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AN EVALUATION OF THE CLADDING MATERIALS By Katie Cacace, Marita Nikaki and Anna Stefanidou

A synthesis of the architectural aspirations of this century Hans Hollein

The miracle in Bilbao New York Times Magazine

One project imagining the future -Felipe Manglano, Fernando San Sebastian


In the early 1990s, the city of Bilbao, Spain, was faced with the challenge of advancing from an industrial community into a high-service industry based community. Many other urban renewal projects were underway, such as a new airport control tower and suspension bridge by Calatrava. The Basque Administration was now planning to convert the Alhondiga, a former wine-storage warehouse, into a cultural facility. They thought that an art museum would be perfect, and they proposed partnering with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the new museum.

Thomas Krens, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, reviewed the site of the Alhondiga and had many concerns. He had recently been thinking about the space requirements for museums and the fact that art exhibits are becoming larger. Even relatively recent

museums, such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, have to cope with many problems, foremost of which is space: their art collections are fare more extensive than they are able to show.1 A grid of columns no more than 3 meters apart and a ceiling height of 3.5 meters restricted the interior space of the Alhondiga. Krens thought that this could lead to spatial difficulties, but he decided to get a second opinion. Since Krens had worked with Frank O. Gehry on a previous feasibility study for a museum renovation in Massachusetts, he asked him to review this site.

After visiting the proposed site on May 20, 1991, Gehry agreed that the Alhondiga would be a very difficult renovation into an art museum. He recommended another site, by the

riverbecause they [the Basques] had been telling me all day that the river was being

Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 18

redeveloped.2 Krens had also visited the river area while jogging, and had found that it was, what he calls, the geocultural triangle of Bilbao3 because it was in the center of the Bellas Artes Museum, the university, and the opera house. The Basques investigated the area and found that a site on the Nervion River, roughly between the Puente de la Salve and the Puente de Deusto would be the site of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.


According to Juan Ignacio Vidarte, General Director of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, we wanted this building to be of the same quality as its contents, with an importance equal to that of the artworks it would eventually house.4 Not only was the building design difficult given this criterion but also the site location further challenged the design of the new museum. While designing the building, the designers also needed to take into account the small scale and character of the buildings to the south along the Alameda de Mazarredo Avenue. Running through the East side of the site was a large bridge, the Puente de la Salve, which needed to be incorporated into the design. The riverfront faced the North edge of the property, requiring careful design.

The architectural selection process involved an American, a European, and an Asian architect. The selection committee made no presentation requirements for the architects to use in conveying their overall vision of the new building. They only stated that they were interested in rough estimates of scale and general types of exhibition spaces rather than technicalities and specific details. After the review process during July 20 & 21, 1991, the selection committee chose Frank O. Gehry as the architect based upon his sketches and approximate models.

Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 21 3 Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 22 4 Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 12

Over the next six years, Gehrys unique hand-to-eye coordination, a process of transforming intact a sketch into a model into a building, that comprises a building5 brought about the final design of the Guggenheim Museum. Even though the building is very innovative, it is still incorporated in the city and the location that it is in with a sculptural roofscape responsive to the citys undulating topography.6 While the south elevation facing the 19th and early 20th century apartments and offices is rectilinear, the north elevation facing the river has a more loose nautical imagery sails or curved boat forms going in flux with the river.7

The unique and fluid forms required and exceptional team of engineers, architects and contractors who, as Juan Ignacio Vidarte stated, brought to fruition a scheme that only sixty months ago seemed utterly impossible.8 The exterior cladding of the building that provided its signature shape was very difficult to design and construct.


Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 15 6 Giovannini, Joseph. Breaking the Institutional Envelope. Progressive Architecture. 1992. October. pp. 117 7 Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. 8 Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp. 12

In order to fulfill the aesthetic requirements of Frank Gehry,9 three different elements were used to form the exterior surfaces of the museum. These three cladding materials are titanium (25.221 m2), stone (34.343 m2) and glass (6.136 m2). The location of each material is not only defined by the appearance of the exterior, but is also related to the different functions of the interior space: Titanium cladding for the galleries, limestone for the public facilities (restaurant, library, etc.), and blue render for the administration.10

Each material was unique and provided its own set of construction difficulties. However, since the exterior of the building has a very unusual shape, the greatest number of difficulties arose when intersections formed by two or three different materials meeting in peculiar points. According to Fernando Perez, we exchanged more than 6000 faxes only for the exterior surfaces in order to provide answers to our problems until the smallest details.11

Titanium For the majority of the people working at IDOM, the most interesting and original material for the exterior was the titanium. The choice of titanium, according to Fernando, was because of its value of color, texture and its capability of reflecting the light. At the same time titanium was valued because of its extraordinary mechanical capabilities and resistance to corrosion.12 Since the location of the museum is right next to the Puente de la Salve Bridge, the low reflection of light was very important not to endanger the motorists with sun glare. But also one of the factors that made them decide to use titanium was that at that time titanium was very cheap if it was bought from Russia. After all, titanium also proved to be much lighter than stainless steel that had originally been specified. In thin sheets of only 0.38 mm, titanium reveals plastic values that allow it to adapt easily and

Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 16 Bursting on the Scene, Frank Gehrys Bilbao Guggenheim. Architecture Today. October, 1997. pp. 22 11 Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 17 12 Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 17

flexibly to the complex surfaces of this radical design. The thin sheets of titanium also give the building a rippled effect that even flutters in the wind. This is a highly effective feature for the titanium cladding that is placed primarily on the free-flowing areas of the building. This fluidity was maintained by aligning the different coursings as they wrap around the corners. This caused the panel heights to vary from one course to another, although they remained constant and parallel within a course. So the width of each panel remained relatively constant.

Supporting the titanium in a free-floating form was difficult to achieve. A secondary structure was designed on top of the primary structure to allow the building to be structurally sound while depicting a very fluid appearance. A thin layer of 2 mm galvanized sheet was then installed on these secondary studs, insulated from the back and waterproofed on the outer edge. The titanium panels are then installed over this waterproof

membrane. The lower edge of each titanium panel is curved around and behind the hangers overlapped with another panel (see A6-1.50/2), requiring installation from the bottom to the top. Curving the titanium around the hangers alleviates water run-off and dust collection problems as well as securing the panels in strong winds. The hangers and the wrapping of the panels allow adjustments to be made during installation as well as thermal expansion and contraction movement (see detail A6-1.50/2).
Detail A6-1.50/2

Regardless of these aims at reducing the difficulties in constructing this complex building, almost every piece of titanium needed to be a different shape. Although many of the pieces were cut using a computer model, some pieces needed to be cut on site to ensure a proper fit. Construction was eased a bit by the use of an extraordinary waterproofing membrane. This membrane is a self-healing material that does not allow water to pass through even when punctured by screws. With a thickness of only 1.13mm, it has the ability to grow around holes and re-seal around them. This innovative material, titanium, removed the extra work required for workers to patch around the thousands of steel staples supporting the titanium.

Careful attention was paid to the details of the titanium cladding control the water flow and runoff from the building. Weep holes were created at the base of the titanium panel curve to provide and outlet for any water that may condensate or seep behind the panels from the roof runoff (see detail A6-1.50/12). A standing metal seam was designed to manage water at the

Detail A6-1.50/12

Detail A6-1.50/8

Detail A6-1.50/6

seams (see detail A6-1.50/8). At the metal soffit a drip point was created (see detail A6-1.50/6) to control the water run-off the building and prevent possible penetration.


Contrasting the free-flowing usage of the titanium, the stone cladding is located on areas of the building that are seemingly more stationary. This heavy material selection seemed appropriate for these static locations, although stone does create some aesthetic issues due to the slight variances that can occur in natural materials. Gehry wanted to avoid, at any cost, the checkerboard effect13 that even slightly different tones of stone can create. Quarries from the town of Grenada sent 120 stone samples from which one was selected that had all the requirements: amber color, high resistance to erosion, possibility of being able to cut pieces of reduced thickness, and high mechanical resistance.14 This survey was also able to produce stone of almost the exact same color tones; thereby eliminating the checkerboard effect, provided the quarries had enough material to match.

13 14

Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 20 Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 19

Although stone is covering many solid areas of the building, the towers are the most notable and provided the most difficulties in the construction of the stone cladding. This is ironic because the tower existence was often debated since it lacked function, and therefore only limited funds were left for its design and construction. However, due to its final location next to the bridge, the stone installation became of great importance. In order to cut each

piece of stone properly, the contractor used computer files to generate the exact dimensions, complex curves, and angles for each piece. They also used another machine to ensure that each piece was in the proper position.

The stone material is generally perceived to be very strong and stationary both in its chosen locations on the building and in its material qualities. However, careful examination of the stone cladding reveal that it is merely a cladding hanging on a substructure and not thick pieces of stone. This disguise is revealed at the corner
Detail A6-6.6/2

intersections, where two coursings meet but do not align. The vertical joints of the stone align, enhancing the verticality of the building, but again revealing that this material is not supporting the building structure. The stone cladding is also revealed by a 20 mm gap at the base of the stone cladding, which allows water to escape from behind the stone. Construction layers; expansion and contraction.

Glass According to Fernando Perez Fraile, responsible of the exterior surfaces, Unexpectedly, the curtainwall of glass appeared to have the most important and tough difficulties in fabrication, structure, and installation.15 This may be due to the unique and unusual shapes of curtainwall that were formed as it filled the cracks between the concentrically laid-out galleries and the continuation of the entry ramps running into the atrium.16 These glass openings at the intersection of
Detail A6-2.20/9

various museum functions provide the visitor with an orientation to the city. Triangular pieces of glass were

used to articulate the necessary curves and unique overall forms. Three layers of glass, one on the exterior and two on the interior, (see detail 2.20/9, blue) were used to insulate the building, both acoustically and thermally. Installing an extruded thermal break at the outside of the curtainwall eliminated a cold bridge from the interior curtainwall to the exterior (see detail 2.20/9, red).

Due to the difficulties of joining the glass curtainwall with the other cladding materials, a gap was incorporated to eliminate the joining of the two different systems. This gap included a stainless steel closure plate with thermal insulation. It not only aesthetically separated the two materials, but it also provided space to account for the different thermal expansion and contraction properties of the different materials. An adjustable slot in the steel bracket also allowed for flexibility in installation as well as thermal expansion (see detail A6-2.20/5).
Detail A6-2.20/5

Historia de un Sueno, Ceirres Exteriores. pp. 17 Bruggen, Coosje Van. Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Musuem Bilbao. New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum Publications. 1997. pp.119



After studying the way the three basic cladding materials are structured and looking at the building we made some general comments on them. The system they used to support the cladding was very simple, in order to be able to adjust to all the unusual shapes of all the cladding pieces. By using a simple hanging structure for the titanium and the stone, the construction team was able to focus their efforts on realizing the complicated shape of Gehrys design. This is a case where we can clearly see that the realization of the particular design was possible thanks to technology and computers. Otherwise, they would probably have to cut and assembly the pieces on site and that would be extremely time consuming and expensive. The result of the cladding construction is very satisfying, as the materials were harmonically placed and gave a very clear visual effect. Overall the shapes and the free geometry, even though they created high demands on the structure, the final image of the building gives the impression of a light building.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (and photographs from):

-1992-1997 Historia de un sueno- Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, IDOM. - Frank O. Gehry Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, NY.