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Build It and They Will Pay

A primer on Guggenomics

In 1997, the Basque city of Bilbao ceased simply to be a depressed industrial town with a terrorism problem and became synonymous with a miraculous new building, architect Frank Gehry’s Spanish outpost of the Guggenheim Museum. This glittering edifice, clad in titanium scales, promised not only that the Basques had embraced tourism as a way out of their political and economic troubles, but also that a new day was dawning for architecture and urbanism. Bilbao was to be the White City of the twenty-first century, a bright beacon of what a New York Times headline called “Gehry’s Vision of Renovating Democracy.”

No sooner was the thing built, however, than the Basques started to learn what Gehry’s vision was costing them. In his book Chronicle of a Seduction: The Guggenheim Bilbao, Joseba Zulaika dissects the deal under which the museum was built. It’s a story of uneven power relations, mortgaged urban futures, and fiscal chicanery, most of which cannot be told by official sources because their agreement contains a clause forbidding public disclosure. But it seems that after a year of secret negotiations, the Guggenheim stuck the city—which lost 40,000 jobs with the demise of its largest steel plant, and which still struggles with 25 percent unemployment—with a stiff bill. By 2000, Zulaika writes, the Basques were in for $250 million—that’s $700 for each Bilbao resident. On top of that, the local government is committed to a perpetual public subsidy of $7 to $14 million a year.

“Meanwhile,” Zulaika notes, “the funds going to the Guggenheim were immediately slashed from [public] subsidies for Basque culture, which pays for libraries, cinema, theater, art, literature, popular crafts, and publications.” The Bilbao museum has no local artistic director and no permanent collection of its own. It comes off like the New York Guggenheim’s garage, filled with outtakes from its vaults and sporadically supplemented with exhibits on such subjects as motorcycles and Gehry himself (designed by the architect) months after they’ve been shown in New York. What you won’t see at Bilbao is much in the way of local Basque art, much less new Spanish art.

As it turns out, the “miracle of Bilbao” wasn’t so much about a new, flexible architecture. It was about flexible accumulation.

But the city does have a remarkable and shiny building. It sits on the banks of the fetid Nervion River where an abandoned lumber mill used to be, next to an elevated highway—a nice confluence of its architect’s fascination with urban misery and with movement. The museum showcases a conventional American interpretation of the modern art canon, and it attracts a lot of international tourists who would otherwise have passed Bilbao by. Once they have taken in the grandeur of Gehry’s achievement, visitors may reflect on what a rum thing it is that you can travel the world over and see the same packaged art shows, as if you were on a tour of college freshman dorm rooms. Critical observers might even be led to wonder why international museum culture reminds them so much of international finance. Why all these partnerships with Deutsche Bank, Hugo Boss, and Samsung?

The man to know in this connection is Thomas Krens. He is director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a motorcycle-riding, Yale-trained media-hound who for a decade has zoomed willfully over the most sacred tenets of museum culture. Since taking command in 1988, Krens has sold off major paintings from the Guggenheim collection, staged exhibitions devoted to major corporate donors such as Armani, and floated massive bond issues, using parts of the collection as collateral, to finance his network of satellites in Venice, New York, Berlin, and Bilbao.

Like other financiers, Krens has been overreached himself a little bit of late. Surprised by the blow to tourism dealt by September 11 and the wider recession, and just after he’d opened two new Guggenheims in a casino in Las Vegas, Krens solemnly proclaimed late last year that his new goal was to “go into 2002 with a balanced budget.” He fired eighty employees (a fifth of his staff), immediately shuttered the SoHo Guggenheim, and promised more layoffs to come. Upcoming exhibits were shelved, and an exhibit called “Brazil: Body & Soul” extended. Finance experts at other museums nodded their heads approvingly as the Krens model of the debt-burdened, centrally managed global museum chain seemed finally to have foundered on the shoals of market austerity. Even the new Frank Gehry museum, due to be built on the formerly industrial piers of the East River in Lower Manhattan, a project the Guggenheim had boasted about for two years in a series of Frank Gehry “exhibits,” faced mortal danger.

But in January 2002, with the Brazil exhibit still hanging in gloomy New York, Krens cheerfully jetted down to sunny Rio de Janeiro and, with that city’s mayor at his side, announced the coming of a new Guggenheim Brazil. The people of Rio had kindly offered to pay $2 million for a “viability” study and already generously set aside $120 million to build the museum, to be designed by French auteur Jean Nouvel in the city’s rundown port district. The Guggenheim had inked the deal with Rio officials the previous November, at about the time Krens was axing his employees and murmuring somberly to the press about the grim realities of austerity.

The contrast offers a wonderful illustration of the harsh machinations at the heart of Guggenheim economics—secure public financing for capital-generating museums in a decentralized network of deindustrialized cities, dump assets when necessary, and punish workforces in the isolated cultural fiefdoms as needed. In the hagiographic hysteria of the bubble decade, the museum’s expansion and relentless branding filtered down to us mortals as brave new architecture wrapped in the noble rhetoric of urban renewal and art for the people. As it turns out, the “miracle of Bilbao” wasn’t so much about a new, flexible architecture. It was about flexible accumulation.

Paired together, Krens and Gehry have perhaps had the largest single impact on the modern museum in fifty years. While both are cast as breaking totally with a past defined by fixed notions of a museum’s relationship to the state and even to form itself, their innovations are better thought of as extensions of the logic of capitalism into the deregulated plastic economy of the nineties. No surprise, then, that Enron, that paragon of the bubble years, loved and paid them both. As onetime CEO Jeffrey Skilling wrote for the catalog that accompanied a recent Enron-financed Gehry retrospective:

Enron shares Mr. Gehry’s ongoing search for the moment of truth, the moment when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the artistry that produces a truly innovative solution. This is the search Enron embarks on every day by questioning the conventional to change business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the New Economy. It is the shared sense of challenge that we admire most in Frank Gehry.

The moment of truth has arrived. Krens’s global strategy rested on a simple innovation: taking high culture downmarket by making art accessible to the masses. But his shrewdest insight was to recognize the profit potential afforded by the drama of deindustrialization in struggling first-world cities. Curators at big museums of modern art in the late eighties could not figure out how to keep twentieth century greatest hits on constant display while also making some gesture toward showing new art. Krens solved the problem by ignoring the art altogether. By expanding the curatorial style outside the museum walls, he realized that the scenography of broken cities could be the art, stage sets for disseminating the thrill of gentrification to the masses. You could stretch the museum’s current collection to keep the branches filled, make up the difference with high-concept traveling displays of borrowed art and consumer gadgets, keep operating costs low by running the show from New York, and win cover charges from tourists on the global circuit two, three, and four times. True, only so many world cities care to have their highbrow aspirations hijacked by a cash-hungry American interloper. But there were plenty of smaller cities ravaged by capital flight eager to play along.

From the architect’s point of view, Krens’s new concept was irresistible. Consider what Bilbao did for Gehry’s image. Once a middling practitioner of mildly interesting office parks and shopping malls best viewed from the freeway, Gehry had won over the postmodernist faithful in 1978 by wrapping his house in chain-link fence and, gasp, breaking the modernist box. By the late eighties, he was solidly situated as the pet architect of the Los Angeles elite. Like many in the art world, his clients seemed to love him as much for his up-by-the-bootstraps life narrative of ethnic progress as for his often menacing, frequently ironic buildings. The catalog for his first retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 1986 told how his grandmother had worked as a “foreman” in her father’s iron foundry in Poland and, in a tale repeated ad nauseum, kept carp for gefilte fish in the bathtub, influencing Gehry’s weirdly obsessive love of fish forms later in life. The main visual innovation at Bilbao—the curve—was an extension of these fish forms.

Yet, from the day the first lucky “insiders” were spirited over to the construction site to shudder at the majesty of the museum’s unfinished skeleton, Gehry and Krens beamed themselves into a ceaseless feedback loop of mutual stroking that shows no signs of slowing. Before we knew it, Gehry’s bag of tricks—the paint-by-numbers box breaking, the harsh unfinished forms, the cute emphasis on the mass-produced materials of cheap-and-quick construction—had been conjured into a heretofore unseen “sculptural” and “improvisational” style. Suddenly he held “the power to communicate with everyman.” He was “the Michael Jordan of bricks and mortar,” yet also somehow the Jackson Pollock, madly crunching up cut paper to feel out his forms, scribbling incomprehensible expressionistic sketches on airplanes in fits of inspired American individuality and freedom. With its sheath of shimmering titanium that ripples in a strong wind, the Bilbao museum was a perfect surface upon which Krens could project his wider global ambitions. Gehry was such a good choice for the project precisely because he is par excellence the architect of surface.

If the Guggenheim Bilbao, which towers over the city, is contextual in any sense, if it carries the life of its site into its form, it is in an unnervingly cynical way.

For years, Gehry had been recycling “the elements of a decayed and polarized urban landscape . . . into a light and airy expression of a happy lifestyle,” as Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz. But his most anti-urban gestures—a 1981 plan to slam a suspension bridge through the upper floors of the World Trade Center comes to mind—derived from his shallow sense of the city. Even before he started working regularly for Disney, a heavy thrust in his architecture stressed outsized, eye-catching Disney-scaled set pieces. He lived by the playful ad-world notion that blasting big images into a city’s visual terrain is far-out fantasy, not visual pollution. Designing a fish restaurant—hey, what about making the building into a giant fish? An aerospace museum—let’s snap a Lockheed F-104 on the façade!

Gehry boosters prattle on about the supposed sensitivity to context of the gigantic museum with the long dinosaur tail at Bilbao, the intense “sense of place.” But the museum only raises the bar on the basic look-at-me theatricality that has always distinguished Gehry’s work. Bilbao takes the art of the lure as its prime imperative, disgorging its fantastic waves and sheets onto the street. By slapping down a snappy visual image but then taking the extra step of unraveling it, the edifice could be more than entertainment—it could be art, even freedom! But, as critic Hal Foster wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Gehry’s “freedom is mostly a franchise in which he represents freedom more than enacts it.” In other words, this is movie democracy at its best, gluing us slack-jawed to our seats, as Gehry expresses himself by crushing a parade of gigantic snakes, gigantic severed horse heads, gigantic fish, and gigantic silver ribbons on top of our collective heads.

Bilbao piques tourists with its curious modern ruins. They can browse the funky decay along the industrially polluted river or pop in for a snack at the high-priced restaurant (much was made of the fact that Gehry, who also dabbles in smaller consumer goods, designed the chairs.) They wouldn’t want to linger too long inside, though, amid the pointless scaffolding and fractured sight lines, which alternate with fairly traditional, if large, gallery spaces to create an anxiety-inspiring place. The basic ugliness of the interiors, in fact, confirms how little they matter. If the Guggenheim Bilbao, which towers over the city, is contextual in any sense, if it carries the life of its site into its form, it is in an unnervingly cynical way. For its cataclysmically stacked, collided, and crumpled forms not only pun on the nearby smokestacks and cranes; they seem, incredibly, to be Gehry’s whimsical idea of visually rendering the tumultuous and violent process by which a once-working industrial waterfront is brought to heel—an actual enactment of the grim process that the Guggenheim makes a point of capitalizing upon.

Many in the architecture world these days consider it bad form to let something as coarse and lowbrow as industrial process intrude on their hallowed and untouchable surfaces. A few dutiful rhetorical nods to a “sense of place” are tolerated, but the building of buildings is to convey the breezy grace of symbolic gesture. Gehry’s most conspicuous triumph at Bilbao was, once and for all, to pull the concerns of architecture back to the spectacular surface and foster a profession- wide obsession with the “skin” of buildings. But he also accomplished a second feat, little noted but surely as significant a repudiation of the industrial: By means of digital technology, he dealt a blow to the building trades in their long-running turf war with architects. He accomplished this with his extensive use of CATIA, a computer-assisted design program manufactured for the aerospace and automotive industries by Dassault Systèmes and marketed by IBM, which, thanks to the publicity it received at Bilbao, is already changing the way buildings are built and who builds them.

Gehry first used CATIA to design a chain-mesh fish sculpture on top of a 150,000-square-foot mall for the 1992 Olympic village in Barcelona. But he realized its full potential at Bilbao. Many critics of CATIA dwell on the coldness of the concept of digitalized design, but to do so is to miss the most critical reason the computer made Bilbao possible. As the financial press likes to say, it “reduced capital costs.” CATIA allowed Gehry to design complex structural pieces, once modeled and worked out by hand, by simply plugging a series of coordinates into a computer. The computer then figured out all matters of structural stresses once determined by the building trades, vastly shortening the length of time it would otherwise have taken to build the thing.


This is the major benefit of the program for architects—CATIA is a means of deskilling the ornery building trades and slicing labor hours in favor of the pure vision and billable hours of the architect. The program ushers in a Tron-like world of numerically controlled laser-cutters, water-jet slicers and routers, multi-axis milling machines, laser-positioning devices, robots, and 3D modeling that permits architects to circumvent the normal rounds of competitive construction procurement by predesigning pieces for preselected vendors who agree to their terms. For Bilbao, Gehry modeled his designs on CATIA in his Santa Monica studio, then transmitted the specs to subcontractors in Spain who had to go to one of IBM’s “CATIA competency centers” to learn how to decode and use the program. Thus, while CATIA reduces labor costs, it also brings heretofore independent contractors under the aegis of technical know-how controlled by big multinationals like IBM.

No wonder IBM and Dassault, like Enron, love Frank Gehry. As financial backers of the Guggenheim’s Gehry retrospective, the companies released a joint press release filled with fanciful evocations of the master from Santa Monica, and themselves as his helpmate. “True artists experience great personal pain in their undaunted persuit [sic] of excellence,” Ed Petrozelli, general manager, IBM Product Lifecycle Management observed. “Our function, from a technology standpoint, is to increase the ability of artists to focus on their designs, and to liberate them to experiment more freely by removing mechanical concerns from the creative process.”

One possible consequence of the Guggenheim’s big money tactics is that museums’ tax-free nonprofit status may be jeopardized over the long term.

How those who make their living by such fusty “mechanical concerns” will fare under this new rationalization is another matter. If there was any doubt that Taylorist impulses lurked behind Gehry’s technophilia, a speech he made upon receiving the Royal Gold Medal in London in 2000, as reported in The Architects’ Journal made his intentions plain. In his conversations about CATIA, Gehry typically sticks to how it liberates his craft. But in this speech, he lost his cool. He proclaimed that CATIA had given architects the chance to wrestle the title of “master builder” from their enemies in the building trades, and then went on snippishly about how architects have been “infantilized” by contractors and made “the little woman” of the construction process.

“The miracle of the computer turns that around,” he said. “There is such a degree of accuracy that contractors are not at a great risk if they just follow the instructions. We are working with lawyers and insurers in America to reach a position where the architect becomes the responsible party in the equation. There is a great opportunity for our profession to become the master builder again.”

Will these Howard Roark fantasies save Gehry from being the bitch of the construction industry? It’s unclear, but this kind of talk should dispel any notion that Krens and Gehry simply provide local jobs and help local governments turn hard luck of the industrial sort into a chance for service-sector rebirth. In reality, far from salving the wounds inflicted by capital, the Guggenheim model offers more of the same. In Bilbao we may observe the ethnic Krensing reserved for twenty-first century urbanism.

Krens’s geocultural strategy is a wonder to behold, as liquid and mobile and protean as capital itself. After Venice, he went to an old manufacturing loft in SoHo; after SoHo to an old lumber mill in Bilbao, after Bilbao to an old bank building in Berlin, after Berlin to a casino in Vegas. Like capital, he has a palpable “creative” effect. As he exports the American model of culture as lucrative private deal, he expects governments to wise up and slash their social contracts, opening as a result more opportunities for privatization orchestrated by Krens. As he explained to Art News in 1998:

We live in a complex cultural environment. Governments are wanting to get out of the cultural support business. You have more government support for culture in Europe, but proportionately it’s coming to the same conclusions as in the U.S.: If you’re trying to make a budget balance with a 10 percent or 15 percent unemployment rate, culture is one of the first things you cut out, because the constituency for culture tends to be relatively small.

Sound familiar? This appeal to sensible economics, hard choices, market austerity, and balanced budgets is remarkably similar to arguments made by Enron and all manner of other corporate hijackers to redistribute massive public subsidies, asset ownership, and control of whole swaths of the economy into more profitable private hands. One possible consequence of the Guggenheim’s big money tactics, as the director of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City never tires of pointing out, is that museums’ tax-free nonprofit status may be jeopardized over the long term. That would drag even lofty holdouts into Krens’s shark pit. And what happens if the Guggenheim pulls out of a satellite museum that is not building up its own collection and talent to secure its future? What will the Basques have to show for their money then?


The danger in pointing the finger at Krens, of course, is giving a pass to other museums that make similarly sly corporate moves—not to mention the raw exploits that gathered the hoards that fund all our philanthropic foundations, fellowships, and cultural institutions. What separates Thomas Krens from major league sports franchises that extort new stadiums from nervous hometowns? He’s taking it worldwide. But he’s pretty good at the subsidy racket at home, too, as is evident in the recent deal for the new Guggenheim New York City, which was to be the grand showcase of his and Gehry’s brand of new urbanism. In 2001, amid a crisis in affordable housing, rising homelessness, poorly funded parks, gutted social services, and underpaid teachers instructing crowded classes in crumbling schools, New York officials magnanimously dedicated $700 million for the project. Gehry returned the favor by phoning in a design that was contemptuous, even by his standards. As it happens, the city no longer has the money, and in any case it’s hard to imagine that his clever idea—planting the destroyed remnant of a skyscraper on top of a pile of twisted steel—will get off the ground any time soon.

It would be nice to think that the Gehry moment will pass. His aestheticization of damage, his cynical predilection for replaying a city’s trauma on its own landscape, like the Coney Island rides of yesteryear that charged impoverished tenement dwellers to watch the reenactment of a burning tenement—who needs it? Sadly, a lot of cities around the world believe they can’t do without it. At last count, more than a hundred had put in a bid to get a Guggenheim of their very own.