Is the Bilbao effect over?

27 February 2017

It is 20 years since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened. Frank Gehry’s building has been much praised, but how has the museum really changed the area and are there too many cities trying to copy its example?

Edwin Heathcote
Architecture and design critic of the Financial Times

The thing about the Bilbao effect is that it is a myth. You could just as well call it the Sydney Opera House effect, the Pompidou effect, or dozens of other effects. Bilbao wasn’t the first city to be transformed by a self-consciously iconic building and it won’t be the last.

In a Sydney where the landmarks were leftovers of the colonial period, built with British steel, the Opera House by Jørn Utzon (completed 1973) was a statement that the city had arrived on the global scene. It was probably the first example of a billowing, vaguely nautical architecture, which recalled sails or waves through a formal language that had really very little to do with what went on inside. While the Sydney Opera House was being built, the Centre Pompidou was also under construction. Paris already had a useless tourist monument and instant logo in the Eiffel Tower. But the Pompidou, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (which opened in 1977), kicked the city into the contemporary age, transforming a moribund historic core into a place of possibilities. It was compared to an oil rig and a refinery, but it was the gap between the building’s appearance and its function as a museum, that made it an instant icon. Both these buildings mixed a cocktail of culture and architecture to reposition their host cities on the international stage. And it is still going on. Think of Doha or Abu Dhabi, each using the architecture of the spectacular to construct an image of themselves as cities of culture. Or of Singapore, where the skyline was radically redefined by the sci-fi scale of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands, a city image bodied in a casino – a gamble – which is a neat metaphor for the attempt to commission a landmark to be the symbol of a city.

The idea of the Bilbao effect is a massive oversimplification. Bilbao was already undergoing a period of radical change. It had a new metro system with sleek stations designed by Foster & Partners and two superb new library buildings. The city was completely rethinking its public spaces and a sophisticated contemporary culinary culture was emerging. The Guggenheim was the olive in the martini – highly visible – but not the main event.

The tendency to attribute too much to a single building has become the architect’s golden ticket. Every cultural institution now has to make claims to regenerate the city, to transform a derelict dockland, to bring glory where before there was only (as Trump might say) carnage, as if architecture were alchemy.  The burden has proved too much for architecture to bear. In trying to achieve too much, architects can forget the most important things. In the obsession with creating a form that is easily instagrammable, an architecture that acts as instant urban logo, the detail is lost. Architecture is not sculpture; it is not the creation of an extravagant form of rebranding. Rather, if it is to have a real and lasting value, it needs to be woven carefully into the complex fabric and grain of the city and to understand the way people move through the street. The simplistic desire of city boosters to express their uniqueness through a skyline leads, paradoxically, to a generic city of standalone objects in which the yearning for difference blurs into a mush of half-remembered familiarity. Singapore looks like Taipei, which looks like Dubai, Dallas, Doha, or the Docklands.

None of this means that the Bilbao effect is over. Cultural institutions and city grandees now require all architecture to do more than just function or contribute to a developing cityscape. Architecture now needs to be starchitecture, full-on spectacle. As I write, a London developer is revealing plans for a Docklands megastructure by Santiago Calatrava, the architect who almost bankrupted Valencia through an overbuilt cultural blockbuster. Is that what London needs?

The Bilbao effect was a misnomer for a misconception, yet it is deeply engrained in urban thinking. Sophisticated cities have realised it was a scam all along; the others can’t resist throwing good money after bad in a doomed bid for uniqueness in a homogenised cultural and architectural landscape.

Lorenzo Vicario
Department of Sociology at the University of the Basque Country

After decades of devastating deindustrialisation that made Bilbao a prime example of an industrial city in decline, the city has enjoyed a spectacular urban ‘renaissance’ based on initiatives undertaken in the 1990s, to restructure and reimagine the city. As a result, Bilbao, with the Guggenheim Museum as its landmark, is now a  standard reference point for urban studies and an example for other post-industrial cities to follow.

However, the urban regeneration strategies deployed in Bilbao are a rather recent continuation of a model devised years ago in the US and UK. Indeed, the model of intervention in Bilbao was explicitly inspired by cities such as Pittsburgh, Birmingham, and Glasgow. The city is, therefore, a significant example of an approach dating from the 1980s, in which flagship property-led redevelopment projects are the main ingredients of urban regeneration.

It is important to point out that little time has passed since the launch of most of the city’s regeneration strategies. Secondly, what happens to a city is determined not only by local political factors, but also by regional, national or global forces; it can be difficult to disentangle the effect of urban regeneration policies from what would have happened anyway.

So how should we evaluate the ‘Guggenheim effect’ in Bilbao? As a symbol, its success could not have been more complete. The museum building is now the icon of the new Bilbao. Its economic impact also seems highly satisfactory. Since it opened in October 1997, the Guggenheim Museum has attracted some 7 million visitors, of whom 60 per cent are foreigners. It has contributed to the maintenance of approximately 4,500 jobs, principally in transport, hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and retail establishments; it has created added value amounting to more than €1.2 million, which has produced an increase in local fiscal capacity and tax revenues close to €200 million. Finally, the ‘Guggenheim effect’ has also been psychological: it has contributed to the recovery of civic pride.

However, there are doubts about the museum’s capacity to sustain the rise of a flourishing culture and tourist industry. Critics claim that it is simply a transnational corporation’s ‘franchise’, financed and owned by the Basque Administration but ‘remote-controlled’ from New York by the Guggenheim Foundation; a museum that is a mere showcase, but contributes nothing to cultural production per se.

As for economic impact, the type of investment encouraged by Bilbao’s regeneration projects is inherently unstable (tourism and retail) and also highly speculative (the real estate sector). Moreover, the patterns of employment created in urban redevelopment projects tend to be highly polarised. They are characterised by a relatively small number of highly paid managerial jobs and a far larger number of low-paid, unskilled jobs in the service industry.

As for social issues, recent figures on the rise of inequality and poverty in the city make it impossible to consider the Bilbao model a success. For example, severe poverty has increased in Bilbao since 2000 by 33 per cent and today affects 11.5 per cent of Bilbao households, a figure that is twice the average for the Basque Country as a whole. Moreover, the number of households receiving income assistance has increased by 38 per cent since 2002. The downtown bias of the regeneration projects, with the centre being upgraded at the expense of the city’s poorer areas, has exacerbated socio-spatial disparities in the city and raises the risk of Bilbao being seen as a ‘dual city’, i.e. the idea of the two Bilbaos: the ‘new’ one represented by the renovated, spectacular downtown, and the ‘old’ by the depressed neighbourhoods on the periphery.

And regarding issues of local democracy and public involvement, Bilbao’s urban regeneration projects have been characterised by a lack of public debate and participation, and the Bilbao model of urban governance has been accused of imposing barriers to public involvement in decision-making.

From the March issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 3.0)


  1. Thought provoking

  2. Jonathan Ruffer Mar 7 2017 at 1:25 pm

    RE: The Bilbao Effect – Bishop Auckland Replies

    How to explain the developments at Auckland Castle? It is not long before the parallel with Bilbao comes up – and it’s not to make the connection with the Guggenheim building. There’s a remarkable story at Bilbao, a beached shipbuilding city, an almost perfect example of the plight of post-industrial cities around the world; it is an awe-inspiring story of what a rediscovery of the beautiful (together with $7 billion) can do for a suffering community. Iconic buildings can act as the posterchild – but there has to be an underlying reality behind it. Comparisons with capital cities is wide of the mark. It is true that the Pompidou centre reinvigorated a part of Paris which needed it – but Paris is in a different class, boasting, among other things, one of the great museums of all – the Louvre. The true comparison must be with its offshoot – the Louvre-Lens, whose iconic building is by the great Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa representing SANAA. It is set in the midst of a coal-mining area, as is Bishop Auckland in County Durham. Poignantly, there are many men from the Durham Light Infantry who found a permanent resting-place near Loos-Lens in 1915 – Bishop Auckland had the sixth highest rate of casualties as a percentage of population in Britain in the First World War.

    By coincidence, Bishop Auckland, too, boasts a major work by SANAA, to be built in the Walled Garden of the Bishop’s Palace, home to the Bishops of Durham – until 1832, Prince-Bishops. In 2012 Auckland was sold to a charitable foundation; we are now restoring, and commissioning new buildings. We have commissioned two by the architect Niall MacLaughlin: a modernist Welcome Building between Castle and town, ready to invite the community to look forward to great things, as well as back to one thousand years of the past. The Welcome Building is in construction; the other, a more traditionalist ‘tithe barn’ in the curtilage, will be complete next year. A Spanish Gallery being created by Feilden Clegg out of a Ruskin-inspired Doge’s Palace (Backhouse Bank, G.G. Hoskin,1870), a restaurant, and the mediaeval fabric overseen by Purcells. These buildings will transform the town, just as the Guggenheim did in 1990’s Bilbao – but it is not where the glory lies. All the work is regenerative, and is based on the same premise that great art has the power to change a community, acting as a circuit-breaker in people’s lives. The galleries mostly centre around art. The Spanish Gallery is partnered with the Prado in Madrid; there will be a definitive gallery of miners’ art, too. Of all the heavy industries in Britain, it was the mining community alone which produced powerful images out of their circumstances – Lowry with wellie, or, rather, with boots. The Spanish Gallery opens in 2019, the Miners’ Gallery this year.

    Auckland Castle, too, will have consummate art. The highlight is the set of thirteen pictures by Francisco de Zurbaran of Jacob and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which have been there since the enlightened Prince- Bishop Trevor installed them there in 1756. At the moment, with the closure of the Palace, the pictures are in America, being restored at the Kimbell (Fort Worth), and then on show first in Dallas (the Meadows), and then New York (the Frick). The palace will be festooned with Bishops portraits, the quality of which is ‘steady at the lower level’, cheered up with some masterpieces from France and Italy, including a recently-discovered Cigoli, autograph, of Jacob’s dream. The state rooms which are currently being restored, will open in the Spring of next year. As befits a Bishop’s Palace, there will be a Museum of the History of Faith, which will tell the narrative of how Christianity first, and later Judaism, and finally the post-war rainbow of faiths have shaped the nation we live in. Casson Mann are overseeing this permanent exhibition.

    That will bring in the tourists, but their arrival and the economic transformation which will accompany it, is merely a means to an end. Our true ambitions are to see a similar transformation socially, morally and spiritually. This has to come from within the heart of a community – it cannot be grafted on as a ‘blessing’ brought in from outside. We have been at it for around five years, and, in terms of something to show, Market Place is still full of closed buildings, many of them ready to be transformed into their new livery and purpose. But things are on the move. A spectacular night-show, Kynren, premiered last summer is now a permanent summer feature telling the story of England through the eyes of the North East – a cross between the opening ceremony of the Olympics and Oberammegau, brought together with the greatest in theatre production, and brought about with a team of 1,500 volunteers. Last year, over 100,000 tickets were sold; this year, with more performances, we aim to sell a third more again.

    Would we have done this without the example of Bilbao? I think the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’, but I treasure memories of a visit to meet the Mayor of Bilbao with the Prado’s Miguel Zugaza, who returns there to take up his new post after his prodigious work as Director of the Prado. Will we spend $7 billion? Well, it feels like it, but (especially with the weakness of the pound)…the answer is ‘no’!

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