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There is something insanely immodest and brash about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. When I had seen its photographs the first time, I had imagined it to be spectacularly isolated, an arrogant, individualistic structure standing by the waterfront, with vast areas of nothingness around it. But in fact the museum is in a busy quarter of the Basque city, with other rival structures alongside, although none as spectacular, or as individualistic.

Like any great monument, the structure has the ability to amaze and astound, even if you have seen its photograph many times before. But by its very unconventionality and its starkness and boldness, it invokes excitement and joy, not awe. Your tone doesn’t get hushed, as in a cathedral, nor do you stand awestruck looking at details, as with an Art Nouveau building. Rather, you walk alongside briskly, as if trying to wrap yourself around its contours. It has a molten feel, as if it had another shape before, but one night’s storm and strong winds shook things around so much that it acquired this higgledy-piggledy look, and acquired this shape, which is instantly memorable and very hard to reproduce in a drawing later, even if you feel it is imprinted in your mind’s eye.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is set along the river in a built-up area of a city that hadn’t been on the usual travel itinerary in a country of so many destinations. But now with its whimsical shape and in-your-face avant-garde modernism, it attracts a fond following. As the novelist J.G. Ballard described it: “In its own, self-defining way it is a masterpiece, and the fact that it is an art gallery is almost wholly irrelevant. The one thing that someone visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim can forget about is any thought of actually entering the building. Stay outside it, at a distance of about one hundred yards, and you will absorb all its audacity, magic, good humour and genius. And its infantilizing charm…. The building is the larval stage of a new kind of architecture that will emerge from its chrysalis and finally take wing a hundred years from now."

If the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York gives you a sense of continuity as you walk through its halls without having to climb (or descend) a single step, and if The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice looks like the stately villa it is, even if the art within is refreshingly different (because it is so modern) from the miles of sombre Titians and Tintorettos you walk through in one formidable renaissance museum or cathedral after another, the Guggenheim in Bilbao makes no pretence of nodding appreciably at anything remotely local. It looks as if a spaceship has descended on the Iberian peninsula—step inside and discover art. And if modern art is not your thing (when we went there in the summer that just went by, it had exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Richard Serra), it doesn’t matter; the amazing curves of its walls, the fantastic corners and odd-shaped windows and the sky you see through those windows, and its sheer scale which dwarfs you once inside, all these make the museum itself as much a destination as the art within. That said, Basquiat was illuminating, Koons provocative, and Serra meditative. Anish Kapoor’s minimalist Tall Tree And The Eye, which stands outside the museum, has 73 reflective spheres, standing vertically, but as if being pulled by forces beyond, like a tower leaning in three directions. The mirrored surfaces of those orbs reflect and refract at the same time, giving a new interpretation to form and space. It looks like a silver spurt, a fountain of joy erupting from the ground, frozen in time.

We were there on a warm, sunny afternoon. We had dropped our bags at the hotel, chosen because it was within walking distance of the museum, and we left immediately for the museum. It stands alongside the gloomy Nervión river and shines, reflecting the sun, the layers of its form rising like a melting cake. You had to squint to look at it, with your hand shading the brow, as you began taking in its grandeur. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim celebrates the new with the same abandon as Salvador Dali’s melting clocks, Pablo Picasso’s women of d’Avignon—the shock of the new. It has a futuristic feel, and it immediately implants the idea that the art inside will be unlike anything you would see from any painter in the naturalistic, narrative style.

In the end, what’s remarkable about the Guggenheim in Bilbao is the fact that it exists, in spite of its outlandishness. City planners are usually not that bold. What prompted the city’s elders to take such a huge gamble and permit an architect like Gehry to run wild with his imagination, creating a building that itself became a work of art, where the art within was the bonus, and not the other way round?

But even so, it does not compete with the art within; it complements it. It keeps you within the building for hours, as you walk through the atrium and try to figure out if the artists you saw within were trying to break new ground or mocking you. There is the faux naif imagery of Basquiat—is it to make us laugh or is it laughing at us? The risqué, realistic nudity of Koons—is it aesthetic or pornographic? And the massive installation of Serra—outwardly it is meditative, but as you walk through its narrowing walls, is it inwardly hollow? In the end, none of that matters, because the museum itself has cheered you, and we nodded happily on another night as we walked by, its indescribable shape now bathed in moonlight.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint. He tweets at @saliltripathi. His collection of travel essays, Detours: Songs Of The Open Road (many drawn from this column), will be published by Tranquebar (Westland) in December.

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