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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao turns 25

Silke Wünsch
October 18, 2022

The Guggenheim opened its museum in Bilbao 25 years ago, turning a struggling industrial town into a cultural metropolis. The building designed by Frank Gehry is now the city's landmark.

A view of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from one side.
Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum has been open for 25 yearsImage: Matthias Graben/imagebroker/IMAGO

In the last 25 years, the architectural marvel on the bank of the Nervion River in Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, has achieved the unexpected: It has transformed the face of a city that was once believed to be all but lost.

Bilbao is located in the north of Spain, on the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic gulf. From the 19th century until the 1970s, it was the most important industrial seaport in the Basque Country. With its strategic access to the ocean, Bilbao's economy — based on shipbuilding, as well as coal and steel production — was booming.

However, industries didn't adapt quickly enough to changing technical standards and eventually the outdated dockyards and factories had to close. Factory buildings and ironworks were abandoned. Many workers and their families left the city, while others stayed, often lacking perspectives for the future.

Bilbao was also a stronghold of the Basque separatist organization ETA, which was responsible for several terrorist attacks.

The Bilbao museum as seen from one side.
Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum is an architectural landmark that has helped transform the cityImage: picture-alliance/Maxppp/B. Fava

In this context, passionate art lovers were a rarity in the city, which is why when plans that the ambitious cultural project would be built there were revealed, it first sounded like a bad joke.

Strong resistance

At the beginning of the 1990s, the American Guggenheim Foundation was in search of a location for a European museum and was in negotiations with several important cities.

Bilbao's authorities showed the strongest interest in the project. They realized what a huge opportunity the well-respected museum could turn out to be for the run-down city.

The deal was simple: BIlbao would provide space and funds, while the Guggenheim Foundation would fill the museum with works from its prestigious collection and take care of its management.

Many people in Bilbao protested against the project, they couldn't understand why their city would invest millions in a museum instead of modernizing their factories to help the local population.Even the artists in the region feared they would be dismissed by the Americans' cultural imperialism.

The Guggenheim Foundation's feasibility study suggested that the museum would attract at least half a million visitors every year. That seemed illusory.

All involved parties nevertheless accepted the deal.

Visitors stand inside a central room of the Guggenheim museum.
Straight lines are a rarity in Frank Gehry's museum Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Reboredo

The eccentric architect

The city began to change rapidly, surprising skeptics. The entire area along the Nervion River went through a complete face-lift within four years. The rusty dockyards disappeared, and were replaced by green spaces and promenades. In the midst of it all, a gigantic framework of curved steel was built.

It wasn't the first time that Canadian-US architect Frank Gehry had caused a furor with his unconventional style. His deconstructivist approach meant that corners and straight lines seemed inexistant and were replaced by waves, arches and curves. The building is now considered an architectural masterpiece.

Gehry's works, such as the Biomuseum, a biodiversity museum in Panama City, the Dancing House in Prague, as well as buildings in several cities in the US and Germany, including Hanover, Dusseldorf and Herford, are world famous.

By 1997, the red-rust steel sculpture on Bilbao's river bank, which looked a bit like a huge roller coaster structure, was clad with titanium.

Depending on where one stands, the building is reminiscent of a half artichoke, or a ship, or even a decapitated fish without fins. Here and there, glass covers the façade, while the silver titanium beautifully blends into the light Spanish limestone.

The building doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end; no right or left. But there's definitely a core: the highest room, 50 meters high (164 ft), makes up the central atrium hall, while the largest room is a gallery, providing ample space for gigantic sculptures.

Everything is flooded with light and appears airy and playful. It's like a labyrinth on three floors with little doors, galleries, corners, niches, angles, windows and skylights. Still, even though the interior of the building is just as exciting as its exterior, the halls do not steal the show from the artworks on display.

Visitors walk in a large circular sculpture by Richard Serra, as viewed from above.
A monumental sculpture by US artist Richard Serra was shown in the museum in 2012Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Aldai

Successful beyond expectations

The Guggenheim Museum on Avenida Abandoibarra was inaugurated by then-King Juan Carlos on October 18, 1997. 

It was showered with praise: "It is the greatest building of our time," said US architect Philip Johnson, adding, "When a building is as good as that one, f * *k the art" — a sentence that would arm skeptics who felt the building was too dominant.

The museum was overrun by art and architecture fans from all over the world. The estimated 500,000 visitors per year turned into one million.

The Highlights of Bilbao, Northern Spain

Hundreds of exhibitions have since been shown, featuring the great stars of the art world from the last decades, including Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Jeff Koons, just to name a few. And to counter initial fears, one section of the museum is dedicated to Spanish and Basque artists.

Now, in honor of its 25th anniversary, the museum is presenting a three-part exhibition, titled "Sections/Intersections," which aims to promote the rediscovery of "works that have historically defined both the interior and the exterior of the Museum," according to the Guggenheim's description.

"Maman" sculpture in the shape of a giant spider stands outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Louise Bourgeois's famous spider sculpture, "Maman," stands outside the museumImage: picture-alliance/Robert B. Fishman

The large exhibition held on each floor aims to show museum-goers the extent and variety of its holdings and runs until January 22, 2023. 

The Guggenheim effect

After the museum started attracting visitors, Bilbao hired other star architects to rejuvenate the city. Norman Forster built an entire subway line, Alvaro Siza designed a university building and an airport terminal, while the pedestrian bridge "Zubizuri," located near the museum, was created by Salvadore Calatrava.

Fine hotels and boutiques quickly followed and restaurants started offering the finest of Basque cuisine.

The Guggenheim effect, also known as the Bilbao effect, has turned into the symbol of how art and culture can boost the struggling economy of a region.


This article was translated from German. It was updated on October 18, 2022 for the 25th anniversary of the museum.