Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao building represents a magnificent example of the most groundbreaking architecture of the 20th century. With 24,000 square meters of surface area, of which 11,000 are dedicated to exhibition space, the Museum represents an architectural landmark of audacious configuration and innovative design, providing a seductive backdrop for the art exhibited within it.
Surrounded by attractive avenues and squares in a newly developed area of the city, Gehry's design creates a spectacular sculpture-like structure, perfectly integrated into Bilbao's urban pattern and its surrounding area. The Museum plaza and main entrance lie in a direct line with Calle Iparragirre, one of the main streets running diagonally through Bilbao, and extend the city center right up the Museum's door.
Once in the plaza, visitors access the Hall by making their way down a broad stairway, an unusual feature that successfully overcomes the height difference between the areas alongside the Nervión River, where the Museum stands, and the higher city level. In this way, Gehry created a spectacular structure without raising it above the height of the adjacent buildings.
The highest part of the Museum is crowned by a large skylight in the shape of a metal flower covering the Atrium, one of the building's most characteristic features.
It is possible to walk all the way around the Museum, admiring different configurations from various perspectives as well as a number of artworks installed outside by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Daniel Buren, Eduardo Chillida, Anish Kapoor, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons, and Fujiko Nakaya.
The Museum site is crossed at one end by La Salve Bridge, which, since 2007, supports the sculpture by Daniel Buren, commissioned by the Museum, entitled Arcos rojos / Arku Gorriak.
Stretching under the bridge, gallery 104—an enormous, column-free space that houses Richard Serra’s installation The Matter of Time—ends in a tower, a sculptural gesture that brings the architectural design to a crescendo and appears to envelop the colossal bridge, effectively incorporating it into the building.
Once inside the Hall, visitors access the Atrium, the real heart of the Museum and one of the signature traits of Frank Gehry's architectural design. With curved volumes and large glass curtain walls that connect the inside and the outside, the Atrium is an ample space flooded with light and covered by a great skylight. The three levels of the building are organized around the Atrium and are connected by means of curved walkways, titanium and glass elevators, and staircases. Also an exhibition space, the Atrium functions as an axis for the 20 galleries, some orthogonally shaped and with classical proportions and others with organic, irregular lines.
This variety has proven its enormous versatility in the expert hands of curators and exhibition designers who have found the ideal atmosphere to present both large format works in contemporary mediums and smaller, more intimate shows.
In addition to the gallery space and a separate office building, the Museum has a visitor orientation room, Zero Espazioa; an auditorium that seats 300; a store/bookstore; and a variety of gastronomic offers, including a tapas bar, a bistro restaurant, and haute cuisine restaurant with one Michelin star.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was built between October 1993 and October 1997. The site chosen, on a former wharf of port and industrial use, on a curve of the Nervión River, represented the city’s recovery of the banks of the river, redeveloping them for culture and leisure. Due to the mathematical complexity of Gehry's design, he decided to work with an advanced software initially conceived for the aerospace industry, CATIA, to faithfully translate his concept to the structure and to help construction.
For the outer skin of the building, the architect chose titanium after ruling out other materials and seeing the behavior of a titanium sample pinned outside his office. The finish of the approximately 33,000 extremely thin titanium sheets provides a rough, organic effect, adding to the material's color changes depending on the weather and light conditions. The other two materials used in the building, limestone and glass, harmonize perfectly, achieving an architectural design with a great visual impact, which has now become a real icon of the city throughout the world.