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No.3: The Guggenheim Museum

issue 32 Aug / Sep 2006

This month Sharon Stammers herself has chosen a modern masterpiece, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Use this series as study notes. As a lover of light, they should be important to you and you should at least know the basic facts about them, if not traveling the globe to stand within them. You will be tested!

“When a building is as good as this, fuck the art!”
Philip Johnson

The Guggenheim Museum located in Bilbao, the Basque capital of Spain is designed by Frank Gehry and was opened to the public in October 1997. It shot to prominence as one of the world’s most spectacular buildings in the style of Deconstructivism. Built in four years and keeping within the $100 million budget, the museum was opened as part of a regeneration plan for the city. Less than one year later, the Guggenheim had received more than 1,300,000 visitors and in July 2006 is listed as the ninth most visited building in the world.
It is built on a 32,500sqm site with one side running down to the waterside of the Nervión River, 16 metres below the level of the rest of the city of Bilbao. It has a total surface area of 24,000sqm and at its tallest is 50 metres high. Like much of Gehry’s other work, the structure consists of sculpted, non repetitive organic contours. Deconstructivism is characterised by manipulating and distorting traditional geometric ideas of a structure or its surface.
The natives of Bilbao refer to the Guggenheim as “the artichoke”. Other descriptions of the abstract volumes that form the building include a rose, a fish that leaps and spins and more bizarrely Marilyn Monroe. However, located in an industrial port town, it is intended to resemble a ship. Its brilliantly reflective panels resembling the scales of a fish.
Though metal cladding has long been the signature to Gehry’s work, the museum represents his first use of titanium. In searching for a metal finish that was responsive to changing light conditions, he found that titanium’s reflective qualities were ideal. Approximately a third of a millimetre thick, the titanium zinc panels, applied using a traditional locked seam and mounted on a steel frame clad almost the entire exterior.
Titanium and its alloys are relatively new engineering metals since they have only been in use since 1952 and have mainly been employed in chemical and space research engineering. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the first building to be sheathed in gigantic titanium panels. Although Gehry made the choice of titanium mostly on aesthetic grounds, being interested in its colour and light reflecting properties, it is a material with exceptional mechanical and chemical stability and a guarantee to last at least a hundred years.
It was important to Gehry that the panels changed appearance in varying lighting conditions and that the titanium skin became chameleon like. Its appearance alters with every passing cloud, reflecting sunset, day break and subtle light changes according to time and weather. The building’s modeling is in continuous flux responding to the changes inherent in natural light which are replaced with a whole new identity reflecting the artificial city lights at night time.
Glass curtain walls and a huge skylight over the Fritz Lang inspired atrium provide the interior of the building with the light and transparency it needs and a link to outside world.
As well as pioneering the use of titanium cladding, the shape of the building is a product of the period’s technology. Computer-aided design and visualisations were used to create the Museum’s design. Computer simulations of the building’s structure made it feasible to discover how to build shapes that architects of earlier eras would have found nearly impossible to construct.
The Bilbao Guggenheim is not only an impressive piece of functional sculpture, it has also changed the way people consider modern architecture. The singular economic and cultural impact felt in the wake of its opening has sparked an increased awareness of the powerful force that architecture can wield; that people will travel the Globe to view a building.

“I thought I would choose a building myself and deviate from the classics or the historically obvious. To prove that a building doesn’t have to be ancient to be iconic, I chose Gehry's Guggenheim as the piece of architecture I consider to be built as a homage to Light. It is a building that is more famed for its external appearance than its inner spaces. But what an external appearance! Building with light is not necessarily only about how light penetrates the interior of a space. To me, Gehry's massive sculpture evokes the ancient pyramids shimmering under the golden dessert sun or reflecting the cool blue Egyptian moonlight. The pyramids were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone creating a mirror surface similar to that of the Guggenheim. I am amazed by the way the building reflects the lit environment around it. It constantly changes its identity and never looks the same in any single photo or visit.”

Sharon Stammers


Guggenheim Museum The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Portugal


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