BILBAO – The Guggenheim Museum


Others have destination weddings, we have destination anniversaries. Since living in Europe, we’ve picked a destination to celebrate each anniversary with a special dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant. The search for a restaurant and a location is part of the enjoyment of these annual getaways. Some years the location is the deciding factor, while in other years the restaurant and its reputation tip the balance. The year before last, we went to Donostia, better known as San Sebastián among non-Basque people, and we liked it so much that we decided to go back to the Basque Country. However, selecting a fun place for our anniversary dinner wasn’t this year’s priority, a museum was.

I’ve been a fan of the funky architecture of Frank Gehry since I first saw pictures of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. During the construction of the Jay Pritzker Pavillion in Chicago in the early 2000s, I was privileged to watch it gradually emerge and evolve. It was entertaining and exciting for me to visit the building site almost daily and record the progress of the crews. During one weekend near the completion of the bandshell in 2004, I trespassed on the building site to take pictures but was caught by a foreman who happened to have popped in. He allowed me to stay and take some shots while he told me about some of the difficulties of realizing the technically challenging Gehry design. You can see a few of the pictures of that period in my Descry Chicago gallery and a couple of pictures taken 11 years later in ChiScapes.

When I scrolled through the list of Gehry buildings in the first link above, I realized that there is one of his buildings practically across the street from my late dad’s former office in Hannover, Germany. The twisted “Gehry Tower” resides at Goethestraße 13a near the Steintor square, while my father’s office was just down the street at Goethestraße 6. Amazing! As one reflects on those nearly forgotten addresses, memories emerge from hibernation. Also in the Goethestrasse, was the pawnshop and pearl-emporium of my parent’s best friends who lived above the shop in a fabulously modernized attic conversion. During those times, the 1960s, that part of downtown Hannover was Kurdish territory, who were in perpetual conflict with their Turkish co-guest workers in Germany. Sometimes during weekend nights, tensions flared between the two groups resulting in skirmishes. Occasionally outright warfare arose with Molotov cocktails flying hither and thither, making it necessary for our friends to keep the steel security curtains firmly closed over their shop windows. However, we were talking about architecture, let’s get back on the subject, shall we?

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Cognac, Charente, France to Bilbao, Autonomous Basque Region, Spain. Except for the first 30 minutes, it’s freeways all the way and one has to budget for heavy toll charges on the French and especially on the Spanish tollways. Arriving in Bilbao, my GPS wasn’t working and we promptly got lost. If you miss just one tiny but crucial turn, you get sucked into ever tinier roads in progressively hillier neighborhoods far from one’s destination. An extensive one-way system and the Estuary of Bilboa bisecting the town didn’t help much in our quest. But asking a pair of National Guards, a security guard at a bank, and two kind ladies at a bus stop for directions, eventually brought us to our hotel. After the luggage was unloaded, I took the car to an underground parking garage nearby.

When parking in multi-leveled garages with several pedestrian exits, I always take pictures of my parking spot, level, and exit. Otherwise it’s too difficult to find the car again!
My very first glimpse of the Guggenheim on the walk from the garage back to the hotel – a little dull, somewhat disappointing from this perspective.
I wasn’t quite prepared for this large … whatever it was.

From our hotel room across the street, we gained a better impression of the magnitude of the museum campus. Looking in a westerly direction, the Torre Iberdrola highrise office building dominates the skyline. It is separated from the Guggenheim by the university library, a convention center, and a park that flows gracefully into the museum’s paved front plaza where Jeff Koons’ floral sculpture of an oversized Westie puppy looks down the length of Iparraguirre Kalea [street], greeting visitors as they approach the museum.


The 130m/427ft long Gallery Nº104 housing the Matter of Time permanent installation by Richard Serra, as we will see later, actually extends beneath the freeway. Thus the museum terminates on the far side of La Salve Bridge with a V-shaped tower which is clad in the same sandstone used across campus. The interior of the tower consists of steel girders with a fire-escape-style staircase connecting the freeway level with the riverbank below. The bridge is suspended from a bright red arch called, unsurprisingly, Arcos Rojos or Arku Gorriak in Basque that was designed by French artist Daniel Buren in 2007. The tower seems to incorporate La Salve and her red arch into the museum complex.

Later that first evening in Bilbao, we explored the neighborhood in search of sustenance, meeting up again with Jeff’s tall pup.


Puppy by Jeff Koons, 1992, installed 1997

In nearby Plaza Euskadi, we came across

the classically styled front of the Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa, Museum of Fine Arts Bilbao,
the Edificio Artklass building finished in 2011 in the classicist style by Krier, Breitman, and IA & B Arkitektura Studio, and decorated throughout with Mr. Krier’s sculptures,
the Centro Comercial Zubiarte shopping mall,

and many bars serving tasty pintxos – perfect!

The Guggenheim @Night

The next morning was THE DAY, the only day in the period between Christmas and New Year for which I could get tickets for the Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, and I  made those reservations on August 05! I was twitchy to enter the sacred grounds after having waited more or less 15 years to finally get us to Bilbao, so I urged to leave the hotel early to be sure to arrive well ahead of our appointed entry time of 10:00 in case there was a queue …

Do you think, that’s puppy pee dripping down the stairs toward the museum entrance?

Our ten o’clock time slot turned out to be the general opening time for the museum, which meant my anxiety had condemned us to stand in the freezing cold wind of a December morning for 20 minutes until they finally unlocked the gates. Looking up during our wait, the rising sun had turned the overhanging titanium cladding into a living torch.


First impressions.

Textures & Properties
Vast Spaces
Soaring Heights

The first exhibit. Jenny Holzer

The second exhibit. Richard Serra

Phone picture, taken from the entrance to gallery Nº104.

Because I had read about the prohibition of photography within the Guggenheim galleries, I hadn’t even brought my camera for our visit. But I have to say, my heart broke upon the sight of these curves of steel in front of me and the shadows they threw across varying dimensions without the freedom to take pictures. Oh, how my fingers twitched to depress a shutter release … these vertigo-inducing torqued curvilinear steel contraptions designed by Serra were crying out to be recorded!

In a separate room of more human dimensions, the museum had set up a display of scale models and other materials to explain the intriguing technology of Serra’s work. At least there, I could snap a few down-scaled impressions to remind me of the extraordinary experience in the actual gallery.


When I read through some online material about the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in preparation for our trip, I came across an art critic’s opinion piece. He stated that the exhibits in the Guggenheim galleries were rather boring. In his opinion, the attraction was solely the museum itself, specifically the outside. The poor man obviously had no appreciation for oxidized steel.

The display room had a large window overlooking the Nervión Estuary with a paved path popular with joggers stretching along the river bank.


Through this window, one looked straight at the lower portion of the mighty support structure of the la Salve freeway bridge above. Inside the red arc, one can just detect Buren’s signature stripes which are repeated in the superstructure not visible here.


Beneath the window stood a table with a scale model of the museum buildings and surrounding spaces.


The third exhibit. Jesús Raphael Soto

The fourth exhibit. Thomas Struth

The fifth exhibit. Kunsthalle Bremen

No photos at all. Again, it would have been so much fun to play with Soto’s fourth dimension and to photograph the photographer, or to show you another Beckmann. But it was not meant to be.

Instead, I used my technology-challenged elderly cellphone to capture some of the intriguing angles, planes, and curves of the building itself. But before we get to that, let’s have a quick look at a work of art connecting us, like Gehry’s architecture, to our years in Chicago. Through an atrium window, I spotted this sculpture residing on a platform seemingly afloat in the reflecting pool between the museum and the estuary. The museum glass is heavily tinted to protect works of art therein from the sun which gives this scene its weird hue. I thought immediately, this must be a little brother to Kapoor’s Cloud Gate aka The Bean in Millennium Park in Chicago. Interestingly enough, the Bean lives near Gehry’s steel-ribboned bandshell, like this one snuggles up to the titanium scales. In the ‘Descry Chicago’ image gallery linked above, you’ll also find some shots of the Bean.

Tall Tree and the Eye by Sir Anish Kapoor, 2009

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is defined by metal, both as construction material and through its location, the former epicenter of Biscay’s iron industry, thereby forming a connection with the city’s history through the ages. Bilbao used to be a thriving harbor city specializing in the export of iron ore mined in the surrounding Biscay province. During the 1970s, nearly all shipping activities were shifted from the city to harbor facilities at the mouth of the estuary, resulting in a decay of the city’s docks. This defunct industrial neighborhood was revitalized through the building of the museum campus twenty years later. The corpus of the museum complex consists of oversized building blogs clad in sandstone which are pulled into the embrace of an undulating cloak constructed of titanium scales. Here and there, stiff curtains of glass gracefully cascade from great heights to allow natural light to bounce off the curved, white-washed interior walls.


This transparency created huge volumes supported by an exposed skeleton of metal.



Branching off the central atrium are large galleries and secret spaces, and white becomes the dominant expression.


Sandstone from Andalucía adds texture and warmth.


Playful bathroom design

The balcony with Yoko Ono’s wishing tree was a contemplative place with sweeping views of the museum buildings and its surroundings, including a small glimpse of a Soto installation in the eastern end of the reflecting pool, the V-tower across the freeway, and the tips of Arcos Rojos.



Returning from titanium scales to white walls, we have this sequence of shadows-on-walls.


Followed by a series of views toward the exterior.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois, 1999
Tulips by Jeff Koons, 1995 – 2004

Of course, looking down inside is also an exciting option at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Or looking straight across, perhaps?

Version 2

There is a very posh, hugely expensive gourmet restaurant in the museum, but we preferred some pintxos and a glass of txacoli in the casual café on the upper level.


The upper or street level consists of a large sandstone-paved plaza in front of the museum that forms an extension of the streets connecting the museum to Plaza Moyúa to the south. Thus, even if you’re several blocks away from the museum, you can still catch a glimpse of its sunkissed titanium curves from a distance. To the right of the café is the main entrance to the museum on the lower or river level.

The earlier picture with the puppy pee showed you the reverse view up these stairs from the front doors. And speaking of that universally adored puppy, here it is again.

In the late afternoon, we took a tram to the Casco Viejo neighborhood which includes the oldest streets from Bilbao’s medieval past where we wanted to visit the 1929 Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest indoor markets in Europe with many restaurants serving pintxos and other local foods.

Mercado de la Ribera, upper level

Sadly, though, Christmas week isn’t the best time for a tasting tour. The Market was pretty much deserted. Except for a few butchers and fruit vendors, there was no commercial activity at all.


We left quickly and wandered the narrow lanes of Casco Viejo, enjoying the sight of funky shops and pretty buildings while night fell gradually over the city of Bilbao.


St. James’ Cathedral/Catedral de Santiago/Bilboko Donejakue katedrala



Church of San Nicolás de Bari/Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari/Bariko San Nikolas eliza

Opposite the church is the spectacular Arriaga Theater and between the two are many, many happy people enjoying a Friday evening out!


¡Buenas noches a todos!






4 thoughts on “BILBAO – The Guggenheim Museum

  1. Hello Cookie, I’m very happy you re-connected with us. I remember well our surprise “photo session” on the museum steps! We’ll stay in touch from now on 😁 Ciao, Claudia


  2. Dear Claudinha,

    This is Cookie:) I am so happy back to your blog after one year. Here is the day we met! In the entrance of the museum. I took some photos of you.

    We are now living in Cadiz, a small beautiful old city in Andalucía, for the second year and enjoying everyday here. The seafood is amazing and I have made some sushi rice bowls which is perfectly matching the tuna-bone Soytun 😀

    Thank you for your articles and pictures, I feel so delightful from the stories of yours.

    Stay safe and healthy. Let’s look forward to the next journey:)

    Best regards,


  3. Hello Claudinha.

    Wonderful post. I felt like being there thru your gorgeous photos! Thank you very much for this high quality post.

    Have a good day!


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