‘Curve It a Little’: The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum, Basque Country, Spain

I’ve studied folds very carefully and I’ve begun to see them as a substitute for decoration, as a way of expressing feelings in a building … It is incredible you can take a façade, curve it a little, and find that it enlivens the whole building.”

~ Frank Gehry (b. 1929)

These words by the celebrated American architect Frank O. Gehry correspond tangibly to the making of dynamic, sinuous shapes that characterize many of his designs. Among the best-known and most admired is without a doubt the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The city of Bilbao, with its museum-monuments, is set in a valley surrounded by green hills in open countryside. This is the home of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Gehry’s masterpiece. The museum (inaugurated in 1977) stands on a site between the Nervion River, the road infrastructure and the Punete de la Salve, a quarter in the 2nd district of the city. It is a vortex of flowing curves in limestone and gleaming titanium, like a metal flower with petals that encircle a central atrium, stretching its tentacles into the fluid bodies of the display galleries.

Architectural Topology

The Museum’s curvilinear design has been compared to the mesmerizing shapes studied by mathematicians in a branch of their discipline known as topology. Often called “rubber sheet geometry”, topology is concerned with shapes that can be deformed or manipulated in every possible way – for example, by bending, folding, or stretching them – without tearing or breaking them.

Gehry himself would not use the word deformation to describe his work: beauty and functionality were more important for him. Nonetheless, it is interesting that Gehry’s preliminary sketches for the museum show a tangle of curved lines that seem to embrace curvature as an idea of space, and curvature of course is one of the intrinsic properties of geometric surfaces. Hence, one could say that all the shapes Gehry envisaged for the Guggenheim Bilbao, that he carried out by hand and plastic modelling and later through computer simulations, were in fact unwittingly geometric actions of a topological kind. The result is a building where topology rules – volumes held by fluid shapes that render each space aesthetically beautiful in the way topological shapes are, yet retains their functionality as a contemplate space for art.

Project sketch, 1977.
3D wireframe model of the structure.
Digitization of the study model.
The Guggenheim Bilbao compared to topological simulations as an example of the deformation method: a) transformation of single cuboid; c, d transformation of three cuboids; b, e, f) photos of the building. Simulations by Paweł Rubinowicz

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