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Of Muses and Museums


© St. Petersburg Times

BILBAO, Spain -- This dour, industrial port on Spain's north coast has built a lot of ships.

But none like the one that is nearing completion on the banks of the steely Nervion River that runs through the city.

For this is a ship only in shape and form -- and barely at that. In reality it is Europe's newest art museum, and one of its most spectacular.

Even before it opens in October, its revolutionary design is being hailed as one of the most creative works of architecture in its time.

Designed by renowned California architect Frank Gehry, it is the product of an unusual collaboration between the government of Spain's Basque region and New York's Solomon Guggenheim Foundation.

But its construction has not been without controversy.

The financial cost and the terms under which the museum is to be run have raised questions about the cultural wheeling-dealing of one of America's most powerful arts foundations.

Cultural imperialism, some have called it.

But none of that can take away from the breathtaking sight of the gleaming new Bilbao Guggenheim.

Only a few blocks from a shady plaza in the sedate city center, the structure at first sight seems wildly out of place. Its titanium-panelled exterior gives it the shimmering silver look of a spacecraft.

Stretching for 430 feet, one end sweeps under a road bridge that spans the estuary, while at the other the building swirls around a vast metallic atrium with overlapping petals like a giant rose.

When the idea was first proposed, many local taxpayers were unhappy: Unemployment was high. The city was struggling to emerge from a recession, and it was being asked to cough up $100-million for a museum that seemed better suited to another planet.

Opposition politicians argued that the money should be spent on more vital social needs. Basque artists wanted to know how it would affect funding for local artists.

Unlike their more stylish southern compatriots, the Basques of northern Spain, and Bilbao in particular, are known for their hard-headed and down-to-earth character. The region has also been plagued by a violent, separatist struggle led by the Basque terrorist group, ETA.

"We are a pragmatic, hard-working people. We don't value culture very much," said Amador Ferruelo, a Bilbao businessman who lives opposite the construction site. "We were once a great industrial city, and we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as a cultural center."

Indeed, Bilbao was once both an industrial hub and Spain's busiest port. But by the 1980s the core of its manufacturing -- ironworks, refining and shipbuilding -- was in decline.

To save the city, Basque authorities drew up an ambitious $1.5-billion development plan. They were looking for a face-lift that would turn the city from a relative backwater into an international tourist destination.

For the extra touch they turned to an international array of architects. A new river bridge, airport terminal and subway system were commissioned. An old steel mill became the site for a concert hall and convention center.

But the biggest challenge was to come up with a landmark project to revitalize the city's derelict docklands.

That's when interests merged with the Guggenheim Foundation, which had been looking for a European city to expand its international image.

Both sides took some convincing. Bilbao wasn't exactly the cosmopolitan setting the Guggenheim Foundation had in mind. And, the terms it was seeking involved a heavy financial burden for this city of limited means.

On top of a one-time $20-million fee to the Guggenheim, the Basques would have to cover the $100-million construction cost and create a $50-million acquisitions fund. In exchange, the Guggenheim would operate the institution and provide 80 percent of its exhibits.

"It's an outrageous deal," says Joseba Zulaika, the Basque author of a recently published book on the Bilbao Guggenheim, Chronicle of a Seduction. "The host city pays all the money and the Guggenheim gets to select what is shown there. It's insulting."

Zulaika, who is a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, says Basque authorities could have gotten a better deal but were over-awed and out-maneuvered by the Americans. "This wasn't about art, it was about power and money," he said.

But officials at the Guggenheim say Zulaika's fears of a "colonial" intrusion into Basque culture are unjustified.

While New York will retain ultimate control, the Bilbao museum will be managed by a separate Bilbao Guggenheim Foundation, which includes several Basque representatives.

When the museum is inaugurated Oct. 3, several Basque and Spanish artists will be exhibited, including Eduardo Chillida, the region's most celebrated sculptor. As part of a cultural exchange, the Guggenheim in New York is currently holding a exhibit of the Basque sculptor Cristina Iglesias.

"I think the Guggenheim is truly an international institution and the Basques recognize this and it's truly visionary of them to be able to invest in projects like this," said Joanna Handelman, project director for the Bilbao Guggenheim.

The home of the Guggenheim, on New York's staid Fifth Avenue, is the creation of another of America's architectural giants, Frank Lloyd Wright.

"It's our hope and our expectation that Frank Gehry's building will serve as a similar kind of architectural icon that will attract visitors from all over the world to Bilbao," said Handelman.

Gehry, 67, is perhaps America's most famous contemporary architect. No stranger to controversy himself, he is currently locked in a budget battle over construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Work was halted on that project in 1995 when estimates swelled to $265-million, far exceeding its budget.

He jumped at the chance to work in Bilbao.

"To be at the bend of a working river . . . and connecting the urban fabric of a fairly dense city to the river's edge with a place for modern art is my idea of heaven," he wrote when originally proposing his design to the Guggenheim Foundation.

Now, as the Bilbao museum nears completion, a special computer program used to produce precise specifications for the building materials has helped complete the Bilbao museum on time, and on budget.

The resulting edifice is being widely praised as Gehry's finest creation. Pre-eminent American architect Philip Johnson, now in his 90s, has proclaimed it, "the greatest building of our time."

Gradually, Bilbao has been won over too.

In its final stages residents can perhaps better comprehend the sculptural extravaganza. Its fantastic mixture of impossible angles and sweeping curves has evolved into the clear outline of a ship, a sort of futuristic supertanker.

Residents who once referred to it as the American "monster" in their midst, now find themselves agreeing that Gehry has brilliantly captured the city's gritty manufacturing and seafaring traditions.

"A lot of people are still trying to make up their minds about it," said Ferruelo, the businessman, who admits to being a fan. "It's like a new car. It takes some getting used to." Library researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.

Originally published August 31, 1997

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