Opened 20 years ago this month, the glittering titanium museum had a wow factor that cities around the globe were soon clamouring to copy
When he got to Bilbao a month before it opened, says Frank Gehry, I went over the hill and saw it shining there. I thought: What the fuck have I done to these people? The it is the Bilbao Guggenheim museum, which made both its architect Gehry and the Basque city world-famous. Its achievement, measured in much-repeated metrics of visitor numbers and economic uplift, in global recognition and media coverage, in being, in effect, an Instagram sensation long before anyone knew what that might be, is prodigious. It revived belief that architecture could be ambitious, beautiful and popular all at once, yet Gehry has always said that its success took him by surprise.
The museum was opened 20 years ago this month, by the king and queen of Spain, since when it has become the most influential building of modern times. It has given its name to the Bilbao effect a phenomenon whereby cultural investment plus showy architecture is supposed to equal economic uplift for cities down on their luck. It is the father of iconic architecture, the prolific progenitor of countless odd-shaped buildings the world over. Yet rarely, if ever, have the myriad wannabe Bilbaos matched the original. This is probably because it came about through a coincidence of conditions that is unlikely to happen again.
Despite Gehrys protestations of surprise, it is a project that has fulfilled its original intentions with precision. Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the museums director, whose involvement dates back to the time of its inception in the early 90s, says that it was meant to be a transformational project, a catalyst for a wider plan to turn around an industrial city in decline and afflicted by Basque separatist terrorism. It was to be a driver of economic renewal, an agent of economic development that would appeal to a universal audience, create a positive image and reinforce self-esteem. All of which it pretty much did. It has been rewarded with a steady million visitors a year, the 20 millionth having arrived shortly before the 20th birthday.
Gehry, who beat two other architects in the competition to design the building, recalls that he was asked to design what was then not called an icon. He was nervous. They said: Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying. I looked at them and said: Wheres the nearest exit? Ill do my best but I cant guarantee anything. So he came up with the convulsive, majestic, climactic assembly of titanium and stone, of heft and shimmer, a cross-breed of palazzo and ship that also flips its tail like a jumping fish, that now stands on the bank of the river Nervin.
It was not a wholly new set of ideas Sydney, indeed, had demonstrated the value of the transformative landmark, as had Paris with the Pompidou Centre. Frankfurt, Glasgow and Pittsburgh had striven to raise themselves with culture and/or museum-building. What set Bilbao apart was the degree of contrast between the citys lowly status and the artistic and architectural ambition of its proposed flagship.
They found an ally in the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation of New York, which had previous in commissioning icons from architects named Frank, in the form of Frank Lloyd Wrights white spiralling museum on Fifth Avenue. It was then run by Thomas Krens, the holder of an MBA from Yale and a man formed by the risk-taking, deal-making culture of the 1980s. The Bilbao people had heard that the Guggenheim wanted to expand its European presence, and plans to do this by adding to the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice werent going forward sweetly, as Vidarte puts it, so they offered their battered city in place of La Serenissima. The Guggenheim, he says, liked their ideas and their seriousness.