The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – one of the world's most famous buildings

Bilbao has gone from being a dirty industrial city to a clear favourite on many people's bucket list. This is the story of how a single building changed an entire city.


Adrian Møller Haugan


The assignment was simple, yet difficult: "You are given free rein, but it must be challenging, ground-breaking, and innovative."

That was the brief Canadian architect Frank Gehry was given in the 1990s when he was brought in to pitch his vision of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The architect was widely known for designing unique buildings. Among other things, his own house in Santa Monica, California, had become the talk of the architectural community worldwide. In other words, the then 60-year-old architect seemed like the perfect candidate to design the new landmark building.

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Impressive building

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum is an impressive sight at first glance.

Frank Gehry – architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim

The Basque delegation may not have been fully prepared for what was to come. Juan Ignacio Vidarte is the current director general at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and attended the first meetings where Gehry presented rough sketches of the museum.

 "There was a lot of 'oh my God, what is this?' in the beginning. But as we understood the process, there was a consensus that this was the right project," Vidarte told Time Magazine in March 2023.

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Adrian Leversby/

But the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, had no doubt that Gehry was their man. Little did Krens know that he, Gehry, and everyone else involved in the project would change architecture, culture, and tourism forever.

Experience the magic of the Guggenheim Museum and stay at Hotel Miró, just a stone's throw away.

What Bilbao was like in the 1980s

It was certainly not a foregone conclusion that Bilbao would become the new hometown of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's new museum. In the 1980s, when plans were first discussed for opening a new museum abroad, Bilbao was not a cultural destination.

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imageBilbao Turismo

Industrial area

The city of Bilbao has a long history as an industrial city. The area where the Guggenheim is today was for many years an industrial area.

The formerly proud and rich port city in the far north of Spain was in decline, largely as a result of fierce and cheaper competition from abroad. Factories and shipyards closed down at record speed. Unemployment was sky-high, at around 25 percent, and the city struggled with major social problems such as drug abuse and violence.

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In addition, the old, abandoned industrial areas were polluted.

"At the time, it was a much greyer and dirtier city. The air was heavily polluted as a result of emissions from the steel factories and shipyards located in the city centre," the current mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto, told The Guardian.

imageAdrian Leversby/

Contaminated area

Large parts of the Nervión River were polluted, before a comprehensive revitalization of the areas along the river began. This photo is from outside the Guggenheim Museum.

"I remember a terribly dirty estuary – and it wasn't just due to the industrial activity in the city. There was no proper sewage system. The smell coming from the water was quite unbearable," Aburto recalls of growing up there.

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In addition, the Basque separatist group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA – Basque Homeland and Liberty), spread fear with a series of terrorist attacks throughout the country. In 1989, they killed three police officers with a car bomb in downtown Bilbao.

In other words, something had to be done.

image©FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2023/Erika Ede

Bilbao at night

The Guggenheim Museum gives the city of Bilbao a completely unique expression - especially at night

Bilbao – a controversial decision

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, in turn, had other candidate cities in Switzerland, Germany, and Japan as potential locations for their new museum abroad. Barcelona had also been discussed, but the city was busy preparing for the 1992 Summer Olympics. A new, expensive art museum was the last thing it needed to consider.

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That's when the authorities in Bilbao saw their opening. They took a chance and invited the foundation's director, Thomas Krens, to town. They talked about the new metro system that was to come, as well as how green parks, pedestrian streets, and new buildings would breathe new life into former industrial areas. The city also planned to clean the Nervión River after years of pollution. The whole city was to be revitalized.

imageBilbao Turismo

Osakidetza Building

It's not just the Guggenheim that's impressive in Bilbao. The Osakidetza building, seen here, houses the offices of the Ministry of Health of the Basque Country.

The Guggenheim's new home

Director Krens was no stranger to making controversial decisions. Art lovers in the United States had previously criticized him for commercializing the Guggenheim, focusing too much on expanding abroad and not enough on art. To him, such criticism was like water off a duck's back. 

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Krens fell head over heels for Bilbao's charm offensive and in 1991 the director signed an agreement with the local authorities in Bilbao. The city would foot the bill for the building itself, the site, and the costs associated with exhibitions, while the Guggenheim Foundation was responsible for lending artworks and operations. In addition, the City of Bilbao would subsidize the museum with an annual sum of $12 million in its budget.

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A city transformed

In the 1990s, Bilbao underwent a tremendous transformation through a series of social and architectural moves.

In total, the financial package was around $230 million (equivalent to about $440 in 2023). Many critical voices believed the money should rather be spent on a range of social initiatives than on a new art museum. Many also believed it was a scandal that the Guggenheim did not focus primarily on Basque art. 

However, the brains behind the project could not be stopped. Joseba Arregi, Basque culture minister at the time, stated that "the sum was lower than what it would cost to build one kilometre of new motorway".

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Controversial decisions by the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim as an art institution is known for making decision with which not everyone in the art world agrees. This photo shows the statue Puppy by artist Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim.

The Guggenheim was to be like the Sydney Opera House

After a pitching competition, where three renowned architects presented their vision for the building, Frank Gehry got the job. Although the job was simple on paper, Thomas Krens had cited the Sydney Opera House as a source of inspiration for what they were looking for.

"We were going to set a precedent for what a museum could look like in the 21st century," the former museum director said in a television interview.

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imageSean Bernstein/Unsplash

Wanted the Sydney Opera House in Bilbao

The brief Frank Gehry received from the Guggenheim management was not easy: They wanted a signature building in Bilbao, similar to the opera house in Sydney, Australia.

Gehry, for his part, revealed in an interview with The Guardian on the 20th anniversary of the building that he felt the pressure that came with the job.

"They said, 'Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our city is dying.' I looked at them and said, 'Where's the nearest exit?' I promised to do my best but said I couldn't guarantee anything."

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Guggenheim – an instant success

The wavy shapes were chosen by the architect as an imitation of a fish's movement in water, a source of inspiration that is a common thread in Gehry's work. Many have pointed out that the untraditional choice to cover buildings in titanium plates can also resemble fish skin. The plates also change colour according to how sunlight reflects on them

image©FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2023/Erika Ede

The Guggenheim in Bilbao's cladding

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has a truly unique design. The outside is covered with titanium plates that change colour according to how the sunlight is reflected on them.

The building itself looks like a ship, especially from the opposite side of the Nervión, another nod to Bilbao's maritime history.

After years of planning and construction, the Guggenheim in Bilbao opened its doors in 1997. Gehry's concerns about not living up to expectations turned out to be groundless. Not only did the architect stay within budget, but the museum was an instant success. The opening itself was attended by over 5,000 people.

Before opening, the initiators had dreamed of attracting around 500,000 visitors a year, but 1.3 million people visited the Guggenheim in its first year alone. During its first three years, more than four million people visited the museum. 

imageAdrian Leversby/

Artworks from around the world

In addition to permanent installations, the Guggenheim in Bilbao has temporary exhibitions featuring some of the world's most famous names in the art world.

The Bilbao effect – how it changed a city

Bilbao's revitalization continued over the next few years. Several extraordinary new buildings and bridges and general urban development has taken place. This has led to the Basque capital becoming a much-loved tourist destination for people all over the world, especially known for its art, culture, and architecture.

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The phenomenon of this turnaround from being a city many outside Spain had barely heard of to one of the world's foremost cultural cities has been coined 'the Bilbao effect'. Also known as the "Bilbao miracle", this is defined as when a unique architectural building changes an entire city. 

imageAdrian Leversby/

Yayoi Kusama at the Guggenheim

The 94-year-old artist Yayoi Kusama is among the many famous names that have exhibited their works at the museum. This photo is from an exhibition in 2023.

The current director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Richard Armstrong, stated in a 2017 interview with Artnet that the museum's greatest achievement is how it changed both tourists and its own residents' perception of Bilbao as a city.

"The greatest success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao is that it demonstrates the impact visual arts can have on a city's ability to attract visitors while positively changing its own psychology. In the 1990s, the city was difficult to travel to and navel-gazing. It was not attractive to foreign visitors.

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Bilbao - a renowned art and architecture destination

Over the course of 30 years, Bilbao has become one of the world's most renowned destinations for art and architecture. The Guggenheim Museum has had over 20 million visitors since opening in 1997.

The Bilbao effect – how it changed a city

Today, 25 years after the opening of the world-famous building, not everyone agrees that the Guggenheim Museum single-handedly saved Bilbao from going under.

"We cannot attribute Bilbao's change solely to its arrival. But the Guggenheim Museum was the engine of change — as well as a host of other important elements. The whole city has changed in a way that is unprecedented in an international context.

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The fact that we managed to clean up the pollution that had occurred in the estuary and the environment, including with an investment of over one billion euros, was also part of it," current mayor Juan Mari Aburto said in 2022 when The Guardian asked him what he thought of the term 'Bilbao effect'. 

imageBilbao Turismo

Not just the Guggenheim Museum

You can find unique buildings and structures throughout Bilbao. This is a photo of the bridge Zubizuri, "white bridge" in Basque, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Zubizuri also opened in 1997.

The current general director of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Basque, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, is also unsure how much one can credit the museum as the city's saviour.

Put Bilbao firmly on the map

"This project was part of a much larger plan, and it fit perfectly with the overall plan. It didn't happen on its own — the museum wasn't just a random whim we got," Vidarte said in the same interview. 

imageAdrian Leversby/

In the middle of the art district

The Guggenheim is centrally located in the Art District. In the area around the museum, you will find bars, restaurants, shopping - and plenty of art.

Phenomenon or not, there is no doubt that the Guggenheim has firmly put Bilbao on the map. Few cities in the world are as synonymous with a signature building as the Guggenheim and Bilbao. Since its opening in 1997, it has had almost 25 million visitors, is said to have contributed to over 5,000 jobs locally and generated over 650 million euros for the Basque treasury.

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The museum is also among Spain's most visited, and regularly appears in films and music videos. It has also become a milestone for established artists to have their works exhibited in the landed "boat".

image©FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2023/Erika Ede

Guggenheim from the other side

From across the river, the building looks like a ship.

Not bad considering what Gehry himself thought when he saw the building a month before it opened in 1997.

"I came over the hill and saw it (the Guggenheim Museum) shining there. Then I was like, 'What the fuck have I done to these people?'." 

Editor's note: The airline Norwegian covered air travel expenses in connection with this article. Picolo makes its own editorial choices, freely and independently.