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 is charming, a blend of old and new. The Guggenheim Museum itself is 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
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.
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 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.
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.
According to TripAdvisor, the beloved pet is the third most popular tourist activity in Bilbao.
Keeping the puppy alive
In June 2021, the museum launched a crowdfunding initiative to solicit contributions for the restoration of the internal steel structure and irrigation system of The Puppy. By August, 28,000 of 100,000 euros had been raised in support of the project.
November 2021 Update:
The museum announced that all the remodeling/restoration work has been completed with contributions from the #DaVidaAPuppy campaign.
All photos (unless otherwise noted): Jerome Levine