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Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?


Monday, 18 July 2011


Everyone loves Gehry's titanium-clad toy, but the locals care more for their football stadiums - old and new

Bilbao this, Bilbao that. No longer just the name of a city but a blueprint for new cultural buildings everywhere since that museum opened in 1997. In the past places like Liverpool have compared unfavourably if at all, and in truth the doomed Fourth Grace would've been not so much a poor man's as a perfect fool's Guggenheim. Perhaps, as Christopher Lambert said while stood in his kilt, there can be only one. I'm fortunate enough to be in northern Spain for a few days, so I've come to find out for myself.

Guggenheim from the river

Guggenheim from the river

The travel guides to Bilbao describe a gritty port-city of just under half-a-million people, all iron and steel and leadworks with a history of pollution. Everywhere I look is green and fragrant, so it's either unfairly characterised or has cleaned up its act and re-invented itself in the last few years.

A bit of both, it seems. Frank O Gehry, the architect behind the Guggenheim (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es), has recalled: 'It was an industrial city, but I loved it... It had an incredible character to it and what saved it, what made it beautiful, is that it's surrounded by these hills, so you had all this grime but it was contained in this soft bed of green. It's a kind of miraculous place'.

It does have a special feel to it. The best approach is from the west through a pretty riverside park, and the first glimpse of the museum is oddly familiar and instantly memorable - all gleaming curves covered in titanium, the panels of which are a mere half-millimetre thick. The official guidebook hails 'the last great museum of the 20th century' that 'has the presence of a huge sculpture'.

Puppy, by American artist Jeff Koons

Puppy, by American artist Jeff Koons

First surprise: the site is 16 metres below the level of the rest of the city, so the main entrance is a descending flight of steps that still, somehow, manages to convey a sense of grandeur. Standing guard nearby is Jeff Koons' Puppy, all 43 flowery feet of it. 'A tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier, executed in a variety of flowers on a steel substructure', cute and almost deadly: ETA terrorists tried to plant a bomb here before the museum's formal opening; they were foiled, but a policeman was shot and killed.

With so much to see outside the building, and so many people milling around in the sunshine, going in is almost an afterthought. It's a point not lost upon the late British novelist JG Ballard in a piece for The Guardian: 'In its own, self-defining way it is a masterpiece, and the fact that it is an art gallery is almost wholly irrelevant. The one thing that someone visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim can forget about is any thought of actually entering the building... The museum is its own work of art, and the only one really on display'.

Thirteen Euros? Go on then. The atrium is tall and light - apparently the glass in the windows is treated to resist heat and radiation - with galleries on three levels connected by stairs, lifts and vertiginous walkways. The best bit, for my entrance fee, is Richard Serra's ongoing installation The Matter of Time - a series of colossal, swirling steel pieces occupying a hangar-like space 130 metres long and 30 metres wide. No idea what it's about, but wow.

Visualisation of Athletic Club Bilbao's new stadium

Visualisation of Athletic Club Bilbao's new stadium

There are other Guggenheim Museums in New York, Berlin and Venice. Rumour has it, at least one city in the Middle East wants a piece of the action. But if Bilbao's most celebrated landmark really could be anywhere, the same could not be said for its most totemic one. A mile west and almost as close to the river, San Mames Barria is the new home currently being built for the city's football club Athletic, and while it may look like any other state-of-the-art stadium, what it stands for could not be more fiercely demotic. This building, like its beloved predecessor, is all about Bilbao.

The club, which has never been relegated from Spain's top flight, picks only Basque players despite the obvious handicap that this implies - not always having a team good enough to win trophies. Its official website proclaims 'an institution, along with its supporters, characterised by its desire to defend values which are becoming increasingly uncommon in football and sport overall in the 21st century'. Even the new home has been designed by a Basque: Manuel Maria Smith is a Bilbao-born architect of Irish descent.

It'd be trite to say the Basques have a bit of Scouse about them. They go way back, real mists-of-time stuff, in their profound sense of identity. With their ancient and complex language, they've been described as 'Europe's aboriginal people'. Historically they've made great fishermen, shipbuilders, seafarers, explorers and emigrants. In 1522 a Basque called Juan Sebastian Elcano became the first man to sail around the world.

Sinuous fa├žade (left) and that dog again - but can it fetch a stick?

Sinuous façade (left) and that dog again - but can it fetch a stick?

Ironically the original stadium, the old San Mames now being demolished, symbolises pre-Guggenheim Bilbao. An article on the football pages of the BBC website describes it as having 'the ambience of your favourite old pub before it was upgraded and re-branded as a gastropub. Worn and frayed round the edges and in need of a lick of a paint, the ground could not be described as an architectural masterpiece'.

Ah, that old chestnut again. Who knows, in time cities might dismiss the Guggenheim and hanker after an equivalent of the new Museum of Liverpool. After all, as Gehry has revealed, tastes change: 'Bilbao wanted a building that does for them what the Sydney Opera House does for Australia... I didn't ever expect we'd achieve what we did, but I had an incredible client and incredible city government and people that were committed to doing something. You can't just go to a town and do what they call 'the Bilbao effect'. I turn that down a lot'.


'It'd be trite to say the Basques have a bit of Scouse about them. They go way back, real mists-of-time stuff, in their profound sense of identity. With their ancient and complex language, they've been described as 'Europe's aboriginal people'.'


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