A Snoop at Bilbao

All agog at Gehry's Guggenheim.

In the October Atlantic Monthly Marisa Bartolucci quite properly rebukes tourist snoopers who whisk into the old Basque city of Bilbao to rubberneck at the brand-new Guggenheim Museum and then scurry away on their travels without taking the full measure of this interesting town. I must confess, dear reader, to having been one of those snoopers. If I hadn't had such a good time I would blame my wife. She's an architect and understandably considered it necessary to see Frank Gehry's building, so we collected our frequent-flyer mileage and reserved seats on a dawn plane from Paris to Bilbao and an afternoon plane returning. It proved to be a long but amazing day.

What you may not have heard about the Guggenheim Museum is that, unlike many of the great urban monuments, it does not dominate or upstage its city -- it embraces it. We approached from the airport in a city bus, not wanting to arrive at the museum before its opening hour, and watched with interest as the bus inched its way along a maze of narrow roads through outlying hamlets and suburbs, picking up passengers at a flag stop here, dropping them at a church there, cornering through housing developments and enclaves that gradually grew a trifle more prosperous as after forty minutes we approached some sort of destination. Then, with a honk and a swivel, the bus wheeled out onto a parkway along the bank of the Nervión River, and in a grand sweeping curve deposited us at the end of a long high bridge.

It was a gray drizzly day, and as we walked across under umbrellas, the strange pearly mass of the museum began to rise on the far side, with an arc reaching up like a great forearm from our left, as though summoning us toward the temple to art, below the bridge, nestled on our right, in the elbow of the river's waters. As we descended, the voluminous curves of the museum's luminous walls began gilding the air with brightness. Below us (for even now we were still high above ground level) we saw one crease after another of the museum revealing itself. The bridge continued to bend around to the right and eventually deposited us on the ground, where we could look away along two radial streets reaching from the museum into the heart of Bilbao.

As we turned toward the front of the building that now towered above us, we found ourselves entering a plaza crowded with men in berets, carrying umbrellas, smoking in groups or engaged in animated discussions. Basque nationalists? Union members? We walked on, under the chin of a thirty-foot-high Jeff Koons sculpture, twin of its Rockefeller Center littermate, in the form of a (presumably housebroken) West Highland puppy made of flowers planted over a vast frame, around the base of which a handful of workmen were touching up the paving. Even after this blossomy, scene-stealing Cerberus, we had a good distance to go before reaching the entry. First we passed a three-story blue edifice that seemed to be an administrative wing, then the approach diverged into two: one walk led to the left, the other sloped downward. We descended through a shuffle of doorways into a huge indoor space, still sloping down. We approached the desk and presented our museum passes, valid in New York and respected here as well.

Numerous young women, clad in bright red uniform coats, were standing ready to offer us advice and guidance in several languages. Once guided, we entered a second large space (I reserve the word "room" for places in which the walls are vertical and the floors horizontal) at the left end of which a bright Jenny Holzer video installation flashed at us in several colors and several languages out of a looming darkness. We could see behind this, through irregular windows in the outer walls of the building, reflecting pools and walkways along the river bank. Out there, quite unexpectedly, a shower of waterworks went off with a splash (it was eleven o'clock; this was a scheduled occurrence).

My wife walked in one interior direction to observe the museum's structure; I walked out through a door to the terraces to watch the conclusion of the waterworks and to take a look at the skin of the building, which had given off burnished emanations when we approached it from beyond the river. The gleam, it turned out, came from overlapping or interlocking tiles of titanium, which glitters close up with a silver-bronze color, but which radiates at a distance an animal sheen resembling the scales of fish or the feathers of birds. Perhaps this is one of the hypnotic effects that Frank Gehry wished to create by making his building flow into organic volumes, rather than assume the rectilinear forms of ordinary houses and rooms.

As I looked across the reflecting pools, which had by now resumed a normal calm after their waterworking outbreak, I could see better how this edifice was tucked into the bend of the river. Downstream, the existing railhead of Bilbao lay available for museum parking. Closer by, tourist buses were already disembarking their day's payload, and some carnival, a little distance away, was setting up its rides for the entertainment of the locals. It became increasingly clear that, as the museum was welcoming the city, so was the city welcoming the museum. Not only were children from the schools pouring into a lower entrance; tourists from Tokyo and Berlin were advancing up a ramp from the parking lot.

Back indoors I wandered with my wife, a little confused, but amazed, beneath the huge sweep of the interior buttresses, encountering intermittent accesses of light through the immense windows that break into the space from one quarter after another. Others may have a great deal to say about Gehry's methods of design and construction, but this observer was dazed and delighted, simply moving about through these man-made caverns, with elevators rising and falling through their immensities, light and darkness grappling within, alternating yet seemingly unplanned shafts of penetrating light. The spaces can apparently accommodate huge crowds without mutual interference. We saw to one side, at a lower level than the one we were walking, an irregular unwindowed extension of the building reaching upriver. It contained not only a gigantic pair of curved iron walls cast by Richard Serra, but an exhibition, imported from New York, of more than a hundred vintage motorcycles trafficking the entire twentieth century and attracting, here, thousands of curious Spaniards, especially teenage Bilbaínos.

We kept wandering from one level to another by stair and elevator, dizzied and astounded by the building's variety. It gives you a feeling of comfortable joy, as though you had at last discovered the ultimate children's playhouse, the ultimate refuge, the ultimate privacy in the presence of others.

My only reservation applied to the rooms that resembled other rooms: those with bare white walls, level floors, normal ceilings. These were the galleries of the place, planned on a scale to hold and show works of art of giant size, and so they did; but the exhibits had been painted by pygmies. One gallery held over a hundred paintings by one Francesco Clemente, drawing upon the arts of Italy, India, and the East Village, which struck me as rudely scrawled cartoons, elevating irony to a cumbersome degree of exaggeration. Another held a huge retrospective of the painter David Salle, smoother in finish but equally heavy-handed. These artists are the darlings of the international art market, chosen for their up-to-dateness by the moguls of taste at the New York Guggenheim and spread across Gehry's gorgeous spaces like graffiti. The effect was that of a cathedral, or a western Taj Mahal, defiled by the chatter of baboons. A magnificent pile, erected with all the artistic and technological sophistication that contemporary architecture can call upon, seemed to have lost its meaning the moment it came time to fill it with the art that it had been prepared for.

We retreated in some disorder and tried to unscramble these mixed impressions over lunch in the restaurant, which shares Gehry's spaces with the misfeasances of the contemporary art market, a market, dear reader, that you and I help make up. The lunch was superb, and so was the view, but the messages are still mixed today, some months later. Gehry's art palace is one of the wonders of this new world, but how soon will art worthy of its container find its way there?

Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of many books, including The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960 (1994) and The Poems of Peter Davison 1957-1995. His tenth book of poetry, Breathing Room, has just been published.