Icons of Architecture

By: Carol Tisch

In 1997, architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, transformed an almost unknown industrial city into a mecca for international tourism. Soon metropolises from Milwaukee to Abu Dhabi wanted their own Bilbao, and elite “starchitects” were retained to create museums that would be valued as much for their architecture as for […]


In 1997, architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, transformed an almost unknown industrial city into a mecca for international tourism.

Soon metropolises from Milwaukee to Abu Dhabi wanted their own Bilbao, and elite “starchitects” were retained to create museums that would be valued as much for their architecture as for their shows. 

We follow this phenomenon, known as the “Bilbao Effect,” with a tour of some of the world’s most buzzed-about museum designs, beginning with Gehry’s Basque Country masterpiece and culminating with the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, where architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral for the British Pavilion is mystifying visitors with a structure comprised of 60,000 seed-bearing rods looking just like a dandelion about to burst.

Bilbao, Spain
The Guggenheim Bilbao

Before Bilbao, museums were identified by their collections. Now they are works of art to be seen and enjoyed, often eclipsing the treasures they contain. An international landmark of titanium, glass and limestone, Gehry’s spectacularly organic structure was dubbed “the most important building of our time” by Philip Johnson, the undisputed dean of American architects. A nod to the river on which the museum is perched, the Guggenheim Bilbao’s undulating exterior walls resemble the silvery scales of a fish (Gehry’s inspiration), while its form suggests the shape of a ship, a tribute to the now thriving port city once desperately seeking a catalyst for urban renewal.

METZ, FRANCE
CENTRE POMPIDOU METZ

The newest must-see destination for art pilgrims, Centre Pompidou-Metz opened
in May 2010 to speculation as to whether its transparent white roof resembles a UFO or a giant manta ray. Japanese starchitect Shigeru Ban and his French associate, Jean de Gastines, punctuated the roof (which Ban says was actually inspired by a Chinese straw hat) with three long superimposed galleries, each perfectly aligned to telescope a majestic view of a city landmark. The museum is already a magnet for visitors from around the world for its architecture, and Metz’s opening exhibition, entitled Chefs d’Oeuvre?, boasts 800 “chief works” by names from Picasso to Calder to further secure its place on the art map.

BERLIN, GERMANY
NEUES MUSEUM

David Chipperfield’s controversial
Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde restoration of the Neues Museum has garnered the Grand Prix of European Heritage Award for 2010, honoring the celebrity architect’s sensitive incorporation of groundbreaking contemporary architecture into a historic original structure. In his radical rebuild of the World War II-ravaged building, Chipperfield chose to leave bullet and fire scars visible, convinced that the history of the museum, Berlin and Germany should not be covered up.

In his awe-inspiring solution, perfectly restored rooms cohabit with new installations of stark white ramps and staircases in bombed-out sections of this extraordinary example of German neoclassic architecture on Berlin’s Museum Island, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

ATHENS, GREECE
ACROPOLIS MUSEUM

Only an architect with the stature of Bernard Tschumi could meet the daunting challenge of designing a museum to contain the most revered sculptures of Greek antiquity. Factor in the enormous responsibility of building at the foot of the Acropolis in full view of the Parthenon—one of the most influential structures in Western civilization—and critics agree that Tschumi and associate architect Michael Photiadis have created a masterpiece that floats on pilotis above existing archaeological excavations. Visitors are transfixed by an exact replication of the Parthenon Frieze, intended to press the British Museum and Louvre into returning missing sculptures in the frieze (known as the Elgin Marbles), which were removed by Lord Elgin in 1801.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK
RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART

Vaulted ceilings that once delineated different apparel boutiques at Barney’s former landmark store on 17th Street in Manhattan now outline exhibition galleries at the ethereal Rubin Museum of Art—the first major museum of Himalayan art in the Western world. Visitors, who may recall the signature steel and marble staircase originally designed for Barney’s by AndrĂ©e Putman, can follow its dramatic spiral through a seven-story tower reconfigured into contemplative galleries inspired by the geometry of the mandala (a form representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist imagery). Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, the firm lauded for such spectacular historic preservations as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Grand Central Station, transformed the space in conjunction with renowned museum architects Celia Imrey and Tim Culbert.

SHANGHAI, CHINA
SEED CATHEDRAL

It’s no wonder Heatherwick Studio won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ coveted Lubetkin Prize for the most outstanding work of 2010. Thomas Heatherwick’s design for the British Pavilion at Shanghai 2010 Expo mesmerizes 50,000 tourists a day with its spectacular Seed Cathedral. The 65-foot-tall building, constructed of 60,000 transparent acrylic-tipped aluminum rods that quiver in the breeze, creates the effect of a dandelion ready to burst. Indeed, each slender 24-foot optical rod has a seed embedded in its tip, every one collected by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and their Millennium Seedbank in a stunning tribute to the importance of conservation.