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Making waves;The Big Picture

(Photograph) - In the industrial city of Bilbao, northern Spain, an architectural rose has bloomed among the ruined shipyards on the banks of the River Nervion. Because of the way its 19 galleries fan outwards from the 165-foot-high stem or central atrium, the Guggenheim Museum has been likened to a flower. King Juan Carlos of Spain has called it "the best building of the 20th century", and others have called it cathedral-like, or described it as an intergalactic ocean liner. But in architectural terms, it really is beyond compare.

At first, sceptics thought its unlikely location - in a depressed part of a city once best known for the terrorist activities of Basque separatists ETA - would prove a monumental mistake. But ever since it opened 18 months ago, people have been queuing up to see it and tourism in the region has soared.

The Bilbao Guggenheim was built to display some of the thousands of artworks that can't find room in its sister museum in New York. Its architect, American Frank Gehry, started with a doodle, and finalised his plans on computer programs used to design aircraft, because the building he had in mind was too complicated to draw in the usual way.

Conventional architectural wisdom dictates that form should follow function. But the Guggenheim - which boasts the biggest single gallery space in the world at 80 feet by 450 and has had critics in raptures over its use of light and space - turns that idea inside out.

Impressive though it appears on paper, a photograph scarcely does justice to a building so richly three-dimensional. The swooping, swaggering lines of the museum's titanium cladding - which shine silver in daylight and golden at dusk - mean its outline changes according to your point of view. In fact, which ever way you look at it, the Guggenheim's form and function are inextricably linked. It's a museum inside a piece of sculpture.

Harvey McGavin


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