The Beauty of Basque

October 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The fourth largest city in Spain, a gritty industrial port in the Northern Basque region, may seem an odd setting for a major new museum of 20th century art, let alone one being hailed as an architectural masterpiece. But there it is, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. It’s the result of an unusual deal between the New York-based Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Basque regional government, which is trying to spruce up an image tarnished by terrorism.

Bilbao, the largest city in Basque country, is a stronghold of the separatist group ETA, which seeks independence from Spain sometimes through violent means. For the Guggenheim Foundation it was a win/win deal. The Basques agreed to foot both the $100 million construction bill and the operating costs of the new museum, the centerpiece of a huge urban renewal project for Bilbao. The Guggenheim Foundation gets to run the new museum and gets plenty of space–257,000 square feet to be exact–to display more of its art.

Until now only about 1 percent of the foundation’s holdings have been on view at any one time, mainly in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Built in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright’s corkscrew-shaped building is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century architecture. Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens wanted an equally distinctive building for Bilbao.

THOMAS KRENS, Director, Guggenheim Foundation: It’s a bit of a cliche but I see this building somewhat like the Sidney Opera House, that there was a building that somehow captured the public imagination as a function of his architecture and came to symbolize the city. I believe that this building in Bilbao will have the same impact.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry beat out two others in a 1991 competition for the job of designing the Guggenheim Bilbao. Critics now seem to be in a competition of their own to come up with words of praise. “Miracle” is one word that crops up a lot.

The enormous boat-shaped gallery is a nod toward Bilbao’s past as a center of shipbuilding and trade. Inside, the space is free of structural columns, custom-made for exhibiting large scale works of contemporary art like Richard Serra’s “Snake,” 13 feet tall and 100 feet long.

THOMAS KRENS: Richard Serra’s work is not so much in physical space but in its weight. Very few museums are designed to be able to receive steel plates of ten, twenty, thirty, forty tons. This museum has been designed to be hospitable to works of that kind of scale that you’ll be able to take a tractor trailer truck into the main gallery carrying a 70-ton sculpture, if need be.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By some accounts the building’s light-filled central atrium evokes the Guggenheim, New York’s world famous rotunda, both inside and out. But the surrounding cluster of irregular volumes, a so-called village of shapes, makes this an unmistakable Frank Gehry design. These individual shapes are sheathed in limestone.

Uniting them is a twisting, curving, jutting cloak of titanium. Metal-clad buildings are another Frank Gehry hallmark. This one was engineered with the help of a three-dimensional computer modeling program originally developed for the aerospace industry. Spain’s King Juan Carlos inaugurated the museum Saturday night in a ceremony muted by mourning for a policeman shot when he foiled an ETA terrorist attack last week.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Architect Frank Gehry joins us now. Thank you for being with us. Congratulations!

FRANK GEHRY, Architect: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How is the relationship between the Americans and the Basques–this is an unusual project in that it’s the Basques’ Museum and yet the Guggenheim Foundation retains control of it.

FRANK GEHRY: You went right to the heart of it. It’s exciting to watch. It’s two cultures. It’s a Basque culture, which is fairly insular, and America, which is a melting pot, which is used to extending its arms to everybody, and they’re trying to understand each other. They built something very special. They know it’s special, but the real miracle will be them getting along and going together for the years to come. I think they’re–both sides are very intelligent. They want to do it. It’ll be a real interesting few years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What difference did it make in your thinking that it was Bilbao; that it was Basque country, with its history of separatism, its history during the Spanish civil war, all of that?

FRANK GEHRY: Well, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the culture, trying to understand the people. I related to them because I was raised in a Jewish upbringing in Toronto, Canada, so I was an outsider into the culture when I was a kid. And I understand–I empathized with this outsider role, and–but I can’t put my finger on a piece of the building and say this is Basque, but they seem to think I captured their spirit. I tried to use the materials of the region to build the building. The stone in Spanish. The steel structure is Spanish.

All the work people were Basque. The only thing that wasn’t Basque was the titanium, and we were going to use stainless steel but it was too cold, and the titanium was so beautiful in the Bilbao light, and it actually turns gold in the rain. And we couldn’t help but use it, and it came from Australia.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Take us back to when you first realized you were going to do this, you’re in Bilbao, you see where it’s to be on the waterfront. When did you decide to make it–you’ve called it a ship run around–you’ve called it many things–when did you decide on its design?

FRANK GEHRY: Irresponsible is the words I used to describe my–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So I can’t hold you to them.

FRANK GEHRY: I’m liable to say anything. Anyway, we’re on the river in Bilbao; it’s a port that’s being the accession–moved closer to the ocean. It’s all industrial. It’s quite tough industrial looking, and it’s surrounded by these green hills, which is very forgiving and makes the industrial palatable. Artists love Bilbao because of this feeling of toughness and solidity and no frills. It’s kind of an essence, and so I had a 19th century city up on the hill, up higher, and I had the river and this huge bridge bisecting the site that I had to reconcile.

So it’s obvious I made the top part relate in simpler forms, blocky forms, to the 19th century city. On the river I made kind of a boat shape. I’m a sailor, so I use those–I love that kind of imagery, and I absorb the big bridge, which if you’re standing on the river side of the building and you look up, the traffic looks like it’s going into the building, and it’s–it’s very dynamic, and it kind of fits visions of fantasy cities by Fritz Lang and–


FRANK GEHRY: Yes. And where you saw these ramps and moving cars up in the air coming into buildings and stuff, and so I built on that idea.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much was Frank Lloyd Wright in your mind?

FRANK GEHRY: I knew he would hate what I did. In fact, I wanted to have–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why would he hate it?

FRANK GEHRY: Well, because all of us hate each other’s work in a way, and I would have been a young upstart, even though I’m an old man now. But I wanted to have a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright in the foyer sort of looking disgusted. Frank Lloyd Wright was only in my mind that Frank Lloyd Wright hated contemporary artists, didn’t like–he liked Japanese prints and stuff like that. And he built a museum in New York without taking into account what kind of art would be in it. He saw it used for smaller drawings and paintings.

Of course, things have changed since then, so the–my work was a kind of a critique of him; that we needed galleries that could be used for what’s going on now and hopefully in the future. The atrium idea was asked for by Tom Krens, who is the museum director you’ve heard from. And he asked me to make it bigger and better, so I carried on with this Fritz Lang image and made a–sort of an idealistic city in the atrium that’s vertical. It doesn’t have spiral–it’s not spiral ramps, and so it’s a different idea sculpturally.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some people have said it’s sculptural in itself, the museum, and they refer to you as a sculptor as much as you are an architect. Is that true?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think of yourself as a sculptor?

FRANK GEHRY: Well, I think that when you draw those lines, they’re not really relevant.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Although there aren’t that many architects who are referred to as sculptors.

FRANK GEHRY: But architecture is a three-dimensional objection, therefore, by definition it’s a sculpture. It’s different. I could not be making sculpture like my friend Richard Serra. He spends all of his life messing around with two-inch thick steel of a certain dimension and it’s a highly refined language that he’s developed.

My highly refined language has to do with buildings that are functional and have budgets and have people using them and relate to different kind of constraints. In the end, after you solve all the functional problems, there’s a moment of truth, I call it, where you’re like the artist. You’re making decisions of scale and form and composition and color and texture and so on. But I think it’s different. I’ve been invited to make sculptures, and I’ve fantasized it. I find it very different, so, no, I’m an architect, pure and simple.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve made many other buildings and many of them are also very outstanding and beautiful and have been well reviewed. Why do you think this one has captured so much attention?

FRANK GEHRY: I think because the Guggenheim is a very well known institution. I think it carries a lot of cache as a–as an institution. The art that will be shown–the shows are of international consequence. The site–the idea of making such a thing in a place like Bilbao is unique. It’s an out-of-the-way place.

The people haven’t been going to Bilbao on their normal trek to Spain–usually go to Barcelona or Madrid. So I think the Basque culture is attractive. It’s interesting. It hasn’t been overdone, and to marry the–it’s an unlikely marriage in the first instance, and that’s why it’s such a miracle, I think, that–and I know it’s going to succeed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Briefly, in the time we have left, did it accomplish what you wanted it to when you dreamed of it? Does it do what you wanted?

FRANK GEHRY: Well, I’m never satisfied. I’m always–and by the time a building is built I’m not to–it’s five years later, so I’ve done half a dozen more buildings. And so I look back at it and I would like to change it all because I have a new language and I say I wish I’d known this then, but you know, it’s pretty exciting. I mean, I’d be blase to say–I mean, I was knocked out.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much. Congratulations again