Cities the world over are vying to put themselves on the cultural map. But none has done so with such dramatic results as Bilbao, home of the extraordinary new Guggenheim Museum. Andrew Tuck looked up in wonder
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You Turn the corner of yet another pleasant but very ordinary street, and there it is, framed at the end of the road, glowing in the late afternoon sun. People who live here are getting used to this silver Noah's Ark of art that has come to rest on the banks of the polluted Nervion river, but for first-time visitors it's an almost startling vision.

As you approach the vast, complex construction, more of it comes into view, but it's impossible to find any vantage point that really lets you take it all in. If you look down from the walkway on the Puenta de la Salve, a bridge that roars with commuter traffic, you are at least able to see how the building stretches along a curve in the riverbank, ducks underneth you, and then ends in a metallic tower that seems to anchor this ship-like construction to the ground.

This is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an architectural triumph that is surely destined to become as instantly recognisable as the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, and as similarly powerful a symbol of cultural identity. It's the work of the California-based architect Frank O Gehry, who has made his name with distinctive private and public commissions all over the world: his most famous projects include the American Center in Paris and the Vitra Furniture Museum in Germany. He is also the chief proponent of what is being called "non-linear" architecture, where regular lines and shapes give way to sculptural forms. This fluid approach has proved ideal for coping with the troublesome site in Bilbao: an irregular plot of land in the heart of the old docks, sandwiched between the river and a busy road, and carved in two by the bridge.

The museum, however, is charged with delivering more than just culture to this Basque port. The locals, and their politicians, are convinced that the $100 million they have spent on the building will re-invigorate the shaky local economy, attract hi-tech industries (and the cool young things who work in them), improve people's lifestyles - oh, and help local artists too. Strange thing is, it looks as though they won't be disappointed.

Bilbao is Spain's fourth largest city, the commercial capital of the semi-autonomous Basque Country, with a population of a million. By the mid-1980s its traditional sources of income - steel production and shipbuilding - had been hit by competition from Asia and Eastern Europe, and as these industries fell away so they took with them associated trades and jobs. Bilbao needed a makeover to restore its battered image and fortunes.

A redevelopment scheme with a strong cultural bias was hatched, and key to this was the decision to build a museum of modern and contemporary art which, according to the Basque Minister of Culture, Karmen Garmendia, would provide a new "signature" for Bilbao. In New York the Basques contacted the foundation which runs the famous Guggenheim Museum (housed in the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark in uptown Manhattan), as well as a smaller downtown outpost and the compact Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. It was a well-timed approach: the foundation had ambitions to open a constellation of museums across the world, starting with Europe.

Within a year the two sides had struck a deal in which Basque taxpayers would fund the project and hand over an annual contribution to the museum's costs, while the Guggenheim Foundation would take responsibility for running the venture and, more importantly, provide the core of the collection. Six years later, the project - on paper, about as likely as the Guggenheim opening in Doncaster - is complete, with its opening set for 19 October.

Gehry's design has two basic shapes: regular blocks covered in limestone, a material commonly seen on buildings in Bilbao, to house the administration offices and the galleries for the more "classic" modern art; and sculptural forms, adorned with interlocking sheets of futuristic-looking titanium, for the galleries which will contain installations and cutting-edge contemporary art. At the crown of the building, the galleries rise to form what Gehry calls "a flower", a new beacon on the city's horizon.

Once inside, your eyes are immediately drawn to the top of the 55-metre high atrium that cuts through the heart of the building. Your attention then moves to the glass wall at the rear of the museum, through which are framed a water garden, the river and the mountains beyond.

The museum has 18 galleries, on three levels, that range from spaces not much larger than the average living-room, to the main gallery which, at 130 metres long and 30 metres wide, could double as a freight warehouse. In early August, this space housed the only piece of art so far on display: Richard Serra's Snake. Specially commissioned for Bilbao, it is made from three curved pieces of 13 feet-tall rolled steel and weighs 170 tons. The three sheets cluster together without touching, each securely balanced on its edge, creating rusting crevasses just wide enough to walk through. It is another reference to the city's industrial skills and heritage.

The Guggenheim is breathtaking even without any art on the walls - in some of the galleries brown pieces of paper have been stuck up and marked with details such as "Kokoshka - Knight Errant 100 x 190.6" so that, like good DIYers, staff can work out where various paintings might look best. The juxtaposition of the different rooms - some plain cubes illuminated by a skylight, others vast spotlit galleries with walls that swoop away from you - means that you never have that museum feeling of "all these rooms look the same". It has been suggested, however, that the drama and scale of the galleries will make it impossible for the art not to be overwhelmed by the setting. This is unfair - the building was commissioned to emphasise the relationship between art and its architectural environment, just as Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim was when it opened in 1959.

"The Guggenheim Museums and the Art of this Century", the launch exhibition, highlights Bilbao's newly created permanent collection with work by international names such as Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George, as well as paintings by Basque and Spanish artists. Then there are the specially commissioned installations, like Jenny Holzer's 42 feet-high Untitled, made from strands of LEDs that flash text excerpts from all her previous works. And finally there are loans from New York and Venice that cover everything from Cubism to multi-media. Much to the chagrin of the locals, they have been unable to persuade the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid to loan them Picasso's Guernica, an emotional symbol for Basques of how this republican stronghold (Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, was born in Bilbao) suffered in the Spanish Civil War, and under Franco's rule.

In the time it has taken to build the Guggenheim the city has spent another $1.5 billion - including central government and EU cash - relaunching Bilbao. Under construction is a new congress hall; a waterfront scheme by Cesar Pelli to build offices, parks and apartments; and better port facilities closer to the sea. The city also boasts two other spectacles of new architecture.

Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the first section of Bilbao's metro system opened in 1995. The stations are entered through glass canopies shaped like caterpillars. Passengers then descend on escalators through cooling, unadorned concrete tunnels. The platforms are wide, with gleaming steel benches, and the trains arrive quietly and run efficiently. With only the sound of ambient music drifting through the tunnels, catching a train is a soothing experience.

The other acclaimed addition to the city is a footbridge over the River Nervion designed by the Spaniard Santiago Calatrava. This gleaming white creation looks harsh against a muted background and doesn't really go anywhere. A delicate glass and metal structure, it is extended for a further 100 metres on the right bank by a grim wooden boardwalk, past a half-restored warehouse, before it deposits you in a quiet, anonymous street. It's as though someone bought the bridge and then realised they had nowhere to put it.

This small oddity doesn't detract from Bilbao's glory, however; this is a city on the brink of a remarkable renaissance. There are new architectural practices, shops, hotels and restaurants, all poised to cash in. But most of all there's the Guggenheim, described by the American architect Philip Johnson as "the greatest building of our time", which has restored a people's faith in their future and given their city a new signature. !