No trip to the Basque region of the north west of Spain would complete without a visit to Bilbao to visit the Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. The building that was, at great expense, tasked with the rejuvenation of an industrial town in decline. Indeed, so successful has the resulting transformation of the town been that a phrase, “the Guggenheim effect” has been coined to describe it, and other such projects it has inspired around the world. It’s an intoxicating prospect, to visit a building that yields such power. So, it is with much excitement that we plan a day trip from the nearby foodie and fun mecca of San Sebastian. Obviously, the opportunity to see the works from the collection is a draw but many similar collections are housed in other museums that we’ve previously visited and I am not certain without the architecture we would make such a pilgrimage. It’s our own personal testament to the power of a landmark design.
On the 30 minute walk through Bilbao to the harbourside site of the museum, there’s a beautiful urban greenspace park but this aside it isn’t a particularly noteworthy town and certainly lacks the charm and vibe of the buzzy party town of San Sebastian. But then, we arrive. An 11 metre Jeff Koons flower adorned puppy sits guarding the entrance, on its own spectacular. And the building is an almost overwhelming wow. It’s difficult to take it all in at ground level. It is just so much. However, from an elevated position on a nearby bridge, it’s possible to capture a more holistic view. Even more wow, the shimmery zinc cladding, the scale and the form. It is boat like but somehow, still abstract. I’m so in awe of Gehry’s ability to make an abstract form look so polished and considered. And, his vision to create something so monumental and the commitment to successfully realise it. Once inside and the structure continues to dominate, the central void is the full height of the building. And the glazing! The steel support is in itself a lesson in construction and engineering. The void is surrounded on multiple levels by gallery spaces that twist and turn and there is no perceivable uniformity to them. The seeming randomness adds to the feeling of mastery. The ability to design such a chaotic order is surely genius.
The collection is, as expected, impressive and very modern. A double height exhibition space seems purposefully designed for a curving Richard Serra bronze installation. Allowing us to experience it both close-up and be dwarfed by its scale and also from above to capture its form. There are more Koons, his more recognisable neon pink balloon dog and a pretty bunch of neon tulips. Maman, Louise Bourgeois’ creepy giant spider, also sits on the sculpture terrace. Inside, a Warhol, a Kandinsky, an Yves Klein are just some of the works from the Guggenheim collection currently on display. It is always a joy and a privilege to see such beautiful and important works of art. For me, it is also very humbling. But here, there is an overwhelming sense that building itself is the most important exhibit in the collection.