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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Designed by the North American architect Frank O. Gehry, this unique Museum built on a 32,500 square meter site in the center of Bilbao represents an amazing construction feat. On one side it runs down to the waterside of the Nervión River, 16 meters below the level of the rest of the city of Bilbao. One end is pierced through by the huge Puente de La Salve, one of the main access routes into the city.

The perfect setting: architecture for art´s sake

The building itself is an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Orthogonal blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium. Glass curtain walls provide the building with the light and transparency it needs. Owing to their mathematical complexity, the sinuous stone, glass, and titanium curves were designed with the aid of computers. The glass walls were made and installed to protect the works of art from heat and radiation. The half-millimeter thick "fish-scale" titanium panels covering most of the building are guaranteed to last one hundred years. As a whole, Gehry's design creates a spectacular, eminently visible structure that has the presence of a huge sculpture set against the backdrop of the city.

A new urban center

People coming from the calle Iparraguirre, one of the main streets bisecting the center of Bilbao diagonally, are led directly to the main entrance; the idea was to bring the city right to the doors of the building. A broad flight of steps takes pedestrians down to the Museum hall although descending flights of stairs are not a frequent feature of institutional buildings. This is an inspired response to the differences in height between the level of the river and the level of the city center. It also enables a building with a surface area of 24,000 square meters and more than 50 meters high to be slotted into the city landscape without it towering over the neighboring buildings.

A city within another

Visitors passing through the hall to the exhibition areas come immediately to the atrium, the real heart of the Museum and one of the most idiosyncratic features of Gehry's design, which has a sort of metal flower skylight at the top that allows a stream of light to illuminate the warm, inviting space. From the Atrium, the visitor is given the opportunity to access a terrace covered by a canopy supported by a single stone pillar. The canopy serves a function (better appreciated perhaps from the other bank of the river, which offers observers an excellent view of the entire rear façade of the Museum) that is both protective and aesthetic at one and the same time. The broad flight of stairs that goes up to the sculptural tower, conceived as a device to absorb and integrate the Puente de La Salve into the overall architectural scheme of the building, is also a public access way that connects pedestrians with the rest of the city.
Exhibition galleries are organized on three levels around the central atrium and are connected by a system of curving walkways suspended from the roof, glass elevators and stair turrets. All in all, a spectacular vision that one critic has described as a metaphorical city, where the panels of glass that cover the elevator-well evoke the scales of a fish that leaps and spins, the walkways that climb the interior walls are like vertical motorways, and the plaster curves crowning the atrium suggest the molded ribbing of a drawing by Willem de Kooning. In short, a glimpse of artifice in architectural design taken to its uttermost limits.

The space of art

Eleven thousand square meters of exhibition space are distributed in 19 galleries. Ten of these galleries have an almost classical orthogonal look and can be identified from outside by their stone finishes. Nine other, irregularly-shaped galleries present a remarkable contrast, and can be identified from outside by their unusual architecture and the covering of titanium. By playing with volumes and perspectives, these galleries provide huge interior spaces that somehow manage not to overwhelm the visitor. Large-scale artworks are housed in an exceptional 30 meter wide, 130 meter long gallery free of columns and with flooring specially prepared to cope with the comings and going of visitors and museum staff, as well as the sheer weight of the works on display there. Seen from the outside, this gallery slides underneath the Puente de La Salve and runs up against the end of the tower that embraces the bridge and brings it into the building.

There is a harmonius tie between the architectural shapes and the contents of each gallery. Undoubtedly, this simplifies the tour inside the Museum while the atrium, in its very center, and the walkways that link one gallery with another - showing different perspectives of the exhibitional spaces - facilitate the location of galleries and services at any time. As visitors enter the Museum they learn that under the external complex appearance of the architectural shapes, there lies a neat, clear world where it is easy to find one's way around.

You can also visit the Guggenheim Bilbao web site for more information.

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