Everyone Will Want a Bilbao: Museums: Frank Gehry's Masterpiece Is about to Change the World's Cultural Landscape

Article excerpt

You're going to be hearing a lot about the "Bilbao effect." No, it's not some puzzling new strain of virus, or a rare psychological condition first identified in the Basque country. What people are going to be talking about is that Frank Gehry's shiny, sexy Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, wasn't only the most important building of the end of the century. It has also inspired an amazing new faith in the power of architecture, rarely seen since the builders of Gothic cathedrals figured out that flocks of worshipers would be awestruck by their soaring vaulted interiors. Gehry's museum has held out the possibility (more closely allied to marketing than religion) that a single, beautifully designed building could wake up a snooze of a town and draw a million tourists and new business to a place nobody wanted to go before.

Cities around the world suddenly want a Bilbao museum of their very own. "We've had calls from China, from Brazil, from Belgium," says Gehry. "These are well-meaning people that think, 'Oh, good, we'll get Gehry here and he'll do a building.' Then I ask them, 'Where do you want to put it? Do you have a museum director? Do you have a collection?' And all the way down." It's not just Gehry getting the calls. The phone lines have been crackling at the offices of a global roster of star architects from Italy to Japan, inviting them to compete to design palaces of culture in the hope that these buildings will define, if not a whole city, at least an institution.

So we may well see a sprouting of new--and new-looking--museums. Suddenly art museums will seem like the best generator of municipal growth (followed closely by sports stadiums). The end of the last century left a legacy of stately stone Beaux Arts buildings to every town that had a roomful of old masters to show off. In contrast, tomorrow's museums won't look like anything that came before. Radical in design, sticking out along staid Main Streets, they'll be wrapped in space-age materials like titanium and be full of interactive exhibitions and art in the form of new media and installations.

In fact, the moment for such museums is already here. The Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati--an institution made famous nine years ago when the police busted the director for exhibiting the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe--has commissioned Zaha Hadid of London to design its new building on the busiest corner downtown. Hadid is re-vered by critics for her ideas, but few of her radical designs have actually been built, which seems to make her the perfect architect for a museum devoted to "art of the last 10 minutes," as its director, Charles Demarais, describes it. …