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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Basque Won Guggenheim Over Austria

The huge Guggenheim Museum Bilbao came to be because the needs of a museum in New York, a city in northern Spain, and an architect who works near the beach in Santa Monica, California, came together at precisely the right moment.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which runs the famous modern art collection, was looking for new venues.

The Guggenheim collection is so big that only 5 percent can be shown at any given time at its flagship Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in New York City.

The museum went looking for more display space in the late 1980s, first at two more sites in Manhattan, then in Venice and Berlin. By the early 1990s, the Guggenheim's board was negotiating for a site in Salzburg, Austria.

At the same time, the provincial government of Spain's Basque Country was battling violence and economic decay in its chief city. Bilbao, an industrial center near the chilly waters of the Bay of Biscay with a metropolitan population of 1 million, suffered a major blow in the late 1980s when its big downtown shipyard closed because of low-wage competition from Eastern Europe and Asia. The 30-year terrorist campaign by Basque separatists made things worse.

"Gradually, the idea emerged that we could revive our city with art and culture," recalled Nerea Abasolo, of the museum staff. "So in 1991, we went to the Guggenheim. We said, 'Salzburg has opera. Salzburg has tourists. They don't need a museum. But we need this desperately.'"

The Guggenheim agreed that the old shipyard would be the location of its new European museum. To fill the site, the museum board asked three architects to compete for the commission. One was Austrian, one was Japanese, and one was Frank Gehry.

The American had a reputation as a playful designer given to witty gestures. By the early 1990s, though, Gehry was ready to make a major architectural statement, and he set out to create a building that the world would come to see.

- By T.R. Reid