The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

I originally wrote this piece for ARC 308 Architecture and Society, a course at UT Austin.

On October 18, 1997, the Spanish royal family attended the gala celebrating the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1). Over the past twenty years, the modern and contemporary art museum has stimulated the economy of Basque Country and captured the imaginations of millions worldwide.

The Basics:

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is one museum of many sponsored by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (2). The building itself was designed by the famous Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, who was commissioned by the city of Bilbao to design a unique structure along the Nervion (1).

The exact location of the museum is no coincidence. Of course, the museum is located in Basque Country’s capital of Bilbao; but the Nervion river used to be at the center of a booming industrial economy (6). The several-million-euro museum wasn’t just meant to house some art: Basque Country suffered from an economic crisis in the 1980s, and the museum was the coup de grace of economic revitalization efforts (14). The goal of the museum was to bring in tourism revenue, both to the museum itself and to nearby shops, restaurants, and hotels (1, 9). The end result was so successful that the use of a cultural center to stimulate local economy has been dubbed “the Bilbao Effect” (15). Thus, the museum not only serves those interested in modern art or local cultural educational institutions, but also local shopkeepers and service workers (9, 14).

Additionally, the museum was built during the height of the ETA crisis: the domestic terrorists made several attempts on the museum leading up to its opening, even setting off a bomb in a nearby office building the day it opened (though no one was injured) (7, 8). Whereas the local government saw the museum as a promise for prosperity and celebration of culture, the ETA “[saw] the building as a symbol of cultural imperialism and extravagance, and say the money could be better spent elsewhere.” (7)

In fact, much of the museum’s development was funded and monitored by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, the mission of the foundation is “to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to collect, conserve, and study” modern and contemporary art.” (3)

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao at Night


The museum is meant to reflect even the smallest hint of light, and was designed to break with conventional forms (10, 18).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao during the Day


Building Materials: limestone, glass, and titanium (6)

Even the building’s titanium coating is unconventional—and rather costly (18).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Plans #1 (12)


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Plans #2 (13)


For my architecture class, I saw required to attempt to capture this building’s unique form (which wasn’t easy!):

My Rendition of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao


The lighting is especially difficult to capture.

The lighting effects of the building are complex. As I learned from a blog, Gehry intentionally made the building as luminescent as possible in order to compensate for Bilbao’s oft-cloudy days (18). Another thing that the author pointed out was something that I agreed withwhen viewing something beautiful, you often feel pressured to take photos (18). In this particular art museum, few photos are allowed inside, making a much more enjoyable experience (18). Things are much more enjoyable without having to take photos, much like how movies are more enjoyable when you don’t need to take notes on them during class (18).

The economic and socio-cultural effects of the museum have been relentlessly analyzed. The economic benefits of the Bilbao Effect have been of particular interest. One article aimed to quantify the museum’s benefits to the region, both in terms of image, tourism, and local economy (15). The museum has doubled the rate of tourism increase and significantly increased employment in the Biscay area’s service industry. The article quantifies, in euros, the costs and economic benefits surrounding the museum: overall, the return on investment of the museum was about 10.9% as of 2017, twenty years after the museum’s opening (15).

Whereas many researchers publish articles discussing the social and economic impacts that the museum has had on Bilbao, one article analyzed the museum’s “regional embeddedness and its effects on the global networking of Bilbao (14).” On the local side, the museum works closely with Basque authorities at all levels of government, changed Bilbao’s economy from industrial to service, promoted art exhibitions of Spanish and Basque artists, and serves as an artistic educational center for Bilbao’s citizens. On the international side, the museum has given the city access to high-quality architects and curators, increased overall awareness of Bilbao, and improved the image of the entire region. The museum has both enhanced the local region, portrayed it in a positive light, and made the city a multicultural hub (14).

A Closer Look:

The museum is so iconic of Bilbao that it takes up a significant portion of Rick Steves’ piece on Basque Country (20). From his video, you can clearly observe that most of the museum’s most notable pieces are just as untraditional as the building itself (20). The installments can be interacted with, walked inside of, made out of live plants or fog, or used to create optical illusions (20).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao as Seen on Google Maps


The museum is located in the highly-urban setting of Bilbao. It sits on the very edge of the red-roofed urban sprawl, standing out yet somehow entirely at home.

The museum’s architect, Frank Gehry, was born as Frank Owen Goldberg but changed his name in college in order to avoid antisemitism (17). Even as a child, he admired Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style and played with building designs in his spare time (17). At first, I imagined Gehry’s dramatic style as being highly pretentious, until I read this:

“His Postmodern and Deconstructivist style is a rejection of minimalism and an exploration beyond previously held tenets in architecture.” (17)

I find that I sympathize with him much more now!

“The Matter of Time” by Richard Serra (19)


Much of the museum features non-traditional art and sculpture that is integrated into the sinuous curves of the building itself. They often blur the lines between installation and building.

Even the museum’s art installations deal in unconventional materials, styles, and levels of interaction. Whereas traditional art is merely looked at, many of the installations can be walked among, under, or interacted with, as shown by these photos from a cache I found from a blog (19). The art installations below are made of unconventional materials: live plants, balloons, and even fog (19):


It is not uncommon for visitors to be able to touch or otherwise interact with the installations, as with this spider sculpture that can be walked underneath (19):


The building itself is a work of art that blends in stunningly well with the texture and colors of the river (19):


Some of the museum’s unconventional installations have made media splashes. One that I found particularly interesting was reported on by Vox magazine. President Donald Trump requested a loan from the museum of a particular Van Gogh painting (16). While this type of request is not unusual, the museum responded by rejecting his request and instead offering to install its functional, solid-gold toilet entitled “America” in the White House (16). Yes, this is a real art installation at the museum.

I feel like I learned a lot from this short article. Firstly, it really emphasizes the interactive nature of the installations: visitors can use the toilet (16). Secondly, the museum takes extensive care of its collections, cleaning “America” every 15 minutes and even offering maintenance services to maintain it on a long-term loan to the White House (16). I didn’t even know before hand that art on loan to foreign institutions is often seen as symbolic: for instance, the Obama administration chose works from diverse artists to hang in the White House (16). And, well, I think we can all get the message behind the offer of a golden toilet. Finally, I learned that much of the museum’s sculpture is symbolic: the message behind the toilet is that, no matter a person’s socioeconomic class, and no matter how expensive their meals are, the end result is still the same (16).


  1. “Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Feb. 2018,
  2. “Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Jan. 2018,
  3. “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.” Guggenheim, 7 Dec. 2017,
  4. “Guggenheim Architecture Timeline.” Guggenheim, Guggenheim Foundation, 3 Nov. 2017,
  5. “Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.”, ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA,
  6. “About Us.” Guggenheim, 6 Feb. 2017,
  7. “Security Tight before Guggenheim Museum Opens in Basque City.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 Oct. 1997,
  8. “More Separatist Violence Precedes Guggenheim Opening.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Oct. 1997,
  9. Periáñez Cañadillas, Iñaki, and Miguel Ángel Quintana Daza. “Caso práctico: La Planificación estratégica del Museo Guggenheim Bilbao desde una perspectiva de Marketing.” Cuadernos de gestión 9.1 (2009).
  10. Poon, Edwin. “Museo Guggenheim Bilbao (Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao).” Wikimedia Commons, 5 Feb. 2009,
  11. Valadi, Sam. “Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – Spain.”, Flickr, 5 Aug. 2011,
  12. “The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao .”,
  13. “The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao .”,
  14. Plaza, Beatriz, and Silke N. Haarich. “The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: Between Regional Embeddedness and Global Networking.” European Planning Studies, vol. 23, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1456–1475., doi:10.1080/09654313.2013.817543.
  15. Plaza, Beatriz. “The Return on Investment of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 30, no. 2, 2006, pp. 452–467., doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2006.00672.x.
  16. Kirby, Jen. “Trump Asked the Guggenheim for a Van Gogh. The Museum Offered a Gold Toilet.” Vox, Vox, 25 Jan. 2018,
  17. “Frank Gehry – 6 Interesting Facts.” ArtListr, 1 Feb. 2018,
  18. Hui, Chong. “Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.” 9 To 5 Travel Blog, 14 July 2013,
  19. “Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.” The Golden Hour, 20 Dec. 2017,
  20. “Basque Country: Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum.” Performance by Rick Steves,, YouTube, 12 Jan. 2011,


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