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The ‘Beast’ They Call Guggenheim Museum’s Spanish Outpost A Swirl Of Limestone And Titanium

Sun., Nov. 2, 1997

What beast is this now slouched to Bilbao to be born?

Whorls and waves of titanium scales thrust from the earth - or, rather, from a base of satin-finished, honey-colored limestone. Listing at every conceivable angle, slivers of glass framed in shiny stainless steel and gray-painted I-beams fill in the gaps.

Then there’s that great tailfin, limestone and steel beams stuck (sort of) straight up in the air, like some drawbridge deconstructing before our eyes. And what is that addendum in deep blue, like an ape’s bright-hued rear end?

Walk inside architect Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum here and you may feel like a child crawling on the floor amid dancers whirling in dresses of steel, glass and whitewashed dry wall.

Whatever this newest outpost of the New York-based Guggenheim modern art empire is, it certainly is no slouch. Never, in fact, has a building exuded such coiled energy. If, as Goethe opined, architecture is frozen music, then Gehry has taken a blowtorch to it.

To some extent, this Spanish Guggenheim is about not being a building, about not being solid and static, prim and proper. As much as a range of mountains, raised by grindings of tectonic plates and boilings of magma, this human creation is all about tensions, torsions and centrifugal forces. But there’s a playfulness, too: Turn away for a moment and you half expect it to shift behind your back.

Although only recently opened to the public, Gehry’s latest creation, $100 million worth, already is the most talked-and-written-about new building within memory.

Seen at the end of the Calle de Iparraguirre, framed by block upon block of eight-story apartment buildings, the vortex of titanium scales does come as a shock. But look beyond and you will see mountains rising steeply, rippling and folding above the Nervion River. This isn’t contextualization in the usual sense of echoing existing architecture, but rather in tracing connections both subtler and more fundamental.

Sited on a low riverside plain, below an embankment and high bridge, the Bilbao Guggenheim connects the city to its river, the valley to its cradling mountains, man and nature, past and present.

What, among these densely wrinkled mountains, could be more appropriate, that itself seems the product of stretchings and squeezings?

The titanium “scales,” not so much gleaming as flat-finished like the back of aluminum foil, are a modern gloss on the city’s metallurgical history. Iron ore mined from neighboring mountains was hammered into swords admired by Shakespeare, and until the 1970s Bilbao was the Pittsburgh of Europe. The rippling-patterned limestone comes from other Spanish mountains, around Granada, near the Mediterranean.

Given Bilbao’s history as a shipbuilding center - and the museum standing where shipyards once were - the building also can be read as a great ship, sails billowing in the wind.

The upturned “tail” on the other side of the high De la Salve Bridge reminds us of bridges that used to rise to let ships through.

The building also has been likened to a huge, scaly fish, images of which have been recurrent in Gehry’s work, from a series of lamps he designed to a restaurant entrance in Kobe, Japan. And what could be a more fitting icon for a region - the Basque country of northeastern Spain - whose cuisine is virtually defined by the marine life of the Bay of Biscay?

In connecting Bilbao to its river, Gehry erects not a temple on a hill but a stairway sweeping down from the embankment and streets of the Abando commercial district.

“That’s a real no-no,” the architect admitted with an impish grin.

At the doorway is a busy splash of steel and glass, tilting, arching and crisscrossing. Walk inside and look up, and the eye is dazzled by complex rhythms of angles and curves in steel, stone and glass.

Frank Lloyd Wright made a point of blurring lines between interior and exterior spaces, and in the Bilbao museum Frank Gehry has done it in spades. The honeyed limestone seen outside also faces interior floors and walls; other walls bring the titanium paneling indoors. Both inside and out, the titanium and limestone rectangles are laid not in checkerboard grids but in subtle zigzags.

Then there’s that enormous rotunda, soaring and swirling to a skylight 165 feet overhead, half again as high as its predecessor in Wright’s New York City Guggenheim. Slivers and broader expanses of glass open onto the river, the mountains and the ripples of the museum itself.

Inside, great wings (fins?) of glass and steel sweep up and down, sheltering stairways and elevator shafts. Over what looks like an enormous limestone pulpit droops a soft version of a Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen shuttlecock.

Overhead the space is ringed by three levels of railed walkways - what Gehry calls freeways for people - connecting galleries left and right. The views from on high are breathtaking but definitely not for the acrophobic.

In a chat with members of the press recently, Gehry acknowledged conventional wisdom that museums should be neutral spaces, deferential to the art within. Given his expressionist proclivities, it’s almost a surprise to find no fewer than eight plain old cube-shaped galleries, finished in whitewashed drywall, with bleached wood floors underfoot.

But even here Gehry has taken the liberty of opening central cutouts connecting veiled skylights through floors to lower-level galleries. And there’s a mischievous touch, a nod to the days when Gehry used to be dubbed a “deconstructionist,” in cutting the drywall just shy of floors and ceilings, exposing the steel studs.

Other display spaces are as free-form as nature itself. “The artists I have known have said they didn’t want an entirely neutral space,” Gehry said. “They want a great building. And to incite the artist to experiment is part of the intent.”

Indeed, three of the more unusual spaces enclose - or become part of - site-specific artworks.

Jenny Holzer’s “Installation for Bilbao” is a lineup of nine slender towers from floor to 42-foot-high ceiling, with texts in Basque, Spanish and English crawling briskly up grids of LEDs. Painted in panels of bright colors, the curving walls of a second-floor gallery become Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing No. 831 (Geometric Forms).”

But the grandest work of all is Richard Serra’s “Snake,” three fixed, parallel, undulating ribbons of oxidized steel, 13 feet tall and more than 100 feet long, and said to weigh 180 tons. Rare’s the interior space that could welcome it so amply and affectionately as the largest of the Bilbao Guggenheim’s galleries, itself as long and lofty as a Gothic cathedral.

In fact, Serra’s rusty ribbons seem the perfect counterpoint to the arching, whitewashed buttresses overhead. After this, the 450-foot long gallery, suggestive of the interior of some vast tanker ship, settles into a plainer barrel vault.

Frank Gehry went to college planning to be an artist, and his buildings increasingly have blurred the lines between architecture and sculpture. The Bilbao Guggenheim is an artist’s view of an art museum, as volatile, occasionally playful and perplexing as the works it encloses.

At every step, with every vista, it challenges us to see and feel spaces in new ways.

If it doesn’t conform to notions of beauty the ancient Greeks or Thomas Jefferson or even Frank Lloyd Wright would have understood, well, they’re all dead and this is 1997. As the composer Edgard Varese liked to put it, it’s not that artists are so far ahead of their times - it’s that so many people are so far behind theirs.

As with every other work of human boldness, the Bilbao Guggenheim has and always will have its detractors. But it just may be the last great building of our century, the one that wraps up all our turbulence and gives it a virtuoso hug before spinning into a new millennium. It may not show us the future but it certainly shoves our faces into a present that’s pretty darn exciting.

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