Museums and Architecture Final Paper: Bilbaoblivion

When you walk into the art and museum section of your local library there are a few common themes you will likely always find, collections of classical works, the impact of a particular era of art, and the positive or negative effect of Museum Architecture on the world of Art. I am particularly interested in the latter of these, in the existence of a phenomenon that while not recent has been given a very recent cause. An inevitable destructive force that would bring the end of art as we know it. Seeing as no great event goes without being labeled I’ve coined a term for this destructive force: "Bilbaoblivion". To the astute reader it sounds very much like a museum built by Frank Gehry and indeed this is not on accident. Bilbaoblivion is the inevitable disinterest in the art held within a museum and the greater desire to examine the architecture of the structure itself, it is the gradual decay of art and the construction of museums as sarcophagi for the very art they were built to hold.

In the debate over this there are two basic fields of architecture, one credited with delaying or deterring the Bilbaoblivion and the other credited with bringing the end. The first group, affectionately titled "The Kahn Style" does not only include the works of Louis Kahn but also those like him, creating subtle structures that do little, if anything, more than house the art within them. The second group, is titled "The Guggenheim Style" which includes Frank Lloyd Wright, the aforementioned Frank Gehry and all others who build museums of extravagance.

The term "age old problem" rarely fits as well as it does on this particular subject. Over 200 years ago the first proclamations of the Bilbaoblivion arose. With a collection of over 500 paintings, a structure that was previously a fortress and even a palace, the Louvre is one of the most extravagant and easily the most widely known museum in the world.


Figure 1.1 In fact "Louvre"+"huge" on Google returns 1.3 million results. Louvre alone returns 2.34 Million with almost as many unique images.

Even before any extensions or work were done on the Louvre it was a massive structure, which is to be expected of a palace. All that glitters is not gold however, at least in the eyes of critics. What the Louvre asks of art enthusiasts is "just what is it doing best?" To answer this we must first look at just what a Museum must do to be doing its job well.

1. Display art well (McClellan, 56).

2. Absolutely without architectural adornment (McClellan, 71).

3. Nothing may attract the eye of the visitor from the objects therein displayed (McClellan,71).

It is difficult to define just how one displays art well, however I will assume that by doing the latter two rules you will thusly accomplish the first. Externally it is painfully obvious that the Louvre is indeed not bland, centuries of various delicate tastes have left it a structure of the utmost beauty. During the day it tantalizes visitors with its many forms and structures, not the least of which the massive Pyramid entrance constructed in front of the museum (in image above). During the night the Louvre is a shimmering monument that demands the eye of passersby. So as it stands, the Louvre has indeed failed at the second rule of a properly functioning museum. The next question we must answer is whether or not the museum distracts the visitor from the objects within.


Figure 1.2 Unexpectedly the inside of the Louvre is almost unexplainably modest.

While once again we have elegant archways and beautiful roofing overall the facilities are quite well restrained. However it remains to be answered if the sheer massive size of this structure creates an aura of structural interest. In Figure 1.2 you can see the hallway shrinking dramatically as it travels off into the horizon. Unfortunately for the Louvre however even with this not taken into account the marble finished pillars and embellished archways do indeed draw the eye away from the artwork.

So if the Louvre does indeed fail the latter two stipulations, it must then fail the first. So then does has this structure, that went from 700 pieces to over 35,000 (including the Mona Lisa) and has survived for over 2 centuries, destroyed art as we know it (

Globally the answer is no. No conventional entertainment medium in the last 50 years has grown, for the exception of one, The Art Museum. The attendance at museums has risen from 22 million people in the 60’s to a mind boggling 100 million, that is just under one third of the entire US population globally visiting museums (McClellan, Perhaps coincidentally, the year before this great burst of interest in Museums a particularly famous structure opened its doors. The Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York.


Figure 2.1 The Solomon R. Guggenheim by Frank Lloyd Wright is commonly cited as "one of the most significant architectural icons of the 20th century"

Looking back at our previous rules for a properly functioning museum, and ignoring the fact that the previously mentioned Louvre is the most visited and highest rated museum in the world, we can immediately see that the Guggenheim does not sit well within the status quo. Interestingly for the exception of the labeling on the front of the museum externally the structure is relatively reserved in the context of ornamentation. However the third clause directly conflicted with the goals of Wright when building the museum. When he was building the Museum Wright had the concept of a the Tower of Babel, which (to make a long story short) was a structure that inevitably lead the heavens to spread humanity and complicate their communication. Wright wanted to build a reverse Tower of Babel, a building that instead trickles down from the heavens and helps unite those within it in a common way. The spiral of the structure was in hopes that the museum goers would notice those across from them examining art, an action that most certainly "attract the eye of the visitor from the objects therein displayed " (McClellan, 78).


Figure 2.2 The rings created by the museums build construct segments that Wright hoped would draw ones eye to the common museum goers.

It would be the success of the Guggenheim in New York and the growing interest in Art Museums globally that would slowly begin to raise the collective brows of all city leaders whose funding bubbles had burst from various markets crashing.

One such town in 1997 was suffering not unlike modern day Detroit, what was once a bustling industrial city had watched the market dry up and the industry flee. Unfortunately for all involved; people cannot disjoint themselves from their livelihoods as quickly as the businesses they once worked for. The town’s name was (and indeed is) Bilbao, the building to be constructed is the now famous (perhaps infamous) Bilbao Guggenheim constructed by Frank Gehry.

The initial reasoning behind the construction is admirable enough, the city and provincial governments of the region were very concerned about unemployment (Gausch & Zulaika, 174). When the construction of the Bilbao went underway the hope was that it would bring in roughly 450,000 people in the first year of tourism. The result would be a nice gain in businesses and hopefully a reduction in joblessness. What they got instead was 1.3 million people and 219 million dollars in revenue in the first year. It was such an overwhelming success that the phenomenon was given its own unique name "The Bilbao Effect" (McClellan, 53). It is quite easy to see why after glancing at the structure.


Figure 3.1 Reflecting perfectly upon the water it seems to reach into both reality and surrealism.

With all great successes comes great criticisms and the Guggenheim in Bilbao would certainly be taking the brunt. Upon its completion there was a backlash of Art Enthusiasts who felt that structures such as the Bilbao relayed the wrong message. "Buildings don’t make museums; art and only art does." Similar in tone to the previous 3 rules of a properly functioning museum, this or small variations of this are what comprise the major complaints of the Bilbao (McClellan, 55).

So on the topic of the rules we examine the Bilbao and see how it compares to a properly functioning museum. Interestingly it doesn’t contain outside ornamentation, the structure itself is not unlike the Wright Museum in its smooth (albeit steel instead of concrete) lines. The entire structure is fluid and devoid of any awkward extras such a statues or monuments.

The next question is about internals, will we find endless ornamentation drawing the eye away from the works within?


Figure 3.2 Bleach white walls and an unassuming concrete floor enclose an eye catching piece of art.

While the roof is not flat and featureless it is bleach white which helps lessen the effect of the intricate twists and turns while optimizing the light output. Not necessarily the best possible option, however hardly the museum exhibit nightmare it is often credited as being.

So what is proper? This question has apparently had one real definitive answer and a particularly popular physical example. Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum, a structure that has garnered seemingly universal praise as the perfect example of a museum. While easily in itself a monumental structure, it almost magically, achieves an equilibrium between the surrounding environment, the objects, traditions, and modernity. It is these qualities, and likely much more, that brings many people to the works of Louis Kahn when attempting to provide visual examples for how a museum is properly constructed (Loud,*).


Figure 4.1 The outside of the Kimbell Museum is modest and entirely without ornamentation.

The Kimbell Museum quickly answers the question of ornamentation outside of the structure with a resounding no. Indeed the outside of the building is clean and consistent, each barrel vaulted corridor matches up nicely with its neighbors to create a smooth flowing appearance. With the finalization and opening of the Kimbell Museum Kahn had set the stage for what is widely considered the epitome of museum architecture.

So with the outside of the structure quite devoid of distractions, from a technical standpoint, let us now travel within.


Figure 4.2 The innards of the museum are reflective and spacious.

Interestingly the response I got from all parties inquired (Seven if you were curious) to the following question came up the same: "Does the above image exemplify a structure that would create no interest in anything but the artwork?" In each case when I asked this question the response I received was "No". Now it will not be said that the Kimbell Museum is not a magnificent museum, nor will it be said that it does not do what it does incredibly well. However as a structure it is remarkably similar in mentality and design as those of its supposed inverses.

When comparing the Kimbell Museum to the Wright Guggenheim you will immediately notice some striking similarities. Externally both structures are made primarily of concrete, both contain many rounded edges, and both contain sky lighting.

Methodically they are incredibly similar. As stated before the Wright Guggenheim was built with the thought of a reverse tower of Babel, a sort of religious monument in reverse. Kahn himself was inspired during a trip around the world where he experienced firsthand the grand nature of monumental architecture. He was looking to build structures that stood the test of time, that aged not like a fine wine, but like a towering mountain. Endless in their grace and in their form (Nathaniel Kahn,*). So in either case you had large concrete structures rooted strongly in either real or mythological monuments.

Admittedly the connections between the Bilbao Museum and that of the Kimbell would be far more of a stretch to reach. However it takes very little time in the World of Kahn to know that he would have enjoyed the Bilbao. Kahn himself is quoted as saying that a museums purpose as a building is to delight and serve, to not disregard our modern technological and engineering advancements and to take the old traits of domes, vaults, and arches and to place them as giant sculptural forms of the skeleton frame (Kahn,28). Here is a man, long before the Bilbao, describing it and structures like it to a haunting degree. Frank Gehry not only physically build a structure to match these terms but also used the technology of the time to combine a practice millenniums old with technology that is years old.

While he has had countless memorable quotes over his lifetime, perhaps my favorite of Kahn’s is "I merely defend, because I admire, the architect who possesses the will to grow with many angles of our development. For such a man finds himself far ahead of his fellow workers (Kahn,31)". Kahn was not a man of stale repetitiveness, he knew that if nobody ever did anything new we’d never know what we were missing.

While there are similarities between these structures there are likewise differences. The Kimbell Museum is entirely one floor, which provides the Museum goers with a more continuous transition through the works with less downtime. Although an extension is in the works to add a standalone extension to the Kimbell museum that will be multi leveled (Dillard,*). Likewise there is little in the way of emphasis on any particular direction or piece of work. The same cannot be said for either Guggenheim as both are multi level structures and in the case of the Wright Guggenheim there is a very linear direction one can travel.

Another place in which these structures differ is that the Kimbell Museum is free as long as you are checking out the permanent pieces. The Wright Guggenheim costs between 15-18 dollars and the Bilbao costs 7-11.2 dollars. So in this sense it may be the Kimbell that is providing a more consistent space to house and display the works, as cheaper tends to recruit more visitors.

Indeed admissions is an unfortunate sign of the harsh reality that is global economics, most structures cannot survive on good will alone and it is the job of the Museum to attract visitors to raise revenue. If a facility does not do this it will not reasonably be able to continue existing, who then wins when art is left to age in darkness?

It can be said that if the goal of a museum is solely to provide the art to the art viewer then perhaps it is the extravagance of these structures that provides the most proper way possible. Historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock is quoted as saying "A Museum’s purposes are best served, indeed can only be truly served, if it is … entertaining and appealing … the museum … belongs in the field of democratic adult education. Its public ought to be a voluntary one. Therefore, it must practice a judicious showmanship and not be ashamed to entertain in order to teacher (Russel-Hitchcock,86)." It would be unfair, and unrealistic, of me to say that Hitchcock is the final word on what makes a museum, indeed it is on the shoulders of every individual to themselves decide what it is to be a museum to them.

Even the best possible existing example at creating a structure that attracts but does not detract falls short of its goal. Reflective floors and monumental construction put the Kimbell museum in the same boat as its kin. But is this even a problem? In the movie, "My Architect" Nathaniel Kahn the son of Louis Kahn interviews many of the old friends and family of his late Father. A common theme came up during their discussions of Kahn. "He was an Artist."

Is this not true of all Museums? If someone were to paint a building, would that painting not be called art? If that painting is art then one would assume that the things within it have an artistic value. When two pieces of art in a Museum reside near one another, do we blame the more viewed of the two for being too extravagant? Perhaps. However few would demand it be censored because of its intrinsically more interesting qualities. Those that do would not humor similar proclamations about their own works. So then the Museum becomes another piece of art, encompassing all the Art within and around it. It is no more the fault of the Museum than of the Mona Lisa to the works around it.

The greater the pieces of art in a collection the greater the amount of visitors a museum will acquire and with that a large sum to be ascertained. To have a museum of grand nature does not appear to beckon the end of art, but instead a new age of art exhibition. Immense works that demand those nearby to enter. The Bilbaoblivion, like all harks to the end, has been proclaimed with each new unveiling of a structure that differs from conventional beliefs. It is a response that is no different from historical criticisms of works of art and indeed it should be no different as it is complaining about the same thing.

We as a whole fear change, however without it we are left with a dry and predictable world. We find the unfair paradigm of critics demanding museums restrain themselves from extravagance, while on the same breath reprimanding these humble structures when they do not acquire enough viewers or improperly showcasing their works. In the end it is just a fantasy, there is and may likely never be a museum that can accomplish all the goals of a properly functioning museum.

Though even with this opposition the emergence of this new breed of Museum has not faltered. The proverbial wings have spread, and with the art museum population growing each year it is in the interest of every artist that they remain so. For regardless of what critics may feel the job of a museum is, it must bring in money or else it will become nothing more than a vault.


Patricia Cummings Loud, The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989)

Maria V. Gomez, "Reflective Images: The Case of Urban Regeneration in Glasgow and Bilbao," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 22 (March 1998): 106-21

Louis I. Kahn, Robert C. Twombly, Louis Kahn: essential texts (Edition: illustrated Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2003) 28 and 31.

Thomas Jessop, Journal d’un vorage a Paris en Septembre-Octobre 1820 (Translated) (Paris, 1928), 28.

Henry-Russel Hitchcock, "Museums in the Modern World," Architectural Review 86 (September 1939): 148

Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. pp. 2, 56, 78, 103

Andrew McClellan, Art Vs. Architecture, Museum designers wrestle with an age-old question: Who’s the star—the building or its contents? Accessed: Monday, May 11, 2009

My Architect. Dir. Orson Welles. Perfs. Nathaniel Kahn, Louis Kahn. Louis Kahn Project Inc., 2003.

Dillard, Betty. "Kimbell Art Museum reveals $70 million Renzo Piano espansion designs" Fort Worth Business Press 2008. 6/9/2009 <>.

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This paper was written in good faith (always wondered what that means) and all effort was put towards citing and citing properly, in any and all cases where this may have been missed (I doubt there are any) it was entirely a mistake and the original speaking parties are herein granted full credit for their comments.

In not so serious business, this was an incredibly pleasant experience and while the paper did shave a few years off my life with stress I got to see many wonderful images of some of my favorite Architects. Sometimes you need to take the bad to get some good I suppose.

If you take out all the images the paper should be between 10 and 11 pages long (not counting citations or this stuff), and Swiss Cheese is an amazing cheese. That is all.

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