ARCHITECT FRANK GEHRY ON THE INFLUENCE OF THE GUGGENHEIM BILBAO


This article is authored by BARBARA ISENBERG at THE HUFFINGTON POST

When FRANK GEHRY’S GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM BILBAO opened in October 1997, the architect’s architect PHILIP JOHNSON called it “the greatest building of our time.”

This week, nearly 13 years later, FRANK GEHRY and his GUGGENHEIM are back amassing superlatives – courtesy of VANITY FAIR.

Previewing its AUGUST issue, the magazine’s website just reported that its poll of 52 architectural experts – including 11 PRITZKER PRIZE winners – found BILBAO the most important piece of architecture built since 1980.

After more than 20 years of interviewing FRANK GEHRY for newspapers, magazines and books, I could only imagine his satisfaction at this latest accolade. Long accepted more by artists than by his architectural colleagues, a younger Gehry even titled a lecture: I’m Not Weird.

Mr. Gehry’s wildly iconoclastic house, the one some of his Santa Monica neighbours originally called an eyesore, has had so much tourist traffic over the years that the architect once quipped to me that he wished he’d sold popcorn there.

When I asked him a few years ago about the impact of the BILBAO commission on his career, he told me quite simply: “I guess it did put the city of Bilbao on the map…and I guess it put me on the map. After Bilbao, better projects were coming in. I’m sure it’s true that it was a turning point, but I don’t relate to it like that. From my perspective it’s all hard.”

“Even when a building is finished, it feels precarious to me. Since it doesn’t really look like something else I’ve seen, I worry that it’s some kind of bizarre thing. I feel self conscious about it and I want to hide. I want to crawl under the blankets. When I saw Bilbao for the first time, I said, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done to these people?”’

Something good, actually.

Determined to make culture a major part of transforming the industrial city of Bilbao, the GUGGENHEIM’S Spanish partners were after not just a world class museum but a beacon – a catalyst for change and much more.

“Frank Gehry had to turn our industrial site into an urban space, accessible and welcome to visitors,” GUGGENHEIM BILBAO’S long time director Juan Ignacio Vidarte told me when I visited there.

“We told him we wanted a museum that would show a 100 ton sculpture and a watercolour at the same time and each at its best.”

That’s not all.

They also wanted him to provide the city with what Mr. Vidarte called “a visual identity,” creating something that would do unto Bilbao what the famous Opera House did unto Sydney.

In my book CONVERSATIONS WITH FRANK GEHRY, published last year by KNOPF, I quoted him saying they actually told him just that — that they wanted a SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE.

And what was his reply? “I said, ‘Well, that’s a big order. I can’t guarantee anything like that. But I’ll do my best.”’

His best has since hosted more than 10 million museum visitors, many of them visiting Bilbao for the first time, as well as nearly 90 exhibitions.

Within a few years, the 100 year old Museum Of Fine Arts in Bilbao had to expand to handle all of its new visitors. Construction was booming all over town.

Basque government officials have reported millions of Euros in Bilbao tourism generated by the new museum, including more than 300 million Euros last year alone.

I reached Mr. Gehry in Paris where he is working on a project and asked him his reaction to this newest nod from his peers.

“What I’m proudest of is that it works as an art museum,” he told me last week.

“The artists I respect love it…and it turned out to be a good investment for the client. It was built on budget – actually, slightly under budget – and it’s paid off like mad. I always feel it could have been better and I see things I would have done differently. But I was happy about this.”

“It was unexpected – and I didn’t vote for myself.”

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