Laying the Cornerstone for a City's Dream

Frank Gehry's design for Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is key to revitalizing Basque region

It was raining here in Spain as architect Frank Gehry toured the outside of his recent work, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

"I've never felt such freedom on a project," the Santa Monica, Calif., architect said. "The Basque administration told me, 'Build something spectacular!' They wanted this museum to do for Bilbao what the Opera House did for Sydney, Australia."

Since the 1980s, the Basque government has wanted to bring a renaissance to the aging industrial area. It wanted Bilbao to become a cultural center, but it needed a landmark to cornerstone their dream.

Mr. Gehry, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989, gave it to them. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao looks like an explosion of titanium - though very flowerlike - at its core. The 256,000-square-foot museum consists of a series of interconnected buildings whose focus is an atrium and towering roof.

In the rain, it was impressive. The showers made the titanium glisten as if glowing from within. "On windy nights, the titanium skin seems to breathe," Gehry says.

"What drove me was my feeling that if an art museum isn't an important building, it wouldn't be important for the artist. They work in studios, give life to their work, and certainly want it to be shown in an important edifice."

The museum, whose grand opening is scheduled for October, will display the work of world-class modern and contemporary artists. It extends the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's efforts to bring its collections and programming to audiences around the world.

All the necessary components

Can a building transform a city? The answer is yes, if the city is willing to offer a budget of $100 million, if a group such as the Guggenheim Foundation will operate it - providing curatorial and administrative expertise, plus the core art collection and programming - and if the design takes on a spirit of its own.

Gehry, who spent $89 million of the $100 million budget, describes the museum's location: "It's on a site on the narrow Nervion River ... there are buildings on either side ... a huge bridge comes flying out of space across it ... and it sits in a green valley.

"Part of the galleries go under the bridge so they intersect on the other side. The city fathers asked, since it's at the curve of the river, could there be a way to see the museum from city hall?

"I added a tower, then I made it into a stairway, so you could walk from the bridge to the river side of the building."

He suggested that this year's Pritzker Prize, the highest honor an architect can receive, be presented in his nearly completed museum.

But the night before the 400 guests arrived, workers were busy around the clock. Only two rows were completed of the 26 marble steps at the entry. The world's leading architects, international critics, guests, and politicians from around Europe would be attending. Would they see every unfinished corner?

Jay Pritzker took one look at the new museum and told Gehry, "Quit while you're ahead. This is your masterpiece."

"I'm not sure how to take that," the architect answered. "Maybe I should retire now."

Little chance for that. Currently on his drawing boards are the Experience Music Museum in Seattle, which resembles a giant guitar tossed on the ground; an office building under construction in the heart of Berlin; and perhaps the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles when financial problems are solved.

Gehry received his bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Southern California and studied city planning at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. His career has spanned three decades and has produced both public and private buildings in America, Japan, and Europe.

Citywide renaissance

As Gehry began work on the museum, the city fathers had Norman Foster design a subway system for the city, began plans to reconstruct the city's airport, and asked Cesar Pelli to propose a waterfront development, including the conversion of former shipping facilities into parks, apartments, offices, and shopping areas.

They also began construction on a new Congress Hall for music events and conventions. The entire project is earmarked at $1.5 billion.

"In many ways, this commission has been my most exciting," Gehry says. "Many things we developed in Bilbao, we will use into the millennium. The best computer technology and aircraft programming demystified structures, making the museum buildable and cost effective. It made me know we could control the costs.

"For instance, for the steel structure, there were thousands of pieces of steel, many not straight. It was not a regular modular system, so there were x, y, and z lengths. If a contractor looked at such a plan, he might throw up his hands and double the price, thinking it was infinitely changeable and irresponsible.

"With the computer, we did all the profiles. Each piece of steel is numbered and detailed exactly, even to where the holes are. We gave them the software so they could produce their shop drawings. It was a different process than used in a normal building.

"When the bids went out to six subcontractors, they came back with estimates 18 percent under budget." Gehry smiled, "Yes, we're going to continue this system."

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