Skeptics said Bilbao would get a temporary bump in tourism from the curiosity factor as people came to see what Frank O. Gehry hath wrought on the once-industrial waterfront. Nearly 2 decades later, more than 1 million people each year visit the museum, and the flow shows no sign of abating. The strange building seemingly assembled of gargantuan parts from a titanium-clad fish no longer seems so alien. In fact, it has become as iconic as Eiffel’s tower in Paris. Admittedly, there’s something appealingly primitive about the squat beast, best viewed from across the river so you can take it all in.

The interior is radical and often disorienting (the lack of right angles will do that), but the building is essentially a soaring 50m-high (164-ft.) atrium with exhibition floors cantilevered off a central support. Unless you’ve visited often, take the free audioguide when you enter, as it will explain how to navigate.

The Guggenheim Foundation has traditionally focused on major post-1950 artists, including Picasso, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Antoni Tàpies. The Bilbao branch has increasingly gone its own way, collecting and showing contemporary Basque art and favoring sculptors, painters, performance artists, and video artists who are still living and working. The Bilbao branch has also instituted a vigorous temporary exhibition schedule, often featuring avant-garde work from China, Korea, and Japan. Signage is trilingual—in Basque, Castilian, and English.

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