Well before the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened its doors to the public on October 19, 1997, the new museum was making news. The numerous artists, architects, journalists, politicians, filmmakers, and historians that visited the building site in the mere four years of its construction anticipated the success of the venture. Frank Gehry’s limestone, glass, and titanium building was hailed by architect Philip Johnson as “the greatest building of our time” and the pioneering collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Basque authorities was seen to challenge assumptions about art museum collecting and programming.
Located on the Bay of Biscay, Bilbao is the fourth largest city in Spain, one of the country’s most important ports, and a center for manufacturing, shipping, and commerce. In the late 1980s the Basque authorities embarked on an ambitious redevelopment program for the city. By 1991, with new designs for an airport, a subway system, and a footbridge, among other important projects by major international architects such as Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Arata Isozaki, the city planned to build a first-class cultural facility. In April and May of 1991 at the invitation of the Basque Government and the Diputación Foral de Bizkaia, Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, met repeatedly with officials, signing a preliminary agreement to bring a new Guggenheim Museum to Bilbao.
An architectural competition led to the selection of California-based architect Gehry, known for his use of unorthodox materials and inventive forms, and his sensitivity to the urban environment. Gehry’s proposal for the site on the Nervion River ultimately included features that embrace both the identity of the Guggenheim Museum and its new home in the Basque Country. The building’s glass atrium refers to the famous rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim, and its largest gallery is traversed by Bilbao’s Puente de La Salve, a vehicular bridge serving as one of the main gateways to the city. In 1992 Juan Ignacio Vidarte, now Director General of the Guggenheim Bilbao, was formally appointed to oversee the development of the project and to supervise the construction. Groundbreaking took place in 1993 and in 1997 a gala dinner and reception, attended by an international audience and Spain’s Queen Sofia and King Juan Carlos I, celebrated the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
View of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao under construction