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Puppy Love: The Puppy That Guards the Guggenheim

May 2, 2020
The Puppy Bilbao

I fell In love wIth The Puppy guarding the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. 

The chance to finally visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was one of the highlights of our recent trip to Basque Country in northern Spain. In fact, the entire trip has become especially memorable because it was the last one we took before the COVID-19 pandemic brought travel to what appears to be a long pause. 


Note: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly changed the face of travel, we hope our stories stoke your memories of past trips and kindle ideas for future adventures. 


The city of Bilbao was charming, a blend of old and new. The Guggenheim Museum itself was an architectural wonder, inside and out. It was fun to meander up and down the ramps inside its concentric circles and see works by masters like Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky and Klee. 

But it was the puppy made of flowers, outside, that truly captured my heart.

Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (Credit: Pixabay)

Previously, we had been told about a phenomenon that has been called the “Guggenheim Effect.” That phrase alludes to the fact that the museum’s 1997 opening transformed the graying port city of Bilbao, one that had been defined historically by its industrial roots, to a world-renowned center of contemporary architecture and design. 

Now the city boasts having the highest office tower in Basque Country, the Torre Iberdrola by Cesar Pelli, and even a Santiago Calatrava footbridge, the Zubizuri, another city icon that links the two banks of the river—in addition to other noteworthy modernist and avant-garde structures.

The design of the museum, which sits in the center of the city, is nothing short of dazzling no matter which direction you approach it from. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Bilbao has been hailed by critics as one of the most important architectural achievements of the 20th century. 

View of the Guggenheim Bilboa from the read (river side) ,

View of the Guggenheim Bilboa from the read (river side)

The exterior consists of a melange of textural shapes and forms, made of limestone, glass and titanium, that catch the light at different angles and seem to change color before your eyes. Some say that the metallic covering resembles the scales found on fish and that the building looks like a ship. Inside are 19 galleries spread over three floors with a changing collection of contemporary art.

Meeting The Puppy

However, getting back to the puppy…standing guard at the entrance to the museum’s doors is an oversized West Highland Terrier, affectionately called The Puppy. Cute as a button, the breed has a reputation for being spunky and bold with loud barks, and highly protective of its owners—in a way, a perfect doggy choice for guarding a world-class museum without appearing too threatening.

Created by American artist Jeff Koons, the oversized puppy sculpture is completely covered in a mosaic of colorful flowers. In fact, this amazing piece of living sculptural art is covered with some 37,000 individual plants: pansies in fall and winter, and begonias, impatiens and petunias in spring and summer. The museum reports that it takes 9 days and 20 people to make the twice-yearly seasonal transformation. Although more than two decades old, the loving care and attention it receives makes it look vibrant and new.

The Puppy: Closeup of the flowers on the puppy

The Puppy: Closeup of the flowers on the puppy

The Puppy stands some 43 feet high, perfectly scaled for the massive building that serves as its backdrop . A somewhat smaller prototype of Koon’s puppy has been on display in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (in Sydney) since 1991. 

The inside story

Like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, this puppy isn’t only exceptional on the basis of its exterior. The inside of this living, chia-like puppy conceal a complex internal irrigation system made of turf, wire mesh and a material that stimulates plant growth, all anchored on an invisible concrete base. The plants are fed every 24 hours. 

The museum website notes: “With Puppy, Koons unites past and present, using a sophisticated computer model to create a work that refers to a classic European garden from the 18th century.”

An historical note: A blog post associated with sculptor Jeff Koons (although I couldn’t verify the site ownership) recounted the tale of an attempted attack by ETA Basque separatists just as the museum was opening. Posing as gardeners, the separatists carried remote controlled bombs in flower pots. The museum wasn’t damaged but their confrontation and capture claimed the life of a 35-year-old police officer, Jose Maria Aguire, who was honored by the city naming the museum entrance plaza where The Puppy sits after him.

Puppy Love

Widely considered the largest floral sculpture in the world and, perhaps, one of the most popular pieces of public art, The Puppy seems to greet visitors with a bit of whimsy before they enter, almost saying, “Take what you want from the art inside and don’t approach it too seriously.” 

Rain or shine (we were there on a rainy day), the puppy attracts hordes of visitors who want to be photographed beside the gargantuan puppy, perhaps because it has the effect of bringing a smile to the face of anyone who is nearby. 

Visiting The Puppy on a rainy day with few crowds

Visiting The Puppy on a rainy day with few crowds

According to TripAdvisor, the beloved pet is the third most popular tourist activity in Bilbao. 


All photos (unless otherwise noted): Jerome Levine


LEARN MORE

  • The museum is currently closed but you can visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao virtually on Google Arts & Culture.


IF YOU GO


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  • Reply
    noel
    May 4, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    It’s so colorful and huge, loved the tour and really want to visit that city someday soon!.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 4, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Meeting The Puppy was really a memorable experience! Hope you get there soon and I get to return!

  • Reply
    Cathy Sweeney
    May 4, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    That’s one amazing puppy! I was hoping to get to Bilbao on a trip to Spain several years ago, but it didn’t work out. It’s still on my list (for someday) and the Guggenheim will be a top spot to visit.

  • Reply
    Jeff & Crystal Bryant
    May 5, 2020 at 7:34 am

    What a cute way to capture the public’s attention, even before they step foot in the museum. It would be fascinating to see how the statue transforms season to season as they rotate out the plantings. Thanks for sharing this intriguing tidbit.

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    May 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    I, too, was mesmerized by this amazing living sculpture! And the Bilbao Guggenheim was amazing! I’m a big fan of Frank Ghery’s creations.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Fluhr
    May 7, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    This post is definitely making me want to add Basque country to our post covid19 travel list. The museum looks like a structure worth seeing, but the puppy makes the museum a “must see” for sure.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 7, 2020 at 6:57 pm

      It’s a great pre-COVID memory for me! Hope you get there!

  • Reply
    Jackie K Smith
    May 10, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Even if I didn’t set foot inside the Museum, this puppy would be a must see. Great post, Irene. Nice to have an armchair getaway on this lazy at-home Sunday afternoon!

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