September 23, 2007

Bilbao, 10 Years Later

A LIGHT patter bounced off the titanium fish scales of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a tour bus pulled up beside "Puppy," Jeff Koons's 43-foot-tall topiary terrier made of freshly potted pansies. A stream of tourists fanned out across the crisp limestone plaza, tripping over each other as they rushed to capture the moment on camera. After the frisson of excitement dimmed, they made their way down a gently sloping stairway and into the belly of the museum, paying 10.50 euros to see the work of an artist that most had never heard of.

It was a ritual that repeated itself several times an hour, like a well-run multiplex. And if Anselm Kiefer, the controversial post-war German artist, was eclipsed by the metallic blob that held a retrospective of his work, consider how Bilbao, a rusty port city on the northern coast of Spain, stacked up to the very museum that put it on the cultural map.

"We don't know anything about Bilbao besides the Guggenheim," said Luigi Fattore, 28, a financial analyst from Paris, who was taking pictures of his girlfriend under the puppy. As if to underscore the point, they showed up at the museum's doorstep with their suitcase in tow. "We've arrived half an hour ago," he said, "and went straight to the Guggenheim. Aside from the museum, we don't have any plans."

Such is the staying power of Frank O. Gehry's architectural showstopper, 10 years after it crash-landed on the public psyche like a new Hollywood starlet. The iridescent structure wasn't just a new building; it was a cultural extravaganza.

No less an authority than Philip Johnson deemed it "the greatest building of our time." The swooping form began showing up everywhere, from car ads to MTV rap videos, like architectural bling. And in certain artistic and architectural social circles, a pilgrimage to Bilbao became de rigueur, with the question "Have you been to Bilbao?" a kind of cocktail party game that marked someone either as a culture vulture or a clueless rube.

"No one had heard of Bilbao or knew where it was," said Terence Riley, director of the Miami Art Museum and a former architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "Nobody knew how to spell it."

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