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The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

An awe inspiring man-made mountain fashioned from a contorted concoction of titanium, limestone and glass. One observer described it as a mass of free flowing forms that seem to have met in a train crash!

Origins of the Guggenheim foundation

However you describe Bilbao's breathtaking Guggenheim Museum, and whether you love it or hate it, this is a building which simply refuses to be ignored.

And that of course was the remit of the great Californian architect Frank O. Gehry who was charged with upholding the Guggenheim tradition of boldly going where no architect had dared to go before in a bid to open the eyes of the masses to art as they'd never seen it before.

It's a tradition which started in 1937 when wealthy American businessman, philanthropist and art lover Solomon Robert Guggenheim established a foundation to promote public appreciation of a “new kind of art in a new kind of space”.

Guggenheim never lived to see the opening of the first purpose-built Guggenheim Museum in New York 1959. The extraordinary swirling pyramid was designed by one of the greatest architects of the 20th century,Frank Lloyd Wright, and shattered all previous notions of what a museum was meant to look like.

It opened in a blaze of controversy, hailed by some as a great architectural masterpiece and lambasted by critics who abhorred the fact that the building overshadowed the great works of art housed within it.

Is the Guggenheim Museum just another piece of Avante Garde in Bilbao?

It was inevitably going to be a hard act to follow for Frank Gehry who was charged with giving the Guggenheim Foundation a suitably spectacular home in the Basque capital of Bilbao. In the 1980s Bilbao was in danger of sinking into obscurity with the decline of the heavy industry upon which it once relied for its wealth and power. It was a grimy, uninviting city – reminiscent of Dickens' darkest descriptions of Victorian England – and certainly not a place which attracted the interest of foreign visitors.

All credit then to the forward thinking city fathers and Basque regional government who decided to give Bilbao a major spring clean and a new lease of life to springboard it into the 21st century as a modern, dynamic centre of culture and commerce. And the face of this “new Bilbao” was to be one of the most imaginative architectural feats ever undertaken in Europe – an art museum funded by the Basque government and run by the Guggenheim Foundation which agreed to supply priceless works from its collections in New York, Venice and Berlin.

A succesful creation by Frank O. Gehry

It was one of the greatest architectural challenges of the late 20th century. And Gehry pulled it off in sensational style. Rarely has a single building been credited with such a radical transformation of both the image and fortunes of a major city. Within months of its opening in 1997, Bilbao's Guggenheim had become one of themost visited museums in Spain. Lovers of art and architecture and those with a passion for anything out of the ordinary flocked from all four corners of the globe to marvel at Gehry's mind-blowing creation on a disused dockland site flanking the Nervion River.

There's no doubting that the exhibits struggle at times to compete with the huge sculpture which houses them. And that's saying something when you consider that the museum has displayed the works of some of the greatest artists of all time – fromPicassoandVan GoghtoMatisse,DegasandMonet.

The style of the Guggenheim Museum

There's a strong emphasis on art for ordinary people reflected both in the building's fluid design and its “pop art” type exhibitions which have included everything from an in-depth look at the development of the motorbike through to catwalk extravaganzas laid on by top clothes designers.

This is not a building where arty academics pass judgment in hushed tones as they're channelled from one frosty exhibition hall to another. This is a luminous and inviting place where excited school children launch themselves into a voyage of exploration via the curving walkways and glass lifts which inter-connect the 19 exhibition galleries. They may not give a Picasso masterpiece a second glance but huge snake and spider sculptures and the famous giant puppy monument, fashioned out of bedding plants renewed each spring, are sure to grab their attention.

Bilbao is no longer most famous as the capital of a region blighted by terrorist violence. The Guggenheim Museum has focused the world's attention on a city which has pulled itself out of the industrial doldrums to become one of Europe's favoured cultural tourism destinations.

Opening hours of the Guggenheim Museum

From Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-8pm (open Mondays in July and August). The ticket price includes a useful multi-lingual audio headset giving information about the building and exhibitions.

© FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, Erika Barahona Ede. All rights reserved.

For further information about the Guggenheim including opening times, prices and also a virtual tour please visit http://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/

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