The New Guggenhiem

Where We Are All Happy Geniuses

Story and photographs by Leslie Lawrence '72

I first came across a picture of the thing in the Sunday paper. Incandescent sculptural masses stood in impossible positions promising imminent collapse. Trick photography, I figured. Either that or a set design for some new sci-fi extravaganza.

But no. A new building, they said. THE new building. In a remote and dreary industrial town with a dufus-y name. Already I was packing my bags. Not since the Land of Oz had a destination so beckoned. Okay, I exaggerate. I figured I'd make it to this Bilbao place in a decade or two, but then, realizing how close northern Spain is to southwest France where I was already planning a trip, I saw my chance.

For months I was high on the idea of being one of the first to visit what was being touted as the building of the 21st century. A bit of a Luddite and technophobe, I'd always assumed that the next century would surpass the current one only in its abundance of decadence and dirt; now, I relished the chance to work up an appetite for the millennium.

Then I began to hear stories.

Ten thousand tourists a day were making the pilgrimage-so much for being a pioneer. My friend's boyfriend had driven to Bilbao from Madrid, then turned around and driven back because he couldn't find a parking space.

Furthermore, as I studied my maps in earnest, I realized how far "close" really was-a good six hours by car from Toulouse. Considering European petrol prices and my tendency to get carsick, I began thinking I'd do better spending my few extra days exploring the many three-star Medieval wonders just a short drive from the pensione. I didn't have the nerve to tell my friends of my change of heart, but inside I prepared myself: with all the hype, not to mention wearisome kilometers, Frank Gehry's new architectural wonder was destined to disappoint.

I was grateful that at least our midway point, the once fashionable Biarritz, turned out to be fun: a run along the Atlantic; a good look at some of the world's best surfers in their skintight wetsuits; an insouciant nod to the guard, then entry into the aptly named Le Palais Royale; and my first exposure to Euskera, that mysterious language of the Basque. Percussive, guttural, highly emotional, it burst forth from the lips of a man in the phone booth next to mine. Bleached blonde hair with swinging curls, black leggings, high-heeled sandals, a skimpy halter top-he wasn't what I expected from a people known for their traditional way of life, and I enjoyed the rub.

Bilbao itself seemed no drearier than many cities, and much friendlier. The motorist from whom we asked directions gallantly escorted us. Left, right, leftŠuntil we hit a straight-away, at the end of which she stood.

The interior of the museum' main atrium features a catwalk around the perimiter (above).

We gasped. Blinked. No dream-but as uncanny and otherworldly as any you'll ever have.

For a building so carefully designed to work with its surroundings, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museo does so, shall we say, subtly. True, it uses now scarce native stones from Granada; its boat-like shape affirms Bilbao's history as a center of shipbuilding; and its placement on the waterfront has the potential to unite the industrial and business districts.

But...whereas the surrounding buildings are drab gray or beige, the Guggenheim shines sublimely, not quite silver, not quite gold, but both and every hue in-between. And whereas the former are geometric and stolid ("Nazi-style," insisted my companion); the latter is curvilinear, voluptuous, jazzy, topsy-turvy. Usually, I'm offended by buildings that too boldly distinguish themselves from those around them, but in this case the contrast was so staggering that I could only marvel at Gehry's daring and revel in the resulting magic.

And if the view from afar wasn't enough, we even found a parking place!

Sunday morning, just minutes after its 11 a.m. opening, and already a line snakes through ropes on the enormous plaza. We wear L.L. Bean packs and Gucci bags; wait alone, in couples, with families or friends; hail from Barcelona, London, New York, and Tokyo. The mood is festive-half Woodstock, half La Scala-and no one is complaining about the wait; there's too much to look at standing right here amidst a glittering jumble of incomparable shapes and forms.

Perhaps there was this much excitement when Wright's Guggenheim first opened in New York, but it's difficult to imagine. In sheer size, complexity, and audacity, the new Guggenheim makes the old one look tame, almost stodgy. Behind us on the plaza sits Jeff Koons' behemoth "Puppy," a Yorkshire terrier blanketed with thousands of flowers. (Have fun, he seems to say. Indulge your whims. Lighten up.) In front of us and to our left and right, we see deconstructionism incarnate. With so many reflective surfaces, irregularly-shaped and undulating, meanings are slippery and constantly shifting. The sun, the clouds, the fog-as they and you move and change, so do the things you see. You feel invited to second-guess reality, to be smart and sassy, to joke, pun, posture, ape, "contextualize," "historicize," you name it, you feel alive-both 5 and 50, in awe of the science of engineering and in love with this ballsy guy Gehry who followed his bliss and got away with it.

And once inside, the feeling lasts. And expands. The colossal atrium feels surprisingly hospitable. Maybe because with all the natural, speckled light, it's almost like being outdoors on a beautiful day, ambling about some elegant city park, nodding amicably to passers-by. Or maybe, because every design feature-from the tilted walls that billow here and hollow there, to the views through curved glass of scaly titanium (fish are big with Gehry)-everything is so quirky and iconoclastic that, despite the building's massiveness, it is constantly asserting its humanness. Irreducible, whimsical, unpredictable-the museum is the product of a singular imagination (although one greatly assisted by Catia, a software design system generally used by aerospace designers). Gehry, you sense, is not just a genius, but, like the wild Russian dancer in William Carlos Williams' poem-a happy one. Modest and generous, he nudges the artist in all of us. See, he seems to be saying, I didn't stay inside the lines and you don't have to either.

Suffused with a heady sense of play and possibility, and already more practiced in thinking about how architecture affects our moods and movements, my friends and I find ourselves delightfully receptive to the demands of contemporary artworks we might otherwise dismiss. Given the immensity of ground floor gallery spaces, you might think we'd move at a good clip, but oddly enough, we find ourselves slowing down. Maybe it's because the number of works isn't overwhelming, or the distances between them large enough so that we're not distracted by the next, but we take the time to do what much of contemporary art asks-to enter physically as well as psychically-into a kind of sacred space. In the case of Jenny Holzer's "Untitled," this means immersing oneself in a repeating series of flashing LED phrases in three languages, bathing in their literal, as well as figurative, light. In the case of Richard Serra's "Snake," commissioned specifically for "the boat" (the museum's largest gallery, 170 meters long) it means walking through two dark, sinuous spaces created by three tall, steel panels; making fleeting contact with others walking in the opposite direction; and ruminating on the connections between space, time, movement; light, mystery, and fulfillment. And in the case of Mario Merz's installation with its puzzling sequence of numbers perched high on the two walls, it means figuring out the patterns and considering what that has to do with the yurt-like structure on the floor. I was successful in discovering the logic of the numbers, but didn't learn that the series is known as the Fibbonaci sequence, after a 15th-century mathematician who discovered the pattern's connection to spirals found in nautilus shells and sunflower seeds and countless other forms in nature and architecture. Thus the domed structure.

By the time we arrive via a snazzy glass elevator at the more conventional gallery spaces where many now famous "modern" works are displayed, my companion feels claustrophobic in the "white cubes," oppressed by the familiar sense of museum-as-conveyor-belt. I, on the other hand, feel as though I'd finished a stint with advanced calculus and had returned to elementary algebra. I feel like a whiz, seeing more and better than ever before. In her recent book, Toward a New Museum, Victoria Newhouse emphasizes the power of the museum's design to shape a visitor's experience of the art inside. After one trip to Bilbao, this couldn't seem more obvious. The downside, of course, is that no work of art inside the new Guggenheim can compete with its container-at least not during the first visit. From inside or out, close or far (don't neglect to cross the river and view the thing from the other side) the structure enthralls; moreover, like a new civic building, it has something to say about who we are and will become.

The news is good. A little like that Basque in the phone booth, Gehry's masterpiece is a farrago of mixed messages somehow working splendidly together. Divine and human; sculptural and architectural; local, international, spiritual, sensuous, and high tech. It tells us we're bold, smart, sexy, energetic, eccentric, eclectic, fun-loving, and-hallelujah! not slaves to, but masters of, our software.

If this is what the 21st century heralds, sign me on.

Leslie Lawrence is a freelance writer and lecturer at Tufts University and The Radcliffe Seminars. She also does private consultations.