Guggenheim plans extension in Spanish nature reserve

Local Basque officials rail against decision taken in New York to place new Guggenheim in nature reserve

Frank Gehry's abstract Guggenheim museum in Bilbao
The Guggenheim's Bilbao Museum, Frank Gehry's abstract masterpiece. Photograph: Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic/Getty Images

The Guggenheim Museum has become the emblem of the northern Spanish city of Bilbao and its main tourist attraction, but now attempts to spread its magic by building an extension in a nearby nature reserve have run into fierce opposition.

Provincial authorities want to call an international competition for a museum extension in the bucolic surroundings of the coastal Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, 25 miles from Bilbao, hoping it will help boost the local economy in the same way the Guggenheim helped Bilbao.

"People in Urdaibai are worried because unemployment is growing and traditional industries are in decline. The museum would be a great boost," said Andoni Ortuzar, local head of the Basque Nationalist party.

The move has provoked concern that authorities might choose to place a building as loud and intrusive as the main museum, designed by Frank Gehry, in the unspoilt surroundings of a nature park which boasts some of Spain's finest surfing beaches. It has also run into the opposition of the regional Basque government, which has threatened to veto a competition.

The project has the enthusiastic backing of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which also runs museums in New York, Berlin, Venice and Abu Dhabi. The foundation's director, Richard Armstrong, told a recent conference that he wanted the Urdaibai extension to become the "first important museum of the 21st century".

The foundation, however, sees the extension as very different from the dazzling building that towers over the River Nervion in Bilbao. "It would not be an architectural icon, but a landscape one," Armstrong said.

"The idea is to repeat the success, but not the model," added the Bilbao Guggenheim director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte.

The plan aims to raze a summer camp built in 1925 in the village of Sukarrieta and replace it with "an innovative ecological museum", with an emphasis on the "creative process rather than the finished product", according to the Guggenheim chief curator, Nancy Spector.

Critics have accused the Guggenheim of looking for a free new museum, given that the Urdaibai building would be paid for by local taxpayers.

Some local commentators already complain that the big decisions affecting the Bilbao Guggenheim are made in New York. "In the really important decisions the Basque and provincial governments have only been there to give their approval to what is decided in New York," said a former adviser to the museum, Javier González de Durana.

Provincial authorities said they still hoped to persuade the Basque regional government to go ahead with the architectural competition and that, if they did not get support, they would postpone it until a new government was elected.

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