The structure, designed by Frank Gehry's architectural firm and opened to the public in 1997, immediately vaulted to prominence as one of the world's most spectacular buildings in the style of Deconstructivism. The museum's design and construction serve as an object lesson in Frank Gehry's style and method. Like much of Gehry's other work, the structure consists of radically sculpted, organic contours; the Guggenheim Bilbao claims that it does not have a single flat surface in the entire structure. Part of the building is crossed by a highway bridge, and a large portion of the structure is sheathed in paper-thin titanium panels.
The building, sited as it is in a port town, is intended to resemble a ship. Its brilliantly reflective panels resemble fish scales, echoing the other organic (and, in particular, fish-like) forms that recur commonly in Gehry's designs, as well as the river Nervión upon which the museum sits. They also cause the building to appear to change shape throughout the day when viewed from the street.
Also in typical Gehry fashion, the building is uniquely a product of the period's technology. Computer aided design and visualizations were used heavily in the structure's design. Computer simulations of the building's structure made it feasible to build shapes that architects of earlier eras would have found nearly impossible to construct. During its construction, stone panels were cut by lasers.
Also important is while the museum is a spectacular monument from the river, on street level it is quite modest and does not overwhelm its traditional surroundings.
The museum was opened as part of a revitalization effort for the city of Bilbao and for the Basque Country. Almost immediately after its opening, the Guggenheim Bilbao became a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the globe. It was widely credited with "putting Bilbao on the map".
The exhibitions in the museum itself change often, but most exposed work concerns 20th century art; traditional paintings and sculptures are often in a minority compared to installations and electronic forms. Some art enthusiasts feel that the building itself far too often overshadows the museum's collection.