It had seemed all so very charming, so very innocent. And yet, days before the opening of Frank Gehry’s thrilling Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in October 1997, a group of Basque separatists posing as gardeners planted a dozen remote-controlled grenades in flower pots at the paws of Puppy, a 43ft high topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier by the American artist Jeff Koons. The sculpture was meant to be a witty and friendly foil to the sensational titanium-clad curves of the £100m ($164m) museum rising from the old docks of the age-old Basque seaport facing the turbulent Bay of Biscay 200m (322km) north of Madrid.
The idea of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom) had been to set off the grenades on the evening of 18 October 1997, destroying Puppy and, in the process, killing King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain during the opening ceremony. Local police thwarted the plot, although not without a shoot-out with ETA’s ‘gardeners’ that left one officer dead.
The Guggenheim Bilbao was accused by its Basque detractors as being a symbol of imperialism. But more than any other building in this long contested region of northern Spain, it promised to bring not just art and culture but investment and millions of visitors to a seaport city long down on its economic heels. Did it work? Boy, did it. Frank Gehry, the brilliant, and often ebullient, California architect had shaped a building that thrilled people from around the world, among them critics, politicians, economists and fellow artists. Paid for by the Basque government, it generated enough revenue in its first four years to pay back its construction cost. Ever since, it has been in profit.
And unlike so many major public projects it was built on time and on budget. Frank Gehry’s buildings may seem wild – what about the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle designed in the guise of what appears to be a melted-down cherry-red Fender Stratocaster? – and yet this Baroque ’n’ roll architecture was realised through the very latest computer programs predicting schedules and cost to precise degrees.
Tough act to follow
Sixteen years down the line, the Guggenheim Bilbao remains a stunning design, a complex, sinuous and even sensual weaving of titanium, glass and limestone, a delightful play of mathematics and geometry and an urban eye-catcher on a bravura scale. Daylight plays off its writhing façade, illuminating dark granite and concrete Bilbao streets. It has all the charisma of Sydney’s Opera House and the Eiffel Tower
Inside, its soaring outer galleries are given over to ever-changing art shows – they opened with a display of wild motorbikes – while a suite of ten strait-laced galleries at the core of the building houses a permanent collection of works by, among others, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Paul Klee and Roy Lichtenstein.
From its highly newsworthy opening in 1997, the Bilbao Guggenheim garnered not just critical plaudits but also the attention of politicians in cities around the world keen on urban regeneration believing that a single compelling new building might do the trick. After all, Gehry – commissioned by Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s director based in New York, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s sensational 1950s Gugg– had proven the case.
And yet, despite seemingly endless talk by politicians of the “Bilbao Factor” in the decade following the attempt on the life of the King and Queen of Spain, Gehry’s act proved to be a hard one to follow. Why? Partly because closer study of Bilbao’s future demonstrated that the Guggenheim was just one element in a highly considered plan for the redevelopment of the city including an exemplary new Metro system.
Intriguingly, when Frank Gehry came to London in 2000 to receive the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, he made almost no mention of the building that had made his a global name. The Guggenheim Bilbao had taken Gehry a very long way indeed from the years when, as a new immigrant from Canada, he delivered and fitted kitchens for Hollywood residents, among them Roy Rogers the singing cowboy. Perhaps, though, the building had become too famous, the architectural equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Only the year before, it had starred in the opening sequence of the latest James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. But here, if anywhere, is a building largely without precedent, with exciting backdrops and a dramatic history that deserves, along with the art inside, repeated viewing.