Two spectacular museums I got to visit for free!
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Much has already been written and said about Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but I wish to say more.
At 89 million USD in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum was built hidden from virtually any media attention. I visited it, fifteen years later, on an overcast, rainy day but this architectural majesty still won me over. I must admit I had mixed feelings about the Guggenheim Bilbao over the years that I observed it from afar as an architecture student. After all, it isn’t every other building that puts an erstwhile uneventful city like Bilbao on the world map.
Set along the Nervion River,the museum was brainchild of the Basque government that approached the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation to manage the museum at the very onset showing its determination in safeguarding such a massive investment.
What Gehry gave was as much a piece of art as the collections it would hold. And at times, the Guggenheim even surpasses some of the artworks within. Standing in the atrium, the homage to Gehry’s Dancing House (Prague, 1992 – ’96) is obvious while outside, a minimalist version of his fish fetish is easily spotted to those familiar with his earlier works such as those at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (Standing Glass Fish (1986) and the Port Olimpic (Barcelona, 1992). The sinuous forms in the atrium compose voids and masses with such energy that one is tempted to capture them on lens as much as in the mind.
Sure, the building has its problems. Its structure is extremely heavy. And yes, it’s architecture is bold and excessive – but at the same time isn’t grotesque and bling. Most importantly, it just isn’t boring. In fact, Guggenheim Bilbao offers a two-hour special group tour of the museum focusing on its architecture and construction and as the Guggenheim Bilbao was celebrating its 15th anniversary; visitors required no tickets to see the museum but still chose the paid group tour to learn more about its architecture!
Over the years the Guggenheim Bilbao has warranted varied reactions from its visitors. In 1998, Vanity Fair reported that Philip Johnson broke down weeping in the atrium by the sheer beauty of the Guggenheim Bilbao while the term ‘Bilbao Effect’ is used across the world to express a sleepy city’s desire to transform itself overnight into a sensation – primarily through the arts scene.
At the plaza on the upper level, Jeff Koons’ ‘Puppy’ invited us into the museum. Within, among the collections on display, I saw Egon Schiele’s outstanding sketches and watercolours. The Arcelor Mittal gallery hosted Richard Serra’s gigantic sculptures in corten steel while at the lower level plaza is another of Koons’ creations – ‘Tulips’. However, the building seemed to compete with all of these artworks constantly, drawing me away from them and into the atrium. And I was not the only one spending more time in the atrium.
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
Spain’s second most popular museum, the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is also the world’s 15th most frequented museum – an astonishing 40 places above the Guggenheim Bilbao according to the ‘The Art Newspaper’ of April 2012.
The Reina Sofia, as it is colloquially referred to, is a museum for contemporary art opposite Atocha Station – a vital train station connecting Madrid to the Andalusian cities such as Seville and Cordoba. Atocha station itself has major extensions by the renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.
Reina Sofia was originally a hospital dating back to the 18th century and was renovated into a museum slowly through the 1980s. With some initial interventions by British architect, Ian Ritchie who inserted two exposed elevators on the building’s historical façade, the museum’s expansion plans took a giant leap in 2005 when it created a 118 million USD extension by French architect Jean Nouvel.
Following a dark-toned colour scheme, Nouvel created a host of stacked workspaces and a fabulous terrace with a hovering roof above that looks menacing from ground level. Fantastic, but menacing. This part of the Reina Sofia is also named the ‘Nouvel Extension’.
The collection at the Museo Reina Sofia is splendid. Home to Picasso’s Guernica, I also found here geniuses I had not known: the incredible sketches by Hans Hartung, Lygia Pape’s architectural drafting and Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Pilgrim’.
I don’t know why the visit to the museum was free that day, but I am not complaining. The Reina Sofia and the Guggenheim, Bilbao both ooze their share of charm. The Guggenheim Bilbao is arguably the most recognizable icon of contemporary architecture and has managed to reduce the city to a symbol, perhaps as successfully as Jorn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Gehry’s Guggenheim is high maintenance but it is a superstar, and superstars, even human, rarely are low maintenance.
It is only when a city’s people and their governments collectively pursue a difficult vision that icons like the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Museo Reina Sofia are born. Seeing both, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Reina Sofia was a fantastic experience. Both buildings merely show the gregarious nature and pride of the Spaniards in presenting their culture to the world, which is warm, effervescent and unique.
Text and Photographs By Aftab Jalia