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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: why was it such a stellar project success?

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Could the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao be built partly from the carcasses of decommissioned Soviet submarines? It’s an intriguing possibility that arose after I took a look back at one of the most successful construction projects of the last 50 years for Project journal.

When the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry and regarded as one of the modern world’s most iconic buildings, was completed in 1997, titanium was chosen as the material for the 33,000 panels that adorned its exterior, giving that remarkable lustre to the building.

Titanium had never been used in any major building before and was usually far more expensive than stainless steel, but due to a glut of the metal on the market emanating from Russia, it was actually cheaper at this moment. And then I read that in the early 1990s Russia decommissioned the last of its Soviet Alfa-class submarines, built with titanium hulls, and caused the price of the metal to plummet...

We’ll probably never know whether one of the world’s most exciting contemporary art galleries benefited from the end of the Cold War, but there is no shortage of other reasons this construction project is remarkable and remains worthy of study.

Consistency and quality

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao stands out as a rare example of a large-scale project that was delivered on time, on budget and met its objectives many times over, becoming the catalyst for such profound transformation in the Spanish city of Bilbao and the surrounding Basque region that it led to the coining of the term ‘The Guggenheim Effect’.

Around the world, other planning authorities asked themselves whether a single iconic building could put them on the world map, boost their economy and change perceptions of their city.

What really emerges from talking to some of the key individuals involved is that the reasons for this success were grounded very much in the project having clear objectives, and in having been executed by professionals who were not only technically at the top of their game but, more importantly, understood how such projects can be derailed.

Any project involving some €200m of public money and three levels of local and provincial government might at first appear doomed to fall victim to political expediency; yet in this case the three governments came together behind a single consortium and showed awareness of the importance of political consistency over the five-year duration of the project.

They were also prepared to grant Gehry and his firm a degree of creative freedom without interference, once the outline of the building was agreed.

Mutual respect

Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert on megaprojects at Oxford University and the University of Copenhagen who has discussed the project extensively with Gehry, tells me that Gehry referred to this as ‘the organisation of the artist’. “The artist is in control of the design, not the politicians, once the artist knows what the politicians want,” he explains. And it seems that this was one side of the coin in a mirror of mutual respect.

Flyvbjerg says that one of Gehry’s strengths has been to listen very carefully to what clients want. “I think this was an exceptionally good fit of architect and client,” he explains. “It all happened because the client was very clear in saying this is what they wanted, and they got an architect who was able to deliver it.”

Juan-Ignacio Vidarte, the director of the Guggenheim today, and the person who effectively led the project from the client side, puts it somewhat differently. “When you are embarking on a project of this scale, whether it's public or private, you are taking on a responsibility and a very important part of that responsibility is to deliver on budget and on time which means putting both of those at the core of the decision-making process.

“But in addition to that, you need to work as much as possible with reliable partners, because not everybody is able and willing to work this way – it's important that this is not an ego trip.”

According to Vidarte: “If you have one, outstanding ego, it’s very difficult to maintain the balance because all these projects need a lot of balance. There are many moving parts, all of them very important. And you need discipline to keep those parts in balance.”

An ethos of trust

Vidarte adds another telling point: “Gehry is a genius as an architect, not just because he can think of amazing forms, but because he has a very clear sense of what's really a priority for him. In his wish list, he might have, you know, 100 things, but he knows which of those are the 50 that are essential. And to protect those he’s ready to leave other things.”

To get to this point, says Vidarte, it was necessary to build an ethos of trust and teamwork between the partners, who also included construction firm IDOM and the New York-based Guggenheim Foundation. “Gehry, for example needed to understand that we weren’t setting out to build the cheapest possible building; we had a budget and we were determined to spend every last Euro in order to get the best Gehry building we could afford for that amount.”

The success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, it seems, was in large part down to it having been built by grown-ups who were prepared to suppress their own ambitions and vanity in favour of the bigger picture – and ensuring that the project reached a successful conclusion.

Read more about the iconic Guggenheim Bilbao project in the spring 2022 edition of APM’s Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members, out next week.


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