The inside man

I’ve mentioned my fascination for the buildings of Frank Gehry before and now I’ve actually spent a some time examining and “using” one of his great creations – the Guggenheim Bilbao.  Previously I had just whizzed past the Walt Disney Concert Hall site during construction and seen that marvellous edifice looming out from among the cranes and construction detritus.

There are few people who would contest the beauty of the Guggenheim Bilbao and also the uniqueness of the Gehry style – from the outside.  And I hope my photographs here do it justice – even in the gloomy light that we had on the day.  Up close and personal the design doesn’t disappoint either.  The view from inside however provides a slightly different perspective…

I will immediately acknowledge that I am short on expertise and long on opinion when it comes to such things – but I didn’t get the feeling that the building flowed very well as a single exhibition.  There were certainly some exceptionally useful and suitably grand spaces (especially room 104 – currently home to the Richard Serra work The Matter of Time) but I found the whole museum difficult to navigate and confusing; certainly compared to the Tate Modern or Saatchi Gallery.  Now is this just a function of signage and configuration or more to do with “organic” nature of the building?  I don’t know but it wasn’t working for me…

Irrespective of these things – and there were plenty of visitors there who seemed happy enough – my biggest gripe was the fact that when studying the main steel construction I was disappointed to see that there were many places where it looked like the joins and measurements of the different splines had been botched requiring additional sections to be welded in place.  I was very surprised (and disappointed) to see this in such an iconic building.  You certainly don’t see anything like this in the Guggenheim New York.  And yes I know that the architect is different (Frank Lloyd Wright) and the construction method is very different (concrete) but even in a similarly visionary building like the McLaren Technology Centre from Foster and Partners – there is no place for such obvious short-cuts. 

How was this allowed to happen?  I can only imagine that the respective budgets ($100M for the Guggenheim payed for by the Biscay Regional Council vs. £300M for Ron Dennis’s wonderland) and tolerance levels of the customer had something to do with it all…

It’s a pity for the building itself has achieved everything that it hoped to do (put Bilbao on the world map and provide great gallery space) and looks amazing both up close and from a distance.  I’ll just have to visit more of his buildings on my various travels (including to the place where I was born… literally!) to see if Gehry is more concerned with the superficial aspects of architecture than the more thorough and holistic approach that I would hope.

As an interesting little aside, I always find it interesting to review the original sketches etc. that architects and designers make of their various projects; ones that bridge the immediate inspiration to the final work.  In the case of Gehry’s squiggles I’m not sure I really understand how others make sense of them; but thankfully there is a film that helps us get it!

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