One of the most imaginative buildings you will ever have seen anywhere is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in northern Spain. Truly great architecture.
The problem is, it does not really work as a museum.
I consider Frank Gehry, the architect of the Bilbao museum, one of the great master architects of our times. Gehry, Canadian by birth, is sometimes associated with what is known as the Los Angeles School of architecture. He is the creator of some outstanding landmark buildings, such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the American Center in Paris, the Gehry Tower in Hannover, Germany, or the Marqués de Riscal Winery in Rioja, Spain. Frank Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1989. Gehry is considered a star architect, but he also sometimes sparks some vehement criticism. The spectacle of a Gehry building often overwhelms its intended use (especially in the case of museums), it is often said.
Well, I believe that to be true in the case of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum building.
The Guggenheim Bilbao now celebrates its 10th anniversary. I have been to visit twice in the last six years, and I am utterly impressed by the sheer uniqueness of the building’s shape and expanse. Mind blowing. Stunning. Powerful. Strong. Very special indeed. Exceptional. But the art, on display inside the building, suffers from all the attraction that the architecture commands. Nothing on the walls can compete with the shell that encompasses it all. What a shame.
Perhaps the man is not to be blamed. Perhaps the problem is the perception of art in our time. Perhaps art has moved away from the soothing comforts of masterly brushstrokes of the times of van Gogh. Perhaps art is no longer the tease of the intellectual mind that it was during the heyday of Cubism, and perhaps art no longer wants to be a challenge for the onlooker as it was during the times of Picasso or Duchamps. Perhaps Joseph Beuys was the last artist for the Thinking Man and now, it is all but entertainment.
The Guggenheim Bilbao is all show and no content, all entertainment and no message.
In my mind, the Guggenheim Bilbao is entertainment pure and good, and nothing much else. For me that is not enough, and I feel short changed.
But if you want to judge for yourself: go to Bilbao. You will not be disappointed. You will be regally entertained. Wait till the end of the opening hours, before you leave the museum. On your way out you will be saluted by a spellbinding spectacle that is worthy of a circus performance. See for yourself.
Just don’t go to Bilbao for the art.