Frank Gehyr's Guggenhiem Museum in Bilbao has been called a modern Chartes cathedral, and, by Phillip Johnson, the greatest building of our time. The first sight of the edifice towering over the Alameda de Mazarrado is the imposing yet whimsical Puppy by Jeff Koons—a 30’ high living-sculpture highland terrier, completely covered in blooming flowers in a riot of blues, purples, yellow and orange—humorous and extravagant at the same time. Beyond, the stacked, silvery titanium scale-clad forms of the museum’s south façade become more and more majestic as one descends the curving, narrowing limestone steps, which seem to mimic a gently descending river, into the glass curtain entrance.
The principal entry/ticketing area is a harbinger of the joyous chaos to come—curvilinear shapes and spaces seemingly free form. The central atrium beyond—50 meters of glass-hatted soaring space, a convergence of curves of all sorts, with the serene majesty of one of the great cathedrals, is the central axis from which radiate all the exhibition galleries on all three levels. The space stills the vocal cords and calms the mind. The intriguing theme of form and material juxtaposition carries inside, heightened by cascade walls of glass “scales” twisting and curvng like some vitreous waterfall. Curving walkways, bowed metal balconies and glass elevators surround the central space. Light floods in through the glass curtain walls and high skylight. The structure is an ingenious and brilliant juxtaposition of forms—blockish and regular limestone clad shapes butted against flowing, organic, futuristic titanium forms, with the interstices filled with undulating curtains of glass.
The museum needs to be approached and re-approached from all angles—it is wildly different from different vantage points, and in different lights. It is graceful, beautiful and complete from across the river; intriguing and beguiling from upriver, viewed past the bridge-enfolding split tower; terraced, towering, beckoning, rising, unfolding and in-drawing from the city side. It constantly changes with the light—sunlight turns the titanium scales burnished gold, the limestone glowing. Under cloudy skies, it is flowing, shimmering iridescent mercury. The Guggenheim is simply magical.
At this visit, there are two exhibits of Japanese and Chinese pop art, respectively in the first two galleries--both of little interest to us. In the third, very long gallery is a now-permanent, absolutely stunning exhibit of monumental rusted steel forms by Richard Serra titled "The Matter of Time". Undulating massive plates of thick weathered steel, 'torqued elipses' twisted into free-standing toroidal and spheroidal shapes--metal mazes, except not, since there is only one path in and out--allowing entry and exploration by the visitor. These pieces fill the massive gallery--the museum's largest and do justice to it's scale. Althought the UK Guardian said "Serra's work dominates Gehry's space like a rhinoceros in a parlour," we tend to feel that the two are compatible and harmonious, and Serra's work simply stunning.