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Story by Lin Stranberg

A glimpse of the Guggenheim Museum, shimmering in the

sunshine, appears like a mirage rising from two narrow streets

in Bilbao, an industrial city in the Basque country of Northern

Spain. It is a breathtaking vision.

The closer one gets, the more alluring it becomes. The Guggenheim Bilbao is more than a museum – it is one of the most admired and iconic works of contemporary architecture in the world. When it opened in 1997, it was hailed as the greatest building of its time, a brilliant 20th century masterpiece, artfully integrated by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry into the former docklands of Balboa’s 19th century urban environment and its surrounding area. It projects an image of the industrial power that drove this city to its former importance as a mining and shipbuilding centre on the Nervion river.

The idea of this looking like a boat was my response to the river, Mr. Gehry told the New York Times, pointing to the gigantic gallery wing that curves under the La Salve Bridge, now better-known as the Guggenheim Bridge. The other side, more fragmented and covered with stone, is more in scale with the city.

The whole thing is about fitting the building into Bilbao. So for me it’s about the imagery of the river and the imagery of the city. In 1991, the Basque government proposed funding a Guggenheim museum to be built in Bilbao’s rundown port area, no longer the city’s main source of income. The government

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The other side, more fragmented and covered with stone, is more in scale with the city. The whole thing is about fitting the building into Bilbao. So for me it’s about the imagery of the river and the imagery of the city.

Agreed to cover the construction cost, establish an acquisition fund, pay the Guggenheim Foundation a one-time fee, and subsidize the museum’s annual budget. The Guggenheim agreed to manage the museum, rotate parts of its permanent collection through it and organize temporary exhibitions.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was built between October 1993 and October 1997 on an old wharf on a curve of the river. Due to the mathematical complexity of Gehry’s design, he decided to work with an advanced software program called CATIA, initially designed for the aerospace industry, to faithfully translate his concept to the structure and to help with construction. He brought the project in both on time and on budget.

For the outer skin of the building, the architect chose titanium after seeing the changes that occurred to a small titanium sample pinned to a pole outside his New York office.

The finish of the approximately 33,000 extremely thin titanium sheets provides a rough and organic effect, adding to the material’s colour changes, depending on the weather and light conditions. The other two materials used in the building, limestone and glass, blend sculpturally with the titanium.In one corner of the second floor, the titanium sheets extend into the interior so visitors can actually touch them and get a close-up look at how they behave with the light.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is one of several museums that belong to the Solomon R.

Guggenheim Foundation. Like the Guggenheim New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, they are undoubtedly the most important buildings of their architects’ late careers. Thrilling in themselves, they present an iconic venue for viewing modern and contemporary art.

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The entrance to the 257,000-square-foot museum is through a lobby that leads to a striking 65-foot-high atrium. The atrium, which Gehry has nicknamed ”The Flower” because it culminates in a series of angled geometrical shapes, serves as the organizing center for the entire museum and is one of the signature traits of his design.

The three levels of the building are organized around the atrium and are connected by means of curved walkways, titanium and glass elevators, and staircases. Also an exhibition space, the atrium functions as an axis for the 20 galleries, some orthogonally shaped and with classical proportions and others with organic, irregular lines. This makes for tremendous versatility for the presentation of large, important shows and those that are smaller and more intimate.

The first gallery houses major temporary exhibitions, like the work of Joan Miró from 1920 – 1945. Next, moving counterclockwise, is the well-known Richard Serra permanent sculpture installation—eight enormous works in hot-rolled steel collectively titled “The Matter of Time,” so well-suited to the space it occupies. The entirety of the vast room is part of the sculptural field. Visiting the upper galleries and their displays of outsize pop art, modern art, and Spanish works is invigorating rather than tiring.

Some 20 million visitors a year have trooped through the museum since it opened, more than 60 percent of whom have traveled from overseas. Thanks to the Guggenheim and Frank Gehry’s vision, Bilbao has become a destination for art pilgrims from around the world.

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