The Guggenheim Bilbao: A Museum for the Digital Age

Today’s slide show: Images from the Basque Country.

The Guggenheim Bilbao loves the lens

By waiting until Day 3 to mention the Guggenheim, the icon of Bilbao’s revitalization, I’ve bucked a trend. Until recently, travel guides to Spain dissed the Basque Country, focusing on Barcelona, Madrid, and the hot bits down south. Since Frank O. Gehry’s titanium galleon opened in Bilbao six years ago, that balance has started to shift, and almost all the new guidebooks plaster “el Goog” on their covers.

It’s easy to see why: The Bilbao Guggenheim takes to the lens like a supermodel. Even a point-and-shoot hack like me can gin up a cool shot. Not just one, in fact. The museum makes shutterbugs of us all—it’s the perfect subject for the digital age, a building that provides material on a scale more appropriate to Flash cards than rolls of film.

Back home in Seattle, another Gehry titanium creation, the Experience Music Project, doesn’t photograph well. Its colors and curves seem garish and cartoony, especially compared to the Goog’s chameleonlike palette. People parade past the Guggenheim 24 hours a day, but during photo-friendly hours the flow is particularly strong. Everyone wants to see it; gaze at its fishy, sailboaty, insecty shapes; photograph it; be photographed with it; and then move around to the other side of the building to do it again. Just by walking around the museum, you can put yourself in at least 10 strangers’ photo albums. If a fraction of these people went inside the galleries, you wouldn’t be able to see the exhibits.

Down the coast from Bilbao, in San Sebastián, the Basque Country’s other main tourist town, the architectural and artistic offerings are much less camera-friendly. Eduardo Chillida’s “Peine del Viento”—three rusted iron structures that emerge magically and apparently organically from the sea to “comb the wind”—is artistically flawless. The grainy sand of the Playa de la Concha’s perfect horseshoe bay evolves into striated rocks and through gradually darkening shades finds its natural conclusion in the orange-hued combs. But as a visitor magnet, the Peine’s pull is weak. Camera-toting families approach, take a couple of art shots and perhaps an awkward posed photo, sit for a second to catch their breath, and then head back to the city center. There isn’t even a souvenir stand. (In the Guggenheim’s museum shop, at least two-thirds of the items for sale relate to the building itself rather than the collections or exhibits.)

San Sebastián’s other modern treasure, the Kursaal, designed by Rafael Moneo, may have won the European Union prize for contemporary architecture, and judging from picture postcards, it’s beautiful at night when it glows from within, but in the bright light of day, the two boxy buildings are reminiscent of a late-’90s tech startup—all edge and flash and no chemistry. In September, when the Kursaal hosts the San Sebastián Film Festival, the world’s premier Spanish-language movie event, no doubt the star power alone generates lots of energy, but with a month to go before Cannes on the Bay of Biscay, it was cold and flat, despite the 90-degree heat.

Of course, just because something’s photogenic doesn’t mean it’s any good. Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” (pronounced, appropriately, “Poopy” by the locals), the giant floral pooch that sits outside the Guggenheim, apparently offers endless fascination for anyone with a camera in their hands, even though it’s naffness incarnate. The Bilbaínos have only themselves to blame: Originally intended as a throwaway touring exhibit, the city fathers insisted it stick around in eternal youth and perpetual bloom.

A “fosterito” Metro entrance in Plaza Moyúa

Gehry gets the glory, but Bilbao’s city fathers regularly page through Who’s Who in Modern Architecture. Santiago Calatrava is responsible for the city’s new airport terminal and Zubizuri (“white bridge” in Euskara), a gleaming footbridge in the shape of a wind-filled sail, just a few blocks from the Guggenheim. Calatrava had originally intended the Zubizuri to have a clear glass walkway, but in a shocking example of social responsibility, the local authorities covered it in non-slip plastic. You can see right through Norman Foster’s Metro station entrances, known as “fosteritos,” though. The spiny glass insect-shell vestibules make descending to the tracks or returning to street level seem like space travel.

Although there’s little doubt that the Guggenheim is responsible for Bilbao’s modern economic revival, the city has a long history of engineering and design innovation. Just 11 Metro stops from el Goog is the Puente Colgante (hanging bridge)—the Puente Vizcaya to locals—which links the quiet seaside town of Getxo to the former port of Portugalete. When it opened in 1893, it was the first mechanical transporter bridge in the world, moving passengers—and now cars—in a suspended gondola, so as not to impede navigation for the ships heading down the River Nervión to Bilbao. For 3 euros you can take an elevator ride 165 feet up to the suspended footpath for great views out to the port of Bilbao or to spy on residents sunbathing on the roofs of their Portugalete homes. Or you can go native and, for 25 cents each way, glide across in the gondola with the locals.

I’m not one to be bowled over by the engineering genius of a bridge, but I was glad to take the 15-minute ride out from Bilbao, if only to get a break from the crowds and all that darned culture. Sometimes you just want to sit in a gondola and look out at the world.