The Bilbao Effect - Hit and Myth

Statement buildings are so last century. As the architectural world awaits the winning scheme for the Guggenheim Helsinki, we reflect on the legacy — both intended and unintended — of the Guggenheim Bilbao. What underpins its extraordinary success as a cultural icon? And can Helsinki hope to replicate that formula?


There are many things the Guggenheim Bilbao has become a byword for - for architects it represents a career-defining, genre-spawning, architectural moment that catapulted its creator, the city and the client that commissioned him into mythic global status. However, for national and regional governments the world over, the hype that has surrounded it has too often led to the erroneous belief that ambitious and expensive cultural buildings are a fast-track to economic prosperity and cultural significance.

The cities of Spain, in particular, are littered with the skeletons of starchitect-designed structures (airports, opera houses, exhibition halls), many of which are barely or will never be operational, as a direct result of those who commissioned (and built) them trying to grab some of that 'Bilbao effect' prosperity and cachet for themselves, seemingly without bothering to do the sums, or consider how the building will be supported by infrastructure, audience appeal or contextual relevance.

Such is the allure of a Guggenheim commission that the latest incarnation - the proposed Guggenheim Helsinki - attracted more entries than any architectural competition ever before: 1,715 of them, from 77 countries. With a shortlist of six architects now frantically working away to develop and refine their schemes in the hope of emerging triumphant when the winner is announced in June, it's worth re-examining what made the Bilbao incarnation such a success.

Richard Armstrong, now the Guggenheim Foundation director, was not a fan when he first visited the construction site (it was finished in 1997). At the time, he was director of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, a curious art-world insider keen to see what Guggenheim director Thomas Krens and Frank Gehry were up to.

He remembers it as, 'a hole in the ground. I went back to Pittsburgh and I said it would never work'. Since being appointed Guggenheim Foundation director in 2008, he has had ample time to see how well the building supports the programme envisioned for it. He says: 'People think it's all about Frank's building and his psychic investment. It isn't.

'I see now that what Frank and Tom were looking into was a new spatial world and seeing what was coming.' They believed that art and artists increasingly needed far greater diversity of exhibition space, in order to accommodate large-scale sculptures, video art, light installations and site-specific work.

They wanted a mixture of both intimate and cavernous galleries to house the Guggenheim Bilbao's own emerging contemporary collection as well as the 20th-century masterpieces the Foundation had amassed; and a building that could welcome and support cultural pilgrims, one that would feel accessible and uplifting instead of elitist and intimidating. So the Guggenheim was designed from the inside out, with Gehry and Krens agreeing the kinds of shapes and scales of galleries that were needed, and moving these around until they formed a plan that worked, with the galleries organised around a central atrium.

This atrium serves to orientate the visitor as well as provide views into and across the building from multiple interstitial spaces such as balconies, staircases and bridges, where daylight and views could be maximised, clear of the conservation restrictions necessary to protect the art. The unorthodox exterior flowed from this unusual interior plan, with the titanium tiles added for an industrial finish that would evoke the site's shipbuilding past.

It's hard to remember now how bold that would have seemed. Of course, Gehry was following in the visionary footsteps of his Guggenheim New York predecessor Frank Lloyd Wright. Nobody thought that his circular spiral of a building would work for art - and yet it does. Even so, in the mid-1990s, 'people thought that a museum should be boring in terms of architecture because, if not, the spaces would compete with the art,' recalls Juan Ignacio Vidarte - now director of the Bilbao Guggenheim. 'And that wasn't right. We tried to find an architect who could understand the ambition in terms of the museum and in terms of the city. We asked different architects to provide the ideas. And at that time it was Frank's proposal that everyone thought was the right answer. It was certainly a building that was not neutral or boring. It was a statement. But we thought it was the right statement... He had to make sure everything was there: the types of galleries, circulation, flow. I think it was very rational, combined with Gehry's own artistic genius.'

There were other elements of its design that are often overlooked in the rush to emulate its visual flamboyance. Gehry wanted to situate the building right down on the waterfront - long before riverfront cultural buildings became the norm (a la Tate Modern and many imitiations thereof ), way below the city's main pedestrian and traffic route. This was allegedly inspired by the idea of inverting the usual gallery hierarchy, where you enter at ground level, through a grand entrance and have to walk up to the art as if subservient to it. But it also meant that this glittering, sculptural symbol was right by the river's edge, at the heart of the former shipbuilding site, on the 'wrong' side of the river - all the genteel buildings and economic activity in Bilbao were on the opposite side of the Nervión river at that time.

When you look at the Guggenheim Bilbao now, you would never know it. The surrounding areas have been, mostly, thoughtfully cultivated, with a generous sweep of open public space around the building, from the adjacent park and plaza to the extensive riverwalk that now opens up both sides of the river for promenading, running and cycling. Just beyond the Guggenheim are more recent buildings that complement the crazy curves of the museum with sober and considered shapes and materials.

There's the gently elliptical glass facade of César Pelli's Iberdrola Tower (2012) and Rafael Moneo's innovative University of Duesto Library (2008) which sits beside Alvaro Siza's white marble and ceramic tile-clad university auditorium (2010).

Much of this surrounding infrastructure and investment was on the table even as the Guggenheim plans were being drawn up. The museum was just one - albeit pivotal - element in the Basque government's 1990s ambition to transform its biggest city's economy from defunct industry and shipping to one focused on culture, tourism, technology and education.

Long before the Guggenheim deal was sealed, the government had lined up the likes of Norman Foster to design their underground system, Santiago Calatrava for the airport, and Raphael Soriano for the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall. The use of 'top, world-class architects' was a key part of the Basque plan, according to Jon Azua, who was deputy president of the Basque government at the time, and was instrumental in bringing the Guggenheim to the city.

The idea of architecturally led regeneration was as much about giving opportunities to the city's own far less-experienced architectural practices to work alongside and learn from the global greats as it was about creating a distinctive and high-quality, urban landscape. When Gehry came on board, the city had just signed an agreement with the French company Dassault Systèmes, to set up a base in Bilbao for its pioneering CATIA (Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) expertise and software. The Guggenheim Bilbao became their first live architectural experiment.

Azua, who now plays a key role as Guggenheim Foundation board member and advisor, says: 'Many people think, outside and inside the country, that this Guggenheim deal and this building was the first mover that explains the success and the change (for) the city. It's the opposite way around. It was the tip of the iceberg.' So how has the building fared, over 17 years after completion?

What strikes one most, visiting the Guggenheim Bilbao now is how well it looks - the titanium tiles ripple with reflected light from the river, the interior paintwork is a crisp white, the glazed panels gleam - and how well the experience of the building works. The galleries, in groups of no more than two or three at a time, set up a gentle and humane rhythm with the many interstitial spaces. You emerge from galleries having wrestled with the density and physical power of Richard Serra's sculptures for example, or gazed at mid-19th-century canvases positively pulsing with colour and intensity, and invariably you find yourself in an area flooded with daylight.

There is sunshine (on a good day) and shadow all around you. The surrounding structure curves and tilts, making impossible shapes, offering your fevered eyes respite and vistas both through and beyond the building. The contours and light and materiality seem to viscerally rebalance you, grounding you in the here and now, giving your fizzing brain a rest. Like palate fresheners during a 12-course, Michelin-starred, gourmet meal, they give you the will and the appetite to go for another course, and then another.

The building may seem over-engineered in places; the fans of glazed panels that are concertinaed between the gallery blocks seem cluncky, but that's only in comparison with the streamlined, soulless elegance of contemporary, glass curtain-wall technology.

Frank gehry (second right) surveying the riverside construction site in Bilbao
Frank gehry (second right) surveying the riverside construction site in Bilbao. Photo: Guggenheim Foundation

Armstrong agrees the spaces are 'very hospitable and stimulating. The museum is a space where you have to tease out and nurture imagination. This building (Bilbao) is so phenomenally generous about imagination. Frank has an unusual capacity to direct your senses. It's dramatic but not oppressive. The only building I can think of that had this quality before is Stirling's Stuttgart building'. (James Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie, completed in 1984, also features a connecting daylit atrium and frilly 'skirts' of glazed panels.)

Krens and Gehry were 'about a decade ahead of their time,' states Armstrong, in predicting how art would develop. But now, he feels, it's time for another step-change in what a museum needs to be and to offer as a place for experiencing art. This is what the Guggenheim judges are looking for in Helsinki. To Armstrong, the frenzy that has accompanied the Helsinki Guggenheim design competition is a sideshow, almost an irrelevance. He says that what was meaningful about the Bilbao project - aside from the opening up of new opportunities for art - was what it revealed about the spirit and political will of the Basque region. And this is what intrigues him about Finland.

Says Armstrong: 'The Basque leadership offers a model to the world. I think the Finns do too. I hope that one of our lessons is beyond the aesthetic and more to the social. Without wanting to sound pretentious, we thought why not make the (Finnish qualities and sensibility) available to a bigger audience - celebrate the achievement of the city, which is real, egalitarian, democratic, open.' Other compelling elements in justifying the Helsinki location included Finland's design heritage, its technological innovation and, for Armstrong, the access to and importance of 'real and pure nature' that is so central to Finnish culture. Says Armstrong: 'One of the first people I spoke to from Helsinki's planning department told me that every body of water should be potable. Initially I thought that was ridiculous, and then I thought "how noble". From then my enthusiasm doubled.'

The final design, he hopes, will 'offer a good balance of outdoor/indoor, natural light, the proximity to nature. I hope we can show people: here is a rational society that values education and offers people a very high quality of life, almost without riches... You see all kinds of people participating in things. That's a healthy society. It's the triumph of the middle classes, if you like.' He pauses, before reflecting: 'It's gone out of our world in the US.'

Armstrong acknowledges there have been 'agreements and disagreements' during the process - the Helsinki-ites rejected the initial proposal for how the Guggenheim would be funded and operated as they felt the cost of building and running the museum lay too heavily on the city's shoulders (a €104m bill for construction, plus a $30m licensing fee to the Guggenheim). Says Armstrong: 'We have learned a lot in the agreement and disagreement. One of the questions emerging from this was: What should the museum be in the 21st century? A museum has to be a pure form. That's hard for museum people to comprehend.'

By 'pure form', he means: 'Not only physical but metaphysical. What I really hope for is someone who could incorporate all the attributes of that particular site which is inspirational and egalitarian.' But then Armstrong says, by way of a disclaimer: 'I'm not on the committee.'

The committee, through a much-trumpeted process of transparent and democratic selection (none of the identities of the entrants were disclosed) has chosen, to the surprise and delight of many of the onlookers, a shortlist of relative unknowns. Some are very young practices with little more to their names than the odd pavilion. There is little flamboyant shape-making, but all proposals offer a more fluid relationship between public space and gallery space, adaptable to a wide range of different programmes. What the judges were looking for, according to their chair, professor of architecture at Columbia University, Mark Wigley, was mysterious even to them.

'We are looking for something that shows us what we are looking for. It's kind of a dance...' But he declared: 'I believe that something beautiful happens here in Helsinki in relation to design. We are in a historic moment in the evolution of museums. Our reflection on what a museum could be deepens in this moment. As a jury we were looking for entrants who understood this. That we are on the threshold of something new.'

At the shortlist announcement, Wigley stressed that the selected designs 'represent the thinking of architects at the beginning of a very long and deep dialogue that will last for many years. The very first task of the jury was to respectfully look at all these entries and see which of them had the potential to be developed further.'

The proposed schemes, Wigley declared, respond with equal respect to 'that beautiful site and also the needs and hopes of Helsinki. It's a project that has to participate in the evolution of the city. What does it mean to have a Guggenheim in Helsinki? I'm much more interested in what impact does Helsinki have on Guggenheim.'

Wigley has a point - it has been far too easy for the Guggenheim Foundation to be the king-maker, courted by countless countries, corporate sponsors or ambitious architects, desperate for a piece of their cultural kudos or the Bilbao regenerative fairy dust. What Armstrong insists is that the Foundation is interested in making an evolutionary step. It has been experimenting with smaller, simpler and lighter-footed interventions, such as the 'BMW Guggenheim Lab' initiative: a six-week travelling roadshow, part think tank, part community centre, part gathering space, designed by Atelier Bow Wow, which travelled around New York, Berlin and Mumbai between 2011 and 2013.

There has also been a recent exploration of the wild landscapes north of Bilbao for a kind of art and wild-living retreat, 'like a spa for your spirit,' says Armstrong, which both he and Azua are interested in developing further. Though what this means for the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, another Gehry project, six times the size of Bilbao and a long way from completion, is harder to say.

Given Armstrong's declared interest in reinventing and opening up museum experiences and in exploring the way a museum can enhance a city's social as well as cultural capital, what can the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim offer that is of any value to the world's (or its own) citizens, beyond an oil-rich nation seizing yet another opportunity to display its unimaginable wealth, showcase yet more unsustainable architecture and outdo its neighbours in civic ambition? (In its defence, Armstrong points out that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are becoming massive interchanges for a huge range of nationalities and the cultural buildings proposed for Saadiyat Island, including the Guggenheim, will offer a vital and accessible 'meeting place' for visitors.)

Either way, it makes one warm all the more to the idea that the Helsinki Guggenheim can be that hoped for evolutionary leap in museum design - one that celebrates the unique spirit of a city which believes in collective endeavor and universal access to good design, turning the creative process and its outcomes into a truly participative and enriching experience.

If the new scheme's design and programming can achieve this feat, there is every chance for it to become another legendary Guggenheim. What the world really doesn't need is yet another glamorous but meaningless cultural bauble, for visiting pilgrims to gawp and marvel at.

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