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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao - Frank Gehry

Project Specifications:


Bilbao, Spain


Gehry Partners LLP


Frank Gehry

Built in:



32,500 m2


Cultural Center


Gobierno Vasco, Diputación Foral de Bizkaia, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Construction Company:



The proposed building is located on the northern edge of the city center, adjacent to the river to the north and a road and railway line to the south. It will be connected to the city by the Salve Bridge to the east and will feature a curved riverside promenade and a new public plaza on the south side of the site. The design of the building incorporates elements inspired by the surrounding landscape, including a narrow entrance hall reminiscent of a gorge and a curved walkway and water features in reference to the nearby Nervión River.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was funded by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation at the request of the Basque government and has been a major contributor to the city's economic growth since its construction. This architectural masterpiece is known for its diverse elements, including its artistic and technical features, functional and aesthetically pleasing design, and blend of traditional and dramatic expression. It has become a popular tourist attraction, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The exterior of the museum is adorned with shimmering titanium and features intricate, bold curves that captivate the viewer's attention. Standing alongside the museum is a 30-foot-tall sculpture of a spider, called "Maman," which adds to the visually stunning surroundings. Frank Gehry's signature style is evident in the museum's free-flowing forms, textured surfaces, and sense of human experience. Despite being inspired by the shapes and textures of a fish, the museum resembles a boat from the ground, paying tribute to the port of Bilbao's industrial past. From above, the museum appears almost flower-like in its design.


Design Philosophy :

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is designed in the style of Frank Gehry and is intended to be a sculpture, a work of art in itself. Its forms are inspired by the shapes and textures of a fish and are not governed by any geometric laws. The museum is made up of a series of interconnected volumes, some constructed with coated stone and others with a titanium skeleton covered by an organic skin. The connection between the volumes is created by the glass skin. The building evokes the port of Bilbao's industrial past and consists of a series of interconnected volumes.

The museum is seamlessly integrated into the city both in terms of its height and the materials used. Its height is lower than the surrounding buildings and the sandy-toned limestone was chosen specifically to blend in with the city. From the river, the museum's shape resembles a boat, but from above it looks like a flower.

Despite the seemingly chaotic exterior with its combination of irregular stone-covered forms, curved titanium-clad shapes, and large glass walls, the museum is organized around a central axis. At the heart of the building is a 50-meter-high hall with a metal dome, surrounded by a network of curved bridges, glass elevators, and stair towers that connect the 19 galleries on three floors. These galleries feature a mix of classic rectangular spaces and other unique shapes and sizes, all illuminated by the dome's skylight. The museum also includes a column-free gallery for temporary exhibitions and large-format works, measuring approximately 30 meters wide and 130 meters long, located in the volume that passes under the La Salve Bridge.

Frank Gehry has described the museum's impressive interiors as a blend of a futuristic city like the Metropolis and Brancusi's cluttered workshop filled with sculptures of various sizes. However, the museum is also functional, with dedicated spaces for an auditorium, offices, and exhibition areas. The different parts of the museum are connected through the atrium or by passageways on the upper floors, which provide views of the city through the museum's transparent glass façade.

The design for the museum features concrete floors and plain white walls, providing a modern and minimalistic setting for the art on display. The galleries are spacious and able to accommodate both large and small works, and the building's height allows for the use of natural and artificial light to be carefully managed through skylights and indirect openings to the outside. This creates a varied and dynamic lighting experience within the museum.


Material & Façade :

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was constructed using a combination of titanium, limestone, and glass, which are arranged in a specific pattern on the façade to enhance the way the building captures and reflects light in response to the sun and weather. The titanium tiles, each unique to its position, feature shallow central dents created by fixing clips, which give the illusion of a rippling surface and add an iridescent quality to the building's avant-garde composition. The museum features a brightly lit atrium that serves as the central organizing point for the 11,000 square meters of exhibition space, which is divided into 19 galleries.

“I spent a lot of time trying to understand the light in Bilbao,” explains Gehry. “The steel that I was meant to use in the beginning gave off nothing at all in the light of that region. The metal seemed to be dead under a gray sky, but quite by chance, we found that titanium is very well-suited to this sort of light.”

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao consists of ten galleries with traditional orthogonal plans and limestone exteriors, as well as nine galleries with free-flowing organic forms that are distinguished by their titanium cladding. These different volumes are connected by a glass skin, creating an interplay between distinct forms and finishes. The museum's impressive size is supported by a load-bearing structure made up of walls and ceilings with internal metal rod grids in the shape of triangles. This load-bearing design was necessary to support the museum's organic shapes and forms.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao's exterior features a striking contrast between traditional stone-clad forms, curved titanium-clad forms, and glass walls, creating a sense of chaos. However, the building is organized around a central axis that includes a 50-meter high hall topped by a massive dome. This central space is connected to a network of curved bridges, glass elevators, and stair towers, which provide access to the 19 galleries spread across three floors and unite the seemingly conflicting spaces into a cohesive whole. The museum's largest gallery, measuring 30 meters wide and 130 meters long, is used for temporary exhibitions and large-format works.


The construction :

Because of their mathematical complexity, the sinuous curves were designed using a three-dimensional design software called Catia, which allowed designs and calculations that, years earlier, had not been possible.

The building is built with load-bearing walls and ceilings, which have an internal structure of metal rods that form grids with triangles. The shapes of the museum could not have succeeded if it did not use load-bearing walls and ceilings. Catia determined the number of bars required in each location, as well as the bars positions and orientations. In addition to this structure, the walls and ceilings have several insulating layers and an outer coating of titanium. Each piece is unique and exclusive to the place, determined by Catia.

An unprecedented challenge faced the team once the titanium was ready to install. Although each two-by-three-foot panel was light enough to be comfortably handled by a single person, standard installation equipment (a crane, for instance) was not designed to accommodate the concave, vertical curves of the building. Rather than devising a high-tech installation method as complex and particular as the building itself, mountain climbers were employed to install the titanium panels. IDOM Project Manager Luis Rodriguez Llopis sums up the thinking behind this ingenious solution: “We found that it was easier to hire climbers and train them as crimpers than to hire crimpers and train them as climbers.”

Distinguished by its smooth, asymmetrical curves, the lack of repetition in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s form is attributed to the use of pioneering digital technology. In actuality, it is the interplay between automated and analog methods and the relationship between the building’s idiosyncratic overall massing and the fairly regular grid of titanium panels that culminates in the effect that has become iconic. Although the Italy-based contractor, Permasteelisa, used CATIA files to cut the titanium panels with a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router, it is worth noting that 80 percent of the facade panels are four standard sizes (the other 20 percent necessitated only 16 unique profiles). Hearing the flutter of these foil-like panels on a blustery day and watching the titanium take on the colors of the ever changing Bilbao sky is at once cathartic and riveting. Most illuminating is the knowledge that these striking ephemeral characteristics were meticulously planned and made possible by architects, engineers and mountain climbers alike.


Drawings :

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