Bilbao—today one of the top tourist destinations in Europe—was such a backwater in the 1990s that, according to Gehry, the 265,000-square-foot museum, beside the Nervión River, went up almost unnoticed by the press. That only contributed to the drop-dead impact it created with its unveiling. “I like to work under the radar as much as I can. It’s been harder since I’ve gotten notorious,” says Gehry. The first photos of the near-complete structure, which resembles a gargantuan bouquet of writhing silver fish, rendered a seismic shift in the global art culture. At first, Gehry was himself unsure whether he approved of it. “You know, I went there just before the opening,” he tells me, “and looked at it and said, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done to these people?’ It took a couple of years for me to start to like it, actually.” With Bilbao, Gehry presented a long-awaited solution to one of the most vexing problems in architecture at the end of the 20th century. Modernism, especially when deployed in urban settings on a grand scale, was largely loathed by the general public and eventually dropped by the design establishment. The cold, alienating, concrete-glass-and-steel environments imposed on many major cities were finally judged to have destroyed more user-friendly urban plans in the name of “slum clearing” or futuristic redevelopment. Postmodernism, a movement emphasizing a return to decoration, historical references, and fewer desolate urban plazas, which reached its height in the 1980s, seems in hindsight like a frail fig leaf attempting to cover up the sins of what had gone before.
GEHRY GETS GOLD
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the overwhelming pick for the greatest building of the past 30 years in V.F.’s survey.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation selected Frank Gehry as the architect, and its director, Thomas Krens, encouraged him to design something daring and innovative. The curves on the exterior of the building were...