With a Richard Serra installation for Spain's Guggenheim Bilbao, Frank Gehry architecture finally meets its match
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
There's no doubt that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao is an urban-renewal success. As a building for art, it's been another story—especially for the vaulted Arcelor gallery, 430 feet long and up to 80 wide. Just try finding works suitable for a space scaled like a warehouse on steroids.
Even Richard Serra's Snake, three waves of sandblasted Cor-Ten steel commissioned for the Guggenheim's 1997 opening, was lost in the cavernous space. That is until the Spanish museum tapped Serra to create The Matter of Time. This site-specific permanent installation series includes Snake along with seven new massive steel sculptures—including five of his Torqued Ellipse and Torqued Spiral signature pieces—arranged in a succession, turning the gallery into a Serra universe.
The installation has baroque roots in Francesco Borromini's church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. Serra gave a literal twist to Borromini's elliptical volumes, working with Gehry's experts in the aerospace software CATIA to apply 17th-century geometries to solid steel sheets weighing 22 to 40 tons. "I made forms never done before in history, never mind in steel," Serra says of the kinetic silhouettes.
His lifelong relationship with the industrial metal began while he was attending the University of California, working in steel mills to support himself. After his Baltimore fabricator shut down, an exhaustive search led him to Pickhan Umformtechnik in Germany—now the world's only plant with presses able to bend to his specifications the 2-inch-thick solid-steel plates he buys from Dillinger Huttenwerke, 200 miles away.
From Pickhan Umformtechnik, he shipped The Matter of Time pieces to Bilbao on barges. Police-escorted flatbed trucks then carried the steel forms to the Guggenheim, where bridges constructed over a moat led directly to the Arcelor gallery's rear loading door, large enough to accept works ranging from 13 to 14 feet in height and 30 to 56 feet in diameter. The smallest piece is composed of two steel sections, the largest eight.
The work's title derives from several sources. First is the temporal element involved in viewing. "The duration of time it takes to walk through each sculpture varies," says Serra. Second, over a 15-year period, the steel will oxidize, changing from gray to orange to amber and eventually to almost black.