Since its opening in October 1997, the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has been greeted with giddy and almost universal acclaim. For Ada Louise Huxtable, it is “one of the most beautiful museums in the world today.” Certainly as a piece of free-form sculpture it is without peer. Clad in shimmering titanium panels, it billows like a full-rigged ship in a gale and is photogenic from virtually any angle. But is it as good as the claims made on its behalf? Can any building survive being declared a “Lourdes for a crippled culture” by The New York Times?

More than is usually the case, the Bilbao Guggenheim is as much the creation of client as architect.[1] When Thomas Krens became director of the Guggenheim in the late 1980s, he declared the art museum in crisis, both as institution and building type. It was an eighteenth-century idea (“the encyclopedia”)...

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