The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and The Architecture of Frank Gehry – Online Lecture June 11th 2020

On June the 11th, The Arts Society Grayshott held its first online event via Zoom Webinar drawing in an audience of around eighty members. Well-known art historian and lecturer Sian Walters, who works with the Arts Society, The National Gallery, The Wallace Collection and others, gave a very interesting and inspiring lecture on The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the architecture of Frank Gehry’s amazing, unusual and somewhat strange sculptural building designs.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Having risen through sheer hard work and determination, from being poor pedlars in Switzerland to wealthy miners in America, the Guggenheims became one of the wealthiest mining families ever, owning at one point 75-80% of all of the silver, lead and copper mines in the world. With a real interest in Art, together with a belief in the educational power of it, the family invested heavily. Subsequently the Guggenheim Foundation was created. Major museums were opened in New York, Venice and Bilbao with a fourth currently being built in Abu Dhabi. Even though there had been a preference for owning the Old Masters, the family chose to invest in Modern Art and subsequently an extraordinary collection has been built up.

Bilbao had been a centre for ship building and steel manufacture in the 19th Century with a thriving industry lining the mouth of the River Nervion. Following economic recession in the mid twentieth Century, which had left many of the buildings empty and run down, the authorities chose to re-generate this Basque area. Frank Gehry won the competition to design a new museum in the heart of the city with the aim of injecting a new lease of life, stimulating culture and bringing people into the region – thus the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was built.

This magnificent building, which opened in 1997, reflects Bilbao’s industrial legacy of the past, and is built out of concrete with a thin skin of titanium on the surface. Chosen because of its strength and reflective quality, the expensive titanium ensures that the colour of the building changes with light at different times of the day and year.

The Guggenheim Museum at Night Showing the Reflective Nature of Titanium.

The interior is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country. The three levels of the building are organised around the atrium and are connected by means of curved walkways, titanium and glass elevators, and staircases. The spacious and versatile design is a perfect setting for a mixture of both permanent and visiting exhibits to be viewed. ‘Snake’ by Richard Serra, an innovative work made for the Museum’s inauguration consisting of three enormous, serpentine ribbons of hot-rolled steel, is permanently installed in the museum’s largest gallery. The huge success of the museum and the unusual exhibits therein have attracted a wide audience and enabled the building costs to be recouped within seven months of its opening.

‘Snake’ by Richard Serra

Canadian born Frank Gehry’s career only took off when he reached his sixties and his controversial designs have made him one of the most sought after architects in the world. All of his buildings are cutting edge in design exhibiting modernist features. There is a feeling of light and movement in his work with abstract shapes colliding sculpturally and often a reference to the sea and fish, clearly seen in the fish scale appearance of the titanium panels on the museum. Even though he is in his nineties, this iconic architect is still working today with the energy of someone significantly younger, and is currently involved in a project with the building of apartments in the Battersea Power Station Project.