The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was part of a daring attempt to revitalize the city’s waterfront. Prior to the construction of the Museum, the port area was an industrial wasteland — home to a variety of dirty industries such as iron, plastics, and chemicals. According to Cesar, it was so bad that the city’s nickname was “the hole.” Nobody wanted to move there, and if they had to, they didn’t want to stay. The city was definitely not a tourist attraction.
Work on the Guggenheim Museum started in 1993; the building opened in October 1997. It’s constructed of titanium, glass, and limestone on a site along the Nervión River. The Museum is considered an iconic structure that provides a sense of space and grandeur, and has been hailed as one of the most important buildings of the 20th century. Others say it’s really a sculpture, not a building.
The revitalization worked, beginning with tourism. When it opened, Museum staff hoped for 400,000 visitors in their first year; they got 1.3 million. Equally impressive is the rejuvenated area around the Museum. Gone are the docks and stench, replaced by parks, more museums, and the new San Mamés football (soccer) stadium.
It’s a fine example of an urban renewal project that worked, something that doesn’t always happen. Just because an iconic building is constructed in a run-down area of a city doesn’t mean revitalization will occur. It succeeded in Bilbao likely because of the reputation of the architect (Frank Gehry), the incredible design of the building, and because the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the City of Bilbao made sure it was in the news from day one until opening day. And apparently, the building (which cost €133 million) was paid for in five years.
And what did I do with my hour at the Bilbao Guggenheim? I didn’t even darken its doors. As soon as we were free to roam, I bolted for a variety of observation points. I love the building’s exterior design and cladding, and wanted to get at least a few decent images from different angles. It’s unfortunate that it was a little overcast, but on tours like this, you work with what you’re given.
Truth be told, my favorite bit stands outside the Museum. Maman is a bronze, stainless steel, and marble sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. It depicts a spider with a sac containing 26 marble eggs — the name is French for Mother. I’ve never thought the spider looks threatening; I just think she’s eyeing the Museum as a possible nest for those eggs.
Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor