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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Overview Essay

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Updated: May 14th, 2022


The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is one of the latest architectural wonders to be unveiled in Europe and the greater world in recent times since 1980. The Museum building as designed by Frank Gehry has been hailed for its structural design that is unique to it alone. It is thus an architectural wonder that has a great attraction for lovers of art and design. The Museum that was specifically built as an arts museum is part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which is dedicated to arts collection. The Museum is located in downtown Bilbao along the Nervion River, which runs into the Atlantic coast. Bilbao is the capital city of Basque state of Spain, which was well known to its violent separist campaigns from Spain to become an independent state (Karen 2007, p. 44). Since its inception, the museum has so far received over 10 million visitors as at 2007. Frank Gehry who was a famous award winning American-Canadian architect designed the museum, which is considered the most important architecture of this age. Ferrovial, which is a Madrid-based construction company that is multifaceted in its business activities, constructed the building. With this hint in mind, the paper presents a detailed explanation of the architecture of the building by highlighting the various architectural strategies that were employed in the process of erection of the structure. Besides, the paper presents the spatial arrangement of the building by giving details ranging from its strategic location together with particulars of the many divisions in a bid to get a clear picture of what the architecture had in mind when incorporating those architectural techniques in the various apartments. In addition, in a bid to dig deeper in the factors that fuelled the location of the visually appealing structure, the paper also endeavours to give a hint on the various reasons that informed the choice behind the location. Other issues still given a share in this paper include the materials used in the building, the effect of the building on the surrounding area, the use of the building, as well as a brief background of the architect.

The Architecture of the Building

The building has followed the steps of other Frank Gehry works that are striking and unique. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has taken a signature of a non-linear architecture. Lines are viewed as a source of aesthetics in an artwork based on how they are used to speak a lot about an architectural structure. Lines are an expression of how things happen for or against people. Their use will determine if the viewers’ eyes will be caught in an instant or not. In this case, the building has avoided the use of straight lines in its design in such a way that different sections of the building meet and overlap each other without taking a straight horizontal line or straight vertical lines. The architect has applied the use of bends so much in such a way that right angles have been used minimally in the product. The curves of the building have been done in such a way that their formation is not consistent and that each curve leads to another curve that is not expected (Arruti 2004, p.143). This strategy gives the curves in the building some randomness, which makes the building a totally unique structure. According to Gehry, the randomness he designed the building with is meant to capture natural lighting into the building as a way of reducing the need for artificial lighting during the day in an effort to save power. The interior of the building has been designed in a way that allows visitors inside the museum to have an outside view of the town. Being around an atrium, which is central in the museum, makes one able to have a look at the hills surrounding the Basque country. This architectural style offers the visitor not only a look into the museum but also a look into the surrounding environment. The atrium is light-filled. From there, one can have a view of the magnificent Bilbao estuarine. All these views have been captured by the architect in his design for the building as a way of capturing all the interior and exterior attractions that may capture a visitor’s eye as shown below.

The Architecture of the Building

The building has a 256000 square feet space for the purpose of exhibitions. Thus, it will never run out of space. Most of this space is divided into different galleries for display of art works on a permanent as well as on a temporary basis. Most of the galleries in the Bilbao museum follow an orthogonal plan, which makes them look unique. The architecture of the building has been made in such a way that it requires artistic interpretation for one to understand what it is all about. For instance, the architect uses rectangular walls for galleries containing art works for dead artists while it uses irregular formations for galleries meant for living artistes. This strategy is interpreted to mean that the dead artistes cannot fight back while the living artistes can fight back and counter the irregular formations. The architecture is further accentuated by the covering of the whole building in titanium. This style gives the building a luminous shade that tends to change as each angle view changes. In general, the building takes a sculpture formation with sharp edges that tend to overlap.

The Spatial Arrangement

The museum is located on a 32500 m2 piece of land that runs along the Nervion River. The exhibition space covers a space of 256000square feet. The museum is divided into many galleries that are used for exhibition for established artists, as well as contemporary artists. A space of 110000M2 of the museum’s display area has been allocated to 19 galleries with ten of them being made following the classical orthogonal plan while the rest takes shapelessness as hallmarks. These galleries have been divided between works for living artistes and those for dead artists. The largest gallery measures 30metres by 130metres long. This metrics translate to a space of 3900m2 for a single gallery. The spatial arrangement can be summarily divided in three distinct areas:

There is the conservative area that has been set aside for displaying of permanent collection.

  • The next area is made of a stretched-out rectangular area with the gallery extending towards the Puente de la Slave for displaying temporary exhibits in the museum.
  • The third area is made up of seven galleries that stand out on their own way as distinct. The area is meant for displaying art works for living artists who are selected to display their works. The exterior of the Museum also reflects the internal arrangement with the permanent collection section having an outside look that is made of limestone clad rectilinear volumes. The temporary exhibits area is to be found in the area with fish-like extensions houses. The living artists have the area of their work taking a grouped form around the apex.

Why was the Style Chosen?

The style for this museum was chosen because it would stand out as a unique and attractive structure. Gehry was chosen for preparing the design due to his other works that were outstanding, and which can be described as unpredictable. The cacophony of the building is meant to complement the skyline of the city of Bilbao, which is surrounded by hills. The style was chosen because of its uniqueness in the way it was a revival of modern architectures, which for a long time had not come up with outstanding works. The only spectacular building in existence then was the Guggenheim Museum building of New York. Thus, the style in this case was supposed to beat the one of the New York museum. The style was chosen as a departure from the old Bilbao style buildings that surround the museum and was thus meant to bring out a contrasting factor that would ensure an outstanding picture. The style chosen for this structure is a non-repetitive use of contours that are organic in nature to give it a non-linear structure. This style of use of lines is meant to capture and fixate viewers on the first time they set their eyes on the building. The non-repetitive contours are meant to lead the viewer from one contour to the other thus engaging the mind of the viewer into exploring further the features of the building. This strategy inspired the architect to choose that style. On the outside, the building takes a shape of a ship, which is a representation of what the location of the building used to be- a port for ships to dock. The location of the building used to be a warehouse for storage of goods for shipping purposes. The titanium plates used on the outside walls give the picture of fish scales, which is meant to relate the building symbolically with the waters of the Nervion River. Therefore, the river Nervion being adjacent to the museum influenced the choice of style for the building as a way of blending the building with the natural settings.

The Effect of the Building to the Surrounding Area

The choice of a Guggenheim Museum for Bilbao was an idea that was conceived by authorities of the Bilbao city with the mind that it would definitely have an effect on the city of Bilbao and the Basque state in general. The Basque state had seen so many violent incidents that were led by the cessation group called The Basque Separist Group (ETA). ETA has been declared as a terrorist group. Its campaign for separation from Spain led to many bloody attacks that led to the death of many people. This case led to many potential tourists who would have had an interest to travel to the area to shun it due to the fear of being caught up in such attacks. The area was previously a port city that died. Thus, the former port is no longer in existence. The old port was one of the main economic activities of the region whose closure affected the region’s economy drastically. Therefore, the states authorities decided to come up with something that will change the perception of the world towards the Basque. So far, the effect of the building has been tremendous on the Basque state and Bilbao as a city. Since its opening, the building has seen over 1million visitors come in to check the works on display. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has become the leading building in the world that has caused so much attraction to people to just come and see it. This achievement has uplifted the economy of the area in terms of revenues from tourists as well as artists. The magnificent structure of the building stands out among the old buildings making up the city of Bilbao. Thus, the building has brought in new looks to the city by introducing modernity among the old structures that lie in the city. Furthermore, the building has brought back confidence to visitors thus making it a reassuring factor for all that want to come to the city. To some, the building has been dubbed as an architectural Mecca due to its attraction towards visitors who travel across the globe to come and see this architectural wonder. As an urban regeneration project, the building has changed the whole perspective of the world on Bilbao. Bilbao is an old city that was stagnated with nothing new to offer the world for a long time. However, the introduction of the building into the city’s architectural collections has rejuvenated interest from investors who are keen to cash on the popularity that has come with the building. As plaza, Tironi, and Haarich (2009) describe it, “its blockbuster success has become the paradigmatic case of a flagship cultural artefact that is put forward to revitalise a city’s urban and economic fabric” (p. 1711). The sheer numbers of visitors that come into the area have brought about development in other sectors of the economy, which have come up to cash on the popularity of the building. Development in the hospitality industry has been achieved. The building has seen the transformation of the area it is located at from being an old abandoned warehousing area into a modern place busting with people from all over the world. The postindustrial image of the city of Bilbao has drastically changed with the introduction of the building in the middle of the former industrial district, which was usually full of abandoned warehouses and derelict infrastructure. The new building’s magnificence has overshadowed the old look of the Bilbao city by giving it a very new look.

Why was the site chosen?

The site for the museum was chosen for several reasons that made it stand out as the best place for putting up the museum building. The site was first chosen because of its scenic view from the river. The view of the building across the river is not hindered by anything thus bringing out all its magnificence that needs to be captured by the viewer. This strategy gives the viewer a clear and better view of a bigger part of the building. The point in this case was that, if the building were sandwiched among many other buildings, it would lose some of its ambience that the architect wishes to use to catch the viewer’s eye. The building takes the shape of a big ship. Its reflective titanium plates give it the looks of fish scales (Plaza & Tironi & Haarichi 2009, p.1715) relative to the waters of the river. Placing the building close to the river gives it a symbolic meaning with relation to water. The site was previously an abandoned warehousing district and port area. It was previously the main income-earning hub for the city. Therefore, the placing of the building along the port area was symbolically meant to imply a form of regeneration of the economic activities of the area that had died a long time ago. The proposition of the idea of the museum was to act as a regeneration object for the Bilbao city that used to depend on the port that was located in that area. Therefore, the selection of the site is simply meant to regenerate the economic activities of the city of Bilbao. The site of the building is an old warehousing district that had been abandoned due to its loss of economic activities. This strategy therefore provided a lot of land without inhibitions for the work to be done. Old warehouse buildings could be pulled down to create enough space for the structure as compared to other parts of the city that are much inhabited besides having the potential to cause tension if houses are pulled down. At the same time, the site gives the building an exclusive area that has an easy access to the building. The serenity of the site allows art lovers to have a calm view of works on display without distractions that come with the city life. It offers the silences that engage the concentration of the mind into trying to understand the complicated art works that might be on display. The site of the building does not have tall buildings because it was previously a warehousing district. This location allows the building to stand out with its view from a distance being uninhibited. The building is about 50metres tall. Therefore, locating it between other tall buildings that can be found in downtown might just spoil the view of the building from a distance. The cacophony of the building can only make sense if it is seen from a distance.

The Materials Used in the Building

The building has used several different materials for its construction at different points depending on the need at the particular level. Cement, sand, and stones were used in the laying of the foundation of the building. This ratio also involved the use of steel to come up with a foundation that would hold the weight of the building. The majority of the building has been built using steel tubes and steel bars. Steel tubes in this case are light in weight and very strong in such a way that they can carry a lot of weight while at the same time taking the building to higher heights. Steel tubes and bars are conservative in terms of the amount of space they occupy within the structure of the building. In this case, they came in handy because the building needed a lot of space for the display area. Steel tubes could offer a lot of this space. The building itself took the shape of cacophonies, which were overlapping thus requiring to be very light so that they do not exert a lot of pressure on the building. The building used lime as part of its materials during construction for holding together other materials like sand and mortar, which make up the foundation of the building as well as the floors on each level of the building. The building used glass as part of its wall for letting in light from outside. The glass also came between the titanium plates as part of the walls. The outside of the building is covered with titanium plates, which offer a reflective surface when exposed to light. This luminous effect is used for transmitting light into different parts of the building that overlap each other. The inside part of the titanium plates is covered with a kind of thermal insulation, which is made of alphat-based bituthene membrane. The building used 33,000 pieces of titanium, which were 0.5 millimetres thick. The type of glass that was used in this building is made in such a way that it can allow light in but not heat. Thus, it could capture enough light without the need for artificial lighting. Wood was used during the flooring of the building. In this case, high-density wood was to be used for the work (Pulido, Vaggione & Ackley 2009, p. 16). In this case, maple wood, which was highly impregnated with resin, was used.

The use of the Building

The building has acquired many different uses since its completion. Primarily, it is an arts museum, which is meant to store art works by different artists. The building has many sectioned galleries that are used for displaying works by different artists. There are galleries for display of permanent works that belong to the museum and hence part of the museum’s identity. There are galleries for displaying temporary works to be found in the museum. Artists, as well as other museums and galleries, bring in such works for displaying them for a given period of time (Ceballos 2004, p. 179). There are sections in the building that have galleries for upcoming artists as well as galleries of dead artists. The other function of the building is the tourist attraction bit. The uniqueness of the building has seen it attract attention of over 10million visitors to it. The building is used in this case as an epitome of modern architecture by the architectural societies from the whole globe. It is therefore a tourist attraction to people visiting Bilbao. The Basque authorities put up the building as an economic regeneration object that would enable the city of Bilbao rejuvenate its economy as well as its economic activities after the previous economic activity became obsolete. Therefore, as a regeneration program object, the building is used to bring investment to the state.

What is the Background of the Architect?

Frank Gehry is a Canadian-American architect who has been hailed as the best ever-contemporary architect in recent times. Frank Gehry was born in 1929 as Frank Owen Goldberg in Ontario Canada. He later on moved to the United States of America and settled in California from where he has been doing most of his work. As an award-winning architect, he has come up with some of the most complicated architectural works that have been hailed as modern. Though Gehry does not subscribe to deconstructivism theory, his works have been categorised as falling within this area of art. At the same time, he has been hailed as a post structuralist due to his work taking a deviation from the modern structuralism tenets (Hughes 2008, p.214). Other than the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Gehry has been involved with other works that follow in the footsteps of the Bilbao Museum. Gehry came into prominence after so many years of working with artists. He became prominent after redesigning his own residence in California. He has been hailed for working strictly under the given budget and for using cheap materials to come up with great structures.


The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum has been hailed as the greatest modern architectural structure to be put up in recent times. It has inspired many other countries to come up with such projects as a way of reviving their declining economies. Such upcoming museums include the one in Dubai and another one in Ireland. Frank Gehry is running all these projects due to his captivating unique style. Although Gehry has been hailed as the most important architect of modern times, he has not gone away without criticism about his work. The paper has provided a detailed description of the building in terms of the architecture deployed in its erection process, its spatial arrangement, the reason behind the choice of the style, the materials used to construct the building, the reason behind the choice of the site, and a brief background of the architect amongst others. Otherwise, the structure is amongst the few eye-catching structures ever to be established in the world.


Arruti, N 2004, ‘The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum Six Years On’, International Journal of Iberian Studies, vol. 16 no. 3, pp. 141-144.

Ceballos, V 2004, ‘The Role of the Guggenheim Museum in the Development of Urban Entrepreneurial Practices in Bilbao’, International Journal of Iberian Studies, vol. 16 no. 3, pp. 177-186.

Hughes, T 2008, ‘MIT Architecture and Values: Gehry Stata and Holl’s Simmons’, History & Technology, vol. 24 no. 3, pp. 207-220.

Karen, W 2007, ‘Frank Stella Three Ways’, New Criterion, vol. 25 no. 10, pp. 42-46.

Plaza, B, Tironi, M, & Haarichi, N 2009, ‘Bilbao Art Scene and Guggenheim Effect Revisited’, European Planning Studies, vol. 17 no. 11, pp. 1711-1729.

Pulido, F, Vaggione, P, & Ackley, L 1999, Managing the Construction of the Museum Guggenheim Bilbao, Centre for Design Informatics: Harvard.

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