Mary Wells Says This Gaudi-Gehry Experience You Have to Have

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Shortly after Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain, Hubert de Givenchy took me there. I knew nothing about the museum at the time, but I would follow Hubert and camp out on an iceberg in Antarctica if he suggested it. I was intimate with a lot of museums in a lot of countries but not Bilbao, so I was an innocent, and when we drove down the old Bilbao street approaching the Guggenheim from the south, I had the distinct impression it had just landed and that I was witnessing an arrival from another planet.

The museum seemed to reach out and pull me in. I noticed it was breathing and I saw clearly that it was alive. I had an urge to hurry, to get inside the extraordinary building before it took off. I also had a strong sense that what I was witnessing was about something very good. And I am not the hallucinatory type.

Years later, I met Frank at a dinner at Candy Bergen’s and told him, nervously, to be honest, I had never seen a building that as-alive before. I said I thought he had connected with something few have connected with even when building cathedrals. He said he knew exactly what I meant. He hadn’t known many — a few perhaps — who had witnessed that the actual development of the design and construction had been normal but, yes, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

I kept meaning to return. My summer house is now a boat so last year, along with almost everyone else who has a boat, I started the summer in Barcelona – possibly the liveliest town on the Mediterranean – and the town is not far from Bilbao. Friends who had not yet been to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and were excited to see it – and the new Barcelona – sailed along. We were all happy researchers and, after a couple of books, it was clear that we would be seeing a lot of Antoni Gaudi, the most famous architect and, maybe, the most famous star born in Barcelona. Later, afterward, after Our Experience, after we left Spain, we agreed it was our great good fortune to have seen Gaudi and Gehry back to back.

One of my friends is a Gaudi cultist; he wouldn’t leave home to see the work of a minimalist, rationalist architect no matter how gifted. He needs to feel staggering genius. He wants miracles. For him, surfaces must move, glass and concrete must flare without support, and he wants his money’s worth if he is going to get out of bed and bother about a building. He knew all about Gaudi – we didn’t really need the guides. He explained everything with passion. Gaudi thought that everything structural had already been created in nature, and he found his virtuoso solutions there. He created only a few houses, but what houses they are, wondrous things those houses. Turtles and tortoises hold up the beautiful columns, cast iron spiders pretend to be balconies and swirl under windows, sky lighting fills the houses with glowing light, air conditioning (before there was such a thing) cools the houses – genius operating ahead of its time. Gaudi’s roofs are like stage sets. They have sculptured chimneys that could be guardians from another planet – it is said that George Lucas based Darth Vader on them. These are supra-intelligent houses and great fun to see.

Gaudi moved on to creating a cathedral, the Temple of Sagrada, to which he dedicated the rest of his life. His admirers see him as a saint and a petition for his beautification is being studied. It was said in 1904 that he was God’s architect. You understand when you see the Temple of Sagrada Familia, where it is palpable. There are many, many books about Gaudi and the Familia but nothing explains him or the temple like experience. He and his temple are really indescribable. Some things are superhuman.

The Familia is also called the People’s Church because it has always been, and will always be, built with donations from people who visit it and who love it – the government and the Catholic Church have never contributed. It is not complete, it has many towers to go, it is busy busy busy, growing more and more wondrous – as a visitor you sometimes wish they gave out hardhats. The money pours in from devoted people as needed and the Familia is so beloved that there is no doubt it will be completed.

It never occurred to me to associate Gaudi’s great work with Frank Gehry’s until one day, standing in the central nave of the Familia and looking up, I noticed that the beautiful forest of columns in the nave sprouts branches and leaves at the tips where you see flowers and light blazing through openings of Murano glass. Just as in the great atrium of the Guggenheim, the pillars and towers also shoot up to a sculptural flower top where panels of glass flood the atrium with light – and the museum’s galleries radiate out, leaf-like.

We flew to Bilbao; it’s a short distance. The town is blooming – Bilbaoans are very proud of it and should be. For me, the second time around, the Guggenheim was just as moving. Coming down that old street, I saw it again. It had just landed; it was alive, magnetic. Jeff Koons’s 40-foot “Puppy,” made of truckloads of fresh flowers, still welcomes you at the entrance. This second time I looked at the Guggenheim as if I were a movie camera; I wanted to remember everything. I tell you, truly: The atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao changes your standards, elevates them forever. It is beyond beautiful. There are many books about the Guggenheim, many pictures, but there is no author, there are no words that can replace the experience. You have to go.

Standing on the third floor balcony overlooking the atrium (a place you must stand before you die), I saw what Antoni Gaudi and Frank Gehry had in common – and it wasn’t all those columns shooting up to flowers and leaves! It was the connection. They both had a power when creating these buildings that connected the buildings into a wordless something that can’t be intellectualized.

I know, I sound irrational; just out of design school, too imaginative. I know, but go see for yourself. Go as soon as you can. In this world, at this time they give you something you will be glad to have and will never forget.

There are many candidates for Wonders of the World: the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan, Machu Picchu in Peru, the statue of Christ Redeemer in Rio, the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Because of my husband’s career in airlines and mine in advertising, I have seen all of these. Lucky woman – me. But the Gaudi-Gehry experience is, for me, the wonder.Gaudi moved on to creating a cathedral, the Temple of Sagrada, to which he dedicated the rest of his life. His admirers see him as a saint and a petition for his beautification is being studied. It was said in 1904 that he was God’s architect. You understand when you see the Temple of Sagrada Familia, where it is palpable. There are many, many books about Gaudi and the Familia but nothing explains him or the temple like experience. He and his temple are really indescribable. Some things are superhuman.

The Familia is also called the People’s Church because it has always been, and will always be, built with donations from people who visit it and who love it – the government and the Catholic Church have never contributed. It is not complete, it has many towers to go, it is busy busy busy, growing more and more wondrous – as a visitor you sometimes wish they gave out hardhats. The money pours in from devoted people as needed and the Familia is so beloved that there is no doubt it will be completed.

It never occurred to me to associate Gaudi’s great work with Frank Gehry’s until one day, standing in the central nave of the Familia and looking up, I noticed that the beautiful forest of columns in the nave sprouts branches and leaves at the tips where you see flowers and light blazing through openings of Murano glass. Just as in the great atrium of the Guggenheim, the pillars and towers also shoot up to a sculptural flower top where panels of glass flood the atrium with light – and the museum’s galleries radiate out, leaf-like.

We flew to Bilbao; it’s a short distance. The town is blooming – Bilbaoans are very proud of it and should be. For me, the second time around, the Guggenheim was just as moving. Coming down that old street, I saw it again. It had just landed; it was alive, magnetic. Jeff Koons’s 40-foot “Puppy,” made of truckloads of fresh flowers, still welcomes you at the entrance. This second time I looked at the Guggenheim as if I were a movie camera; I wanted to remember everything. I tell you, truly: The atrium of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao changes your standards, elevates them forever. It is beyond beautiful. There are many books about the Guggenheim, many pictures, but there is no author, there are no words that can replace the experience. You have to go.

Standing on the third floor balcony overlooking the atrium (a place you must stand before you die), I saw what Antoni Gaudi and Frank Gehry had in common – and it wasn’t all those columns shooting up to flowers and leaves! It was the connection. They both had a power when creating these buildings that connected the buildings into a wordless something that can’t be intellectualized.

I know, I sound irrational; just out of design school, too imaginative. I know, but go see for yourself. Go as soon as you can. In this world, at this time they give you something you will be glad to have and will never forget.

There are many candidates for Wonders of the World: the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan, Machu Picchu in Peru, the statue of Christ Redeemer in Rio, the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Because of my husband’s career in airlines and mine in advertising, I have seen all of these. Lucky woman – me. But the Gaudi-Gehry experience is, for me, the wonder.

When you go, be sure to spend the night in the Marques de Riscal hotel that Frank Gehry created in Rioja, about an hour’s drive south of Bilbao. This small hotel is a baby alien ship that has landed by mistake in Spain’s beautiful wine country. Its titanium sheathing runs grey to an intense violet. You might assume that a titanium and glass alien ship would not be comfortable, certainly not sexy. But this hotel is full of surprises and it is filled with class and comforts and sensuous areas. Be sure to get rooms in the Gehry-designed building. Splurge on one of the suites – it won’t hurt you – the suites are great, not grand. Dine very well in the hotel and after dinner be sure to have coffee upstairs in the perfect, romantic, late evening lounge – especially if you have warm feelings for your partner.

Go. You will be so grateful to me.

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