The ‘Zero Gravity’ of the Other Great Museum of Bilbao

by Amaia Santana

Agravitas is the name used by architects Norman Foster and Luis María Uriarte to baptize the expansion project of the Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao, “the most ambitious since the construction of the modern building in 1970,” according to the director of the art gallery, Miguel Zugaza. “The rest of the interventions have been renovations, including the one carried out in 2001. The new building will provide more than 5,000 square meters of space for exhibitions and public activities, as well as new accessibility from the Euskadi Plaza, thanks to the opening of the door of the old building,” he explains.

Specifically, the museum located practically in front of the almighty Guggenheim Bilbao, in the heart of the city’s Ensanche, will gain 6,743 square meters from the new construction, in addition to the remodelling of another already existing 8,000 square meters. This will give the art gallery’s collection an additional 1,635 square meters, actually 45% more than its current space.

Main façade and original entrance. Fine Arts Museum Bilbao

Agravitas will also add a 2,200 square-meter terrace to the museum where outdoor sculptures will be on display and from where “its privileged location between the Doña Casilda Park and the new city expansion toward the riverfront will be appreciated,” adds its director.

The current Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao was inaugurated in 1945, as a fusion between the first Museum of Fine Arts, founded in 1908, which opened its doors in 1914, and the Museum of Modern Art, inaugurated in 1924. “Agravitas adds exceptional value to the building of 1945,” Zugaza highlights and assures that the public will find “a large gallery of access to the museum where sculptures will play a key role.”

Open for Construction

The main objectives of Agravitas are to provide more space to the Fine Arts Museum, both for the public and for the museum staff, as well as to improve accessibility. One of the aspects of improving sustainability is that it does not sacrifice even a square meter of the built architecture, that is, “It will be carried out without the need to excavate or make large movements of land,” Zugaza clarifies.

Another plus is that the museum will remain open throughout the project. “We will reopen the doors of the old building where we will share a very special project rotation of the collections called BBKateak,” the director of the Bilbao art gallery informs us.

Miguel Zugaza, director of the museum. Fine Arts Museum Bilbao

Along these lines, undoubtedly one of the most impressive novelties will be the new exhibition space called BBK Museoa. “We want to develop two major annual exhibitions that cater to the different areas of interest of the museum in ancient, modern and contemporary art,” he explains.

In addition, the renovated Arteder Documentation and Research Center will be open to researchers and the general public “in a universal way, through a new online platform.” In the future, it will also be shared with the databases of other institutions and museums.

Uncertainties and Opposing Opinions

The expansion project is expected to be complete towards the end of 2023, although Zugaza points out that it depends on “the bidding process.”

The budget for Agravitas has been estimated at 29.5 million euros; although an increase of 9.5% has been considered “due to the adaptation to the new rules of fire protection and evacuation, as well as the foreseeable increase in supply prices caused by the current situation,” explained museum sources in a recent statement.

In that sense, the director of the Fine Arts Museum admits that this is “one of the great uncertainties of any project in our current circumstances,” and alludes again to the end of the bidding phase, to analyze to what extent the current, and volatile, international situation will affect them. “Many projects are being ignored or forced to reflect price changes,” he acknowledges.

Image of the enlargement project. Fine Arts Museum Bilbao

Agravitas is financed by a loan signed with the Basque bank Kutxabank in December 2021, “and has the guarantee of the City of Bilbao, the Provincial Council of Bizkaia and the Basque Government,” as the museum assures in an announcement available on its website.

However, a group of citizens including the architect Fernando Pérez Rodríguez-Urrutia, grandnephew of Fernando Urrutia (one of the architects of the original museum of 1945) has created the platform called Civic Defense of the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao, in order to paralyze a project that they call “dystopian and unfortunate.”

The members of this platform consider that it “clearly” violates the regulations of the project proposal contest, as well as the General Plan for Urban Development of Bilbao; the Basque Cultural Heritage Law and the current Spanish Historical Heritage Law, as explained in a statement in February 2021, in which they also cited the “forceful reprobation report” issued by the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando to the Bilbao City Council, the Basque Government and the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

About the Author

Amaia Santana
Amaia Santana (Santurtzi, Bizkaia, 1986) is a journalist and writer. She has worked as head of digital and offline communication in several institutions, communication and management agencies and record labels. She has also been editor of Culture in the DEIA newspaper. Currently, she collaborates with various media including television, radio and written press.

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