Birthday suit: Guggenheim Bilbao is dressed in light to celebrate its 20th anniversary

Birthday suit: Guggenheim Bilbao is dressed in light to celebrate its 20th anniversary

Over the last 20 years, Bilbao has transformed from a rusty-round-the-edges port town to a cosmopolitan service city. Its pre-existing patchwork of 18th century townhouses and severe Francoist facades has been punctuated by contemporary structure upon surprising contemporary structure.

‘There’s two Bilbaos: the one before Guggenheim, and one after,’ says the museum’s director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte ahead of Reflections, a week-long celebration of its 20th birthday.

Indeed, it seems a roster of the world’s most famous architects have spent the last two decades using Bilbao as their playground. Santiago Calatrava’s white, tied arch Zubizuri bridge (1997), is framed by Arata Isozaki’s The Isozaki Atea (2008), comprising two, 83m tall towers that dwarf the smattering of dock buildings that still cling to the edge of the Nervión.

Elsewhere, Sir Norman Foster’s glass-domed Metro entrance ways, (affectionately called ‘Fosteritos’ by locals) brightfully arch out of the pavement. And Phillippe Starck’s Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure Center (2010) houses a 6000 sq m indoor plaza, peppered by 43 pillars that hold up a glass-bottomed rooftop pool.

Today, Bilbao is a map of contemporary architectural abandon that simply wouldn’t have been drawn without Frank Gehry’s cultural calling card 20 years ago. But, as Vidarte is keen to point out, Guggenheim was far from the sole player in this city-wide regeneration. Instead, it was ‘the catalyst for change’ and a ‘beacon’.

Last week, Reflections ignited this great, titanium-coated beacon literally. A 20-minute lightshow, created by 59 Productions (of London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony fame) was projected onto the vast, reflective North-facing wall of the museum each evening.

World-leaders in large scale projection, the artist-led team made use of 3 miles of fibre optic cable, 120 tonnes of equipment, 160,000 watts of speaker power and more than a million lumens of lighting equipment, in a public artwork that spanned a Guggenheim-worthy scale. The thousands of Bilbaínos that gathered to watch the performance paid testiment to the Guggenheim’s local popularity. 

At moments, the museum appeared to crumble away into the river, at others, it’s alive with flames. One sequence sees the waves lapping at the hull as the museum is transformed into a giant blue boat; another sees Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider Maman (1999) come alive to spin her web across the facade. The artistry and sheer technological achievement of the production pays homage to Gehry’s masterpiece, and all the others housed inside it, celebrating them as the progressive, city-shaping works that they are.

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