The Guggenheim: Consumerist Architecture, or Seduction at its finest?



For many, a weekend trip to the north of Spain to go see buildings does not sound like the most exciting way to spend a half-term break: however, if your parents have dedicated their lives to architecture, and have raised you among blueprints and books about the New York skyline, the prospect seems far more appealing.

Sitting in the front seat of my mom’s 4x4 as we entered the city of Bilbao was… underwhelming. The Basque city, famed for its wild, modern and contemporary art museum, couldn’t possibly be so drab and dismal everywhere else. There was block upon block of identical apartment buildings, placed there as if computer generated; unceremoniously disrupted by a vast asphalt highway— an industrial jungle, as grey as the water-charged sky above us, and lacking all of the verdant vibrancy of the landscape that surrounds it. I was confused.

It was only when the six lane road thinned out into four that the city came to life. As we drove out of an elegant ribcage-like tunnel I was finally able to see the edge of the water, of the Nervión River, and it was like entering another world. The tramway ran over a grassy emerald boulevard, clean, slick, and efficient. The bank of the river was lined by pristine walkways, paved in large uniform slabs, with obelisk-like structures framing granite stairways into the main sidewalk, and as we approached the Guggenheim— bridges— the closer to the museum, the more sleek and futuristic. The clouds even cleared as if to let the light shine on the titanium plating of Gehry’s gallery. It almost made me forget the city’s earlier view. Almost.

The building itself is magnificent. Seeing the Guggenheim in person is to travel into the future, a future built just over twenty years ago. The vast, plated monument, seems to jut out from the main bank like a peninsula just because of its sheer size, but perhaps also aided by the effect of a separated lake that divides two of its outer areas; connected by a dreamlike floating bridge. It’s hard not to marvel at the perfectly smooth metal undulations that compose it, how they catch the sun’s rays, and how they cast shadows onto themselves simultaneously— how they fluidly interact with the opulent ivory coloured, perfectly cut limestone which comprise the main foundation for the building, as well as a beautiful Italian stairway that leads you to the inner city entrance. You’re in alternate reality when you see this metal and glass titan, but you’re on a Hollywood film set when you see the sculptures that so casually surround it; Jeff Koons’ iconic ‘Puppy’, a massive tiny dog made entirely of natural flowers, or Louise Bourgeois’ giant bronze spider: it’s a truly encapsulating experience. 

One can’t help but wonder, however, how such a sublime and exquisite piece of architecture came to exist amongst such otherwise ordinary buildings; why this mass of fish-scale like, modern Deconstructivist curves of “mercurial brilliance” (Herbert Muschamp) was built here of all places— enter Thomas Krens.

Thomas Krens was the former Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the non-profit organisation that runs the museums by that name; notice I’m talking about multiple museums— that was Krens’ plan— Thomas Krens, despite mayor criticisms and generalised outrage, wanted to build New York’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim museum into a franchise; MacDonalds for the rich, dealing in million dollar masterpieces, loaned collections, names plated on gallery walls: instead of fries and a shake. Museums are a playground for philanthropists and the deep-pocketed, eager to make donations for culture and the arts: and that’s exactly what the Basque government did. How much are you willing to pay for a makeover? Well, José Antonio Ardanza, the Lehendakari at the time, spent over $150 million for one— a total transformation of the city of Bilbao.

It may come as no surprise, that at the end of the twentieth century, Bilbao was not in a good place. Worldwide it was known as a centre of terrorism, with ETA running at large and visitors being concerned for their own safety, it wasn’t what you would call a centre for tourism. What might seem more surprising was the predicament Krens’ found himself in. Despite being the director of one of the world’s most prestigious art museums, he was considered a joke; nothing more than a cheap art dealer. He couldn’t take this. 

In Krens’ own words “Seduction is my business. (…) I seduce people into making 20 million dollar donations. Seduction is about making people want what you want without even asking. It’s about a transfer of desire. In a way, I’m the world’s greatest whore.” That’s exactly what he wanted to do with Bilbao; he wanted to seduce the world with a revitalised city: he saw it as an act of mutual heroism, he would fly in, and build, out of a decrepit port-side, a paragon of modern architecture. In turn, Bilbao would save him, the city would wipe his slate clean and improve his reputation; but most importantly, salvage his position as Director.

And it worked.

The investment in Gehry’s architecture definitely payed off, with a museum that generates over $500 million annually; a city with a renewed image and with a long and prosperous career for Mr Thomas Krens, whose idea of a franchise produced a third location in Berlin, and two planned additions to the family in Abu Dhabi and Helsinki. Its success was perhaps partly due to the controversy generated by every element at play in this entire transaction; including Frank Gehry himself, the architect, often criticised for his so called “consumerist architecture”, for designing buildings that are just for show, but serve no real purpose, extraneous in their role as anything but an eyesore. In this case it can be concluded that he proved the critics wrong. The final standing message is that it was successful, giving name to the “Bilbao Effect” a term used to describe the influence a particular building can have on reviving a city’s cultural and global influence.

All I can say is, Mr Krens, consider me seduced.

Beatriz J, Year 12

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