A day at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain Matt 08 Dec 2005

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IMG_6717.JPGA recap of my recent visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: I’ll start by admitting I have mixed feelings about Frank Gehry’s design aesthetic. It sometimes feels a bit too overdone for my tastes. Still, you can’t help but be somewhat awed by the jutting shapes (photo) of the building as you first approach. Also setting the mood as you draw closer: the river flowing by the museum, the nearby Campo Volantin Footbridge (photo) designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Louise Bourgeois spider (photo), a walkway that’s got some funky illumination at night (photo), and Jeff Koons’ 42-foot-tall West Highland Terrier (photo).

The museum’s facade may get most of the attention but the interior is interesting too. Especially noteworthy: the atrium (photo) and its role in the museumgoing experience. The design constantly funnels you back to this central atrium making it function somewhat like a heart; You check out a segment — each one’s made up of a few rooms — and then return to the heart that pumps you back into another segment (or the next floor).

According to the audioguide, this setup is an intentional attempt to keep visitors oriented. It’s an acknowledgement that the experience of viewing contemporary art can be intimidating and discomforting. In a lot of big museums, that feeling is made even worse by the layout — you start to feel as if you’re trapped in a maze. Which way did I come from? How do I get out? That doesn’t happen at Bilbao. Every few minutes you return to the atrium where you can see back to the main entrance as well as out to the river. It’s a nice touch.

The museum’s interior is also cool just because it’s so damn big. According to the museum, “Site-specific and outdoor installations by contemporary artists, responding to the spaces of the Frank Gehry building, are integral to the Collection of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.” You can see this in the first floor which contains a giant room the size of an airplane hangar. It’s currently housing a sculpture exhibit (photo) by Richard Serra. It’s hard to imagine any other museum hosting pieces of this scale together in one room (In fact, Serra says he created these monumental hot-rolled steel sculptures in response to the organic form of the space).

The art is always rotating at the Guggenheim too. The current main exhibit, which takes up the rest of the museum, is on Archisculpture, the relationship between architecture and sculpture. It was fascinating. Especially helpful: The architectural models and sculptures are presented at the same size which reveals a lot of interesting relationships.

The placement of crisp, exacting, and accurate architectural models next to more richly figured sculptures sets up curious tensions; tensions that demonstrate profoundly that beyond the iconic silhouette, materiality, texture, solid, void, shadow, luminance, and lustre—to name just a few of the many sensory constituents of a sculpture—are as fundamental to architecture as they are to sculpture.

Bottom Line: The Bilbao Guggenheim lives up to they hype (especially if you can visit when there are top-notch exhibitions, like now). If you’re ever in the neighborhood, make sure to stop by.

4 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Ryan M 08 Dec 05

Ah…sigh…one day…

Anyone know where I can get cheap tickets to Spain from Canada?

I love the architecture and the thought put into the interior walking flow. Excellent.

Mike W 08 Dec 05

The Serra photo is cool, if you trim the trailing “e” from the link.