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HOT Attractions - Art and Soul

Affectionately known as The Artichoke, it’s no wonder that the citizens of the capital of Vizcaya have overwhelmingly taken to their hearts Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry’s sublime deconstructivism cathedral of art - the Guggenheim Bilbao - which virtually overnight has catapulted Spain’s northerly metropolis from ignominy… to the A-List of must-visit European cities...


Report: Carolyn Mowlem

This year celebrating its tenth anniversary, and annually attracting a million visitors from around the world, the Guggenheim Bilbao has been variously described as a twentieth century Chartres, an architectural epiphany, an exotic flower in bloom, and a lunar lander in search of its moon. Lying alongside the River Nervión on its sedate journey to the Atlantic, it’s also no coincidence that this massive exhibition space and singular symbol of civic pride is evocative of an ocean-going vessel whose ‘bows, stern and funnels’ are totally at home in a city once better known for its ship yards and steel mills than for art and architecture.

But whatever simile springs to mind, almost all who have visited the GMB agree that such is its exceptional appeal that the masterpieces of  20th Century American and European art – by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse and Degas - that have lined its magnificent walls are almost incidental to the exquisite sculptural architecture that enfolds them.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Indeed, Gehry’s aesthetic triumph - a marvel of computer-generated design and innovative engineering - resoundingly demonstrates that people are only too happy to travel halfway round the world to admire a building… as well as its contents. And with 80% of all visitors to Bilbao stating that they have come specifically to see the Guggenheim, the Museum has single-handedly been the driving force responsible for transforming the industrial heart of the Basque Country into a vibrant centre of culture and arts, whose designer boutiques, trendy eateries and sleek hotels have put it on a par with the chicest of European capitals.

In 2001, the Financial Times concluded that the €750 million Museum had already generated an astounding €500 million for the region during its first three years alone. The ‘small-town big-architect’ phenomenon was instantly dubbed The Bilbao Effect, and while few could match the Vizcaya capital’s deep coffers which invested a further $1.5 billion in complementary avant-garde infrastructure and redevelopment, it was an initiative that many provincial cities around the globe have tried – with varying degrees of success - to replicate.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Not at all daunting from street level, the ‘godly scale’ of the 24,000 square metre Guggenheim is best appreciated from the far side of the river over which it is built, and above which it is connected by the Puente de La Salve road-bridge and extends into the impressive 130 metres of column-free exhibition space beneath it.

Revealing occasional glimpses of its steel skeleton, the awe-inspiring undulating façade is clad in a fusion of warm limestone, glass and gossamer ´fish scales’ of titanium which, catching and reflecting the notoriously fickle Bay of Biscay skies – turning from a sombre grey, to steely blue, gleaming silver, and shimmering gold all in the space of a single day – seem to bestow it with a life of its own.

With the iconic flower-strewn Jeff Koons ‘Puppy’ sculpture guarding the main entrance, the interior is every bit as imposing. Vertigo-inducing walkways suspended from the ceiling interconnect the three storeys of 19 galleries, where the sheer mastery of scale, design, contours, use of light, and views of the river are in themselves an unforgettable experience.

To give you an idea of the enormity of the exhibition space, even Richard Serra’s permanently displayed 180-tonne ‘Snake’ seems positively diminutive when compared with his infinitely smaller sculptures on show in less diaphanous surroundings.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Likened to “inhabiting a cubist painting”, exploring the system of curved walkways, glass lifts and stairways that connect the wealth and variety of both classical regular spaces and others of signature proportions and forms, is a revelation. Affiliated to the prestigious, New York-based Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, with Museums also in Los Angeles, Venice and Berlin – and the newest addition scheduled to open in Abu Dhabi in 2011 – the Guggenheim Bilbao boasts its own permanent collection of celebrated contemporary art, including specially commissioned site-specific works and others featuring pre-eminent Basque and Spanish artists.

These audacious exhibits are supplemented by works from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation – notably significant examples from the genres of pop art, minimalism, arte povera, conceptual art and abstract expressionism. The programming of temporary exhibitions sponsored by the Foundation ensures that there is always something new and dynamic to take in. Currently running until 18 February, for example, is the 100% Africa exhibition presented by the Contemporary African Art Collection in Geneva, and the Passages exhibition (featuring works by Beuys, Darboven, Kiefer and Richter).   

Abandoibarra Et. 2, Bilbao
Tel: 94 435 9080;
Closed Mondays
Bilbao Tourist Board webpage:

Please note: Every effort was made to check the accuracy of the information contained within our archived HOT Properties Magazine articles at the time of originally going to press, but may well have been superseded over the ensuing years. They are now made available as historical archival information only. The said information has not been reviewed subsequently for present day accuracy nor has it been updated and we expressly disclaim any duty or obligation to do so. VIVA cannot accept responsibility for any errors or omissions, nor for the authenticity of any claims or statements made by third parties. We therefore strongly recommend that readers of these archived articles make their own thorough checks before entering into any kind of transaction. Prices were correct at the time of publication but may now vary due to circumstances beyond our control. The views and opinions of editorial contributors do not necessarily reflect those of VIVA .  

HOT Properties Magazine Issue 63 - 2006

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