern, space-age museum – would almost certainly never have been built.

From the moment you leave the airport and wind through the green hills of northern Spain towards the ochre-brown 19th century city of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum can be glimpsed in the distance, like a shiny, modern toy surrounded by hideous urban sprawl.

What on earth possessed the Guggenheim Museum to come to a place like Bilbao? The story goes something like this.

Bilbao is Spain’s fourth largest city: a tough, sprawling, former shipbuilding community that faces out onto the Bay of Biscay. In the 1980s, the Basque regional government began a redevelopment programme for the city. They commissioned the best and the brightest in the international architectural world to design a new subway system, a new airport terminal, a new congress and music hall, and a new railway station. But, in order to cement the city’s growing reputation, they wanted an art museum.

In 1991 Basque officials approached the Guggenheim Foundation and met Thomas Krens, the fourth director in the museum’s 60-year history. Krens was eager to establish a European base for the Guggenheim and with this ambition in mind, he came to Bilbao.

But there was a problem. Krens could see at once that the site chosen by the city council for its new art museum, a former wine-bottling warehouse in the centre of the town, was a non-starter. Krens had two models in his head – the Pompidou Centre and the Sydney Opera House. Both buildings had demanded an extraordinary amount of space, and Bilbao, an over-crowded riverside city did not seem to have the space.

Then, by chance, Krens found the ideal site. An athletic man, he went out running one evening. His route took him past the Jesuit University over-looking the river Nervion, and it was here that he noticed, at one of the many curves of the river, a semi-derelict waterfront zone which was perfect for what he wanted to achieve.

The site was approved in a week, and Californian architect Frank Gehry was chosen to realise the project.

Gehry immediately fell in love with the eccentric Basque city and the place Krens had found for him on which to build the most important building of the century.

He says now, with affectionate laughter, ‘What is it? A dirty river and a bunch of run-down buildings.’ Yet he revelled in the chaos and dirt of the post-industrial environment, and was determined not to change anything about the waterfront site.

The Bilbao Guggenheim dominates the city at every turn. It is a contemporary art museum like no other, and a building that must rank as one of the eight wonders of the modern world. It’s well worth the visit – and there are some interesting works of art inside too.

Explain the connection between:

  1. Thomas Krens + jogging
  2. The Guggenheim Museum + urban sprawl
  3. Bilbao + the Bay of Biscay
  4. The Basque government + Bilbao’s global reputation
  5. The city council + a wine-bottling warehouse
  6. Thomas Krens + the Pompidou Centre and the Sydney Opera House
  7. Frank Gehry + the waterfront site