Described by the late Spanish novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán as a "meteorite," the Guggenheim, with its eruption of light in the ruins of Bilbao's scruffy shipyards and steelworks, has dramatically reanimated this onetime industrial city. How Bilbao and the Guggenheim met is in itself a saga: Guggenheim director Thomas Krens was looking for a venue for a major European museum, having found nothing acceptable in Paris, Madrid, or elsewhere, and glumly accepted an invitation to Bilbao. Krens was out for a morning jog when he found it—an empty riverside lot once occupied by shipyards and warehouses. The site, at the heart of Bilbao's traditional steel and shipping port, was the perfect place for a metaphor for Bilbao's macro-reconversion from steel to titanium, from heavy industry to art, as well as a nexus between the early-14th-century Casco Viejo and the new 19th-century Ensanche and between the wealthy right bank and working-class left bank of the Nervión River.
Gehry's gleaming brainchild, opened in 1997 and hailed as "the greatest building of our time" by architect Philip Johnson and "a miracle" by Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times, has sparked an economic renaissance in the Basque Country after more than a half century of troubles. In its first year, the Guggenheim attracted 1.4 million visitors, three times the number expected and more than both Guggenheim museums in New York during the same period.
At once suggestive of a silver-scaled fish and a mechanical heart, Gehry's sculpture in titanium, limestone, and glass is the perfect habitat for the contemporary and postmodern artworks it contains. The smoothly rounded jumble of surfaces and cylindrical shapes recalls Bilbao's shipbuilding and steel-manufacturing past, whereas the transparent and reflective materials create a shimmering, futuristic luminosity. With the final section of La Salve bridge over the Nervión folded into the structure, the Guggenheim is both a doorway to Bilbao and an urban forum: the atrium looks up into the center of town and across the river to the Old Quarter and the tranquil green hillsides of Artxanda where livestock graze. Gehry's intent to build something as moving as a Gothic cathedral in which "you can feel your soul rise up," and to make it as poetically playful and perfect as a fish—per the composer Franz Schubert's ichthyological homage in his famous "Trout Quintet"—is patent: "I wanted it to be more than just a dumb building; I wanted it to have a plastic sense of movement!"
Covered with 30,000 sheets of titanium, the Guggenheim became Bilbao's main attraction overnight. Despite unexpected cleaning problems (Bilbao's industrial grime knows no equal), which were solved in 2002 using a customized procedure, the museum's luster endures. The enormous atrium, more than 150 feet high, connects to the 19 galleries by a system of suspended metal walkways and glass elevators. Vertical windows reveal the undulating titanium flukes and contours of this beached whale. The free Audio Guía explains everything you always wanted to know about modern art, contemporary art, and the Guggenheim. Frank Gehry talks of his love of fish and how his creative process works, while the pieces in the collection are presented one by one (an Oskar Kokoschka painting includes a description of Alma Mahler's lethal romance with the painter).
The collection, described by Krens as "a daring history of the art of the 20th century," consists of more than 250 works, most from the New York Guggenheim and the rest acquired by the Basque government. The second and third floors reprise the original Guggenheim collection of abstract expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and geometrical works. Artists whose names are synonymous with the art of the 20th century (Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Kazimir Malevich) and European artists of the 1950s and 1960s (Eduardo Chillida, Tàpies, Jose Maria Iglesias, Francesco Clemente, and Anselm Kiefer) are joined by contemporary figures (Bruce Nauman, Juan Muñoz, Julian Schnabel, Txomin Badiola, Miquel Barceló, Jean-Michel Basquiat). The ground floor is dedicated to large-format and installation work, some of which—like Richard Serra's Serpent—was created specifically for the space. Claes Oldenburg's Knife Ship, Robert Morris's walk-in Labyrinth, and pieces by Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Richard Long, Jenny Holzer, and others round out the heavyweight division in one of the largest galleries in the world.
On holidays and weekends lines may develop, though between the playful buskers making a well-deserved killing on the front steps and the general spell of the place—who can be irked in the shadow of Jeff Koons's flower-covered, 40-foot-high Puppy?—no one seems too impatient. The longest lines tend to occur late morning through early afternoon, although you can buy tickets in advance online. Failing that, go around closing time and buy tickets for the next few days. The museum has no parking of its own, but underground lots throughout the area provide alternatives; check the website for information.