Recently I wrote about the Japanese entry into the Museum of Contemporary Art space race. It's not really a race but there is an element of friendly competition in being the proud owner of such a facility. MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts puts the U.S. in first place in terms of sheer voluminous empty space in which such art can be exhibited. The Japanese definitely have the edge in terms of relaxing ambience and refined sensibilities while in Europe, London has its entry in the form of the Tate Modern, spaciously housed in the old Bankside Power Station. And in the somewhat unlikely city of Bilbao, situated in the Basque province of Spain, the Spanish, in cahoots with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, have what has to be the most visually spectacular entry in this contest. If MASS MoCA looks like something out of the nineteenth century, while the Tate bears the distinctive markings of the twentieth, and the Hiroshima entry looks like something from our twenty-first century, then the Guggenheim Bilbao would seemingly take its cue from the twenty-second...or maybe even the twenty-third century.
The sensual, yet cubistic curves of Frank O. Gehry's spectacular architecture make even Frank Lloyd Wright's New York Guggenheim with its daring funnel shape and circular slopes seem downright stodgy by comparison. Inaugurated in 1997, and for a time, home to Jeff Koon's Puppy in its second incarnation, the Guggenheim Bilbao owes much of its existence to some of the same figures responsible for the initial effort in giving birth to MASS MoCA. They were lured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as a result of their efforts in North Adams, and in Bilbao, found both more money and far fewer bureaucratic obstacles than they'd encountered in this country. The Guggenheim Bilbao is, in fact, basically a gussied up MASS MoCA, which came together in less than one-third the time of the U.S. facility. Unlike the U.S. and England, who found it desirable to recycle existing structures to the demands of Post-modern art, the Spanish, like the Japanese, started from scratch with a new, specially designed facility for such purposes. And in doing so, the Iberian monument to contemporary art reaps the museum architecture award for daring excellence.
Though not quite as large as MASS MoCA, Bilbao's 240,000 square feet makes it a respectable second in the space race. Composed of nineteen galleries of every conceivable size and shape, the museum is nothing if not versatile. It's largest hall is some 100 feet wide and boast a length of 400 feet of pillarless space...larger than a football field including the end zones. Architecturally, one might best describe the complex of galleries, and auxiliary facilities as "sculptural" bearing some slight resemblance to a flower (abstractly speaking). Huge glass walls, curved walkways, glass elevators, a breathtaking atrium housed in a soaring tower stagger the senses. Stone and titanium compete where glass leaves off to form the gleaming skin of this inspiring work of art designed to house works of art. And unfortunately, like it's Wrightian older brother in New York, this Guggenheim must also endure the justifiable criticism that it competes unfairly with the very art it's designed to showcase. That's a burden none of the other MoCAs have to bear. But then again, maybe that's not the fault of the museum itself but a weakness of the Post-modern art it contains.