How the Bilbao Guggenheim signalled the digital age in architecture

As a new exhibition at the Guggenheim in Bilbao attests, founder Frank Gehry’s pioneering use of digital technology created the blueprint for a new era of architectural design – one immersed in virtual reality

It’s a bright, clear morning in Bilbao, and the sunlight ripples across the curved ridges of The Guggenheim. The museum may have sat on the banks of the Ria Del Nervión for over 20 years – but it feels like this reptile-like spaceship has just landed, unannounced.

“I look at it every morning on my walk to work,” says Manuel Cirauqui, the head curator at the Guggenheim Bilbao, when I describe the optical illusion to him. “It seems to move, as if it has scales.” Architect Frank Gehry covered the building with a titanium cladding that had never been used before, Cirauqui tells me. “It’s like it’s made of gold leaf.”

Over the course of more than two years, Gehry’s team methodically pieced together almost 33,000 titanium plates in a three-dimensional jigsaw before it opened on 19 October 1997 – the official satellite of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York.

The effect is jaw-dropping – a building of titanium, steel, limestone and glass that resembles a crashing wave.

Cirauqui is joined by Troy Conrad Therrien, Curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the Guggenheim New York. Together they have curated the Guggenheim’s new exhibition Architecture Effects, which considers how the creation of this pioneering building continues to influence a new generation of ‘digital’ architects.

“Architecture is in need of a revolution,” Therrien tells me. “This is what the parable of Bilbao offers.”