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Friday, February 20, 2015

GUGGENHEIM | Museum Bilbao Is Great Architecture, Planning

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao seen from across the Nervion River. Note the huge size of the museum.
The white tent frames a half-dozen people. Photo by JT Marlin, February 20, 2015.
BILBAO, Basque Country, Spain - I flew here today from Amsterdam today, on my way to see my sister Olga in Pamplona. Coming into Bilbao from the airport I had a great view of The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

The Museum was opened nearly 20 years ago by Spain's then-King Juan Carlos I, who abdicated last year in favor of his son Felipe VI.

Wide Praise for the Museum's Design

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has been widely praised by critics and is much-loved by the general public:
  • Architect Philip Johnson described it as "the greatest building of our time".
  • The New Yorker's senior critic Calvin Tomkins called it "a fantastic dream ship of undulating form in a cloak of titanium," its reflective panels conjuring up fish scales. 
  • It is the most frequently named building as the most important work completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey of architecture experts.
The Museum has been imitated by other architects, and Gehry has used some of the themes of the Museum in other designs.

For example, Gehry did the building on the West Side of Manhattan on the edge of the Hudson at 19th-20th Street. We see it from our Chelsea apartment. On a smaller scale, it gives the effect of a ship's sails, much like the Bilbao Museum. It is a highlight of the High Line.

Incidentally, there's an ad featuring different cities in Amsterdam's Schiphol airport and it gives reasons for going to New York City. Under "free things" it lists just two attractions:
  • The High Line
  • The New York Public Library.
An Economic-Development Success

Not perhaps so much appreciated as the design of the Guggenheim Museum building is the success of the economic-development thinking of the Basque Government. After the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and the return of democratic government in 1979, the Basque Government came out of exile in 1980.

In 1981, this government suggested to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation that it would provide funds for a Guggenheim museum that would revitalize Bilbao's decaying port. The deal was far-reaching:
  • The Basque Government agreed to pay $100 million to build the museum, $50 million for permanent acquisitions, $20 million to the Guggenheim for managing the process. It would then subsidize the annual budget to the tune of $12 million a year.
  • The Guggenheim agreed to manage the institution and to rotate parts of its own collection through the Bilbao museum. The Foundation gets great credit for picking Frank Gehry as the architect, and for giving him free rein, even stimulus, to design something unique. 
The museum took 15 years to design and build. The wait was worth it. Not only has it been an architectural success - it has driven the Bilbao area's economy, and it gives great credibility to the intelligence of the democratic Basque Government. There are now nonstop flights between London and Bilbao, for example, on decent-sized planes, which is why I am stopping in Bilbao on my way to Pamplona. Hotels have sprung up and tours bring large crowds to the city.

Key Element of Success: A New Brand for Bilbao

Economist Beatriz Plaza of the University of the Basque Country had conducted several studies of the impact of cultural investments on the local economy of cities and regions. She concludes:
Culture-led branding has had real economic returns in Bilbao. Since the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s opening, press about the museum has effectively attracted visitors to its doors. A durable, valuable brand is a major goal of any city-branding strategy. [We provide] evidence that Bilbao has achieved such a goal.
Amen to that.

Postscript - "Maman" and Charlotte

The day I visited was the 90th birthday of The New Yorker, founded by Harold Ross. Katharine Angell found E. B. White for Ross... and she became Mrs. White after four years. EBW's Charlotte is surely based on his wife Kay. I compare the spider of Louise Bourgeois, "Maman", with that of EBW.