courtesy AIA

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Gehry Partners has received the 2023 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. The Institute announced the honor in a ceremony at its A'23 conference in San Francisco, noting that the award recognizes "a building that has set a precedent for the last 25–35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance,” according to an AIA press release.

Frank Gehry, FAIA, the founder of his eponymous firm, tells ARCHITECT, “The Twenty-Five Year Award is very special. I don’t know of another award out there that honors the longevity of buildings.”

Completed in 1997, the Guggenheim was just one piece of citywide urban renewal that took place over these decades. Metro stops by Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, an airport terminal and a bridge by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, and a reimagined train station by James Stirling were all in progress at the same time as the Guggenheim’s conception and development. Gehry's team won the coveted commission in 1991 following a limited competition—global firms Arata Isozaki & Associates and Coop Himmelb(l)au were also in the running.

courtesy AIA

When it came to the museum, Gehry helped identify the site: a plot at a bend in the River Nervión that contained an abandoned brick lumber mill and was adjacent to the city’s 19th century, Neoclassical quarter. Although railroad tracks and rusting cars littered the area’s post-industrial landscape, Gehry envisioned the memorable composition of undulating forms sheathed in titanium, glass, and limestone that fills the space today. The completed structure’s unique shapes marked a new phase in Gehry’s career, one defined by advanced computer techniques that helped realize the architect’s vision at a large public scale. The building’s titanium skin, which reflects a range of colors in Bilbao’s often overcast climate, was possible due to a glut in the market when Russia released large quantities from their stockpile following the end of the Cold War.

A month before the building’s October 1997 opening, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp famously implored readers to visit the building while cautioning “you should not expect to have much fun while you’re [in Bilbao]” and “you might get blown up.” That threat of terrorism had been simmering for many years. Bilbao had long been an economic powerhouse of the Basque Country in northern Spain, but the same global forces that created the Rust Belt in the United States had put the city down on its heels in the latter decades of the 20th century.

courtesy AIA

Widely considered a defining building of the late 20th century,, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has stood the test of time, even if some recent commentators have tended to see it as a manifestation of the self-indulgent starchitect expressionism of its time.

“That the Guggenheim Bilbao is still relevant and is still working for the artists and visitors and the city means we did something right,” Gehry tells ARCHITECT. “I just went back for the 25th anniversary, and the town was alive—so different from when I first started visiting in the ‘90s.”

This is Gehry's second building to receive an AIA Twenty-five Year Award. In 2012, his personal residence in Santa Monica, Calif., was honored with the achievement.

A model of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the Gehry Partners studio
courtesy AIA A model of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the Gehry Partners studio

Past winners of the Twenty-five Year Award include the the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, by Steven Holl Architects (2022); Burton Barr Phoenix Central Library by Will Bruder Architects and DWL Architects + Planners (2021); Conjunctive Points—The New City in Culver City, Calif., by Eric Owen Moss Architects (2020); Venturi, Scott Brown and AssociatesSainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in London (2019); Pei Cobb Freed & Partners' design for The Grand Louvre—Phase 1 in Paris (2017); EHDD's design for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. (2016); and the Broadgate Exchange House in London, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (2015). AIA did not confer a Twenty-five Year Award in 2018.