Return to Bilbao

Bilbao, Spain
Bilbao, Spain. Click above for larger image, then scroll left-right to see it all.

When I visited Bilbao, Spain for the first time this past October, I felt like I was returning to a familiar destination. The word “Bilbao” has a special meaning for architects like me who were educated in the late 1980s and early 90s. It represents an uncompromising vision of the architect/artist that harnesses the built environment to engender a positive effect on society.

The “Bilbao” referred to here is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that was built on an abandoned industrial riverfront in this city located in Basque Country of northern Spain. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the building is recognized as the greatest work of architecture of the last thirty years while also being credited for the economic and cultural revival of a city decimated by Europe’s transition to a post-industrial society.

The “Bilbao effect” is now a generic term used to describe any large-scale project that invokes urban planning and architecture to transform a rusty “city of industry” to a sleek, post-industrial city of services and (especially) tourism. I had followed (from afar) the development of this building from its inception through construction and opening. All of the initial reviews followed the same theme: the building is spectacular, but the city sucks. Bilbao – the city – is “grimy,” “rusty,” “soot covered.”

So it was with conspicuous schadenfreude that many architecture critics pronounced the effort flawed when the building opened in 1997. And yet, I thought at the time: this is surely just the initial phase of a larger, multi-year (or multi-decade) effort to transform this city? What will it look like in, say, another fifteen years?

In the intervening years I noted various references to the museum both in architecture circles (usually related to Gehry’s stratospheric career path) as well as in popular culture (the building acted as a backdrop for a James Bond film). But the question still nagged: had the building and city continued to transform into a legitimate tourist destination? And with that in mind, I “returned” to Bilbao on an actual visit during a trip to Spain in October 2012.


“Rusty” is an unfortunate way to describe a city. A city’s tourism office despairs of the word “rusty.” In the United States we don’t limit the term to just a city; we have whole regions that are rusty, called the “Rust Belt.” When your city becomes known for being rusty, well, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak. The term “rusty,” like rust itself, doesn’t wash off easily.

Rusty cities are cities that have been left behind. History doesn’t listen or answer to tourist bureaus or politicians. A once-thriving city in the industrial age becomes a skeleton of its former self as those shiny (often metal-related) industries seep off to distant, less-expensive lands. What’s left behind in the form of infrastructure, culture, demographics and economics turns to rust, both literally and figuratively.

People who live in rusty cities want to make them shiny again. That means transitioning from an industrial society that manufactures material things to a post-industrial society that makes ephemeral things like finances and services and tourism. In the United States, a few cities have done pretty well at this, namely Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In the classic tradition of turning a liability into an asset, public relations professionals have outdone themselves by making rusty cities cool with the creation of Rust Belt chic.

Turning rusty cities into shiny cities has been the holy grail of architects for at least the last two centuries. Beginning with the industrial revolution which saw an historic population shift from rural to urban areas, visionary architects took it upon themselves to save a downtrodden working class shoe-horned into overcrowded tenements and ghettos. Beginning with Utopian schemes such as the Garden City and City Beautiful movements, architects envisioned themselves as saviors creating a better world through the built environment.

It rarely worked in practice. Modernist schemes featuring “towers in the park” became symbols for everything that was wrong with architecture and urban planning at the time – namely, egotistical architects who were more interested in building monuments to themselves rather than addressing the needs of society. As a result, both the reputation and morale of the architecture profession suffered throughout the 1970s and 80s.

It was really only in the 90s when cities faced an acute industrial-to-post-industrial transition that architects began to recover their confidence. Yet even in the context of contemporary architectural thinking, the transformation of cities from industrial to post-industrial can still be a hit-or-miss affair. There are many ways to go about it. One way – probably the most popular and proven way – is to become a destination for tourism. This usually involves building a cultural infrastructure in the form of signature buildings by star architects or “starchitects.”

Dallas has done just this, to mixed effect, I’d say, with its gigantic new arts district filled with buildings by the likes of Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Thom Mayne. In Seattle, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen envisioned the Experience Music Project as a cultural destination. Also designed by Frank Gehry, the building has had mixed success drawing crowds. In many ways, the EMP project in Seattle attempted to mimic the “Bilbao Effect.”

Bilbao was one of the wealthiest cities in Spain during the industrial era; the surrounding mountains were rich in iron ore that fed smelters and steelmaking facilities both locally and throughout Europe and Great Britain. But by the 1980s, the iron ore began to tap out and the steelmaking facilities moved to the cheaper (and less environmentally-strict) confines of Asia.

Bilbao, Before and After
Before (1992) and after (2005) images of the Guggenheim site. Photos courtesy BILBAO Ría 2000.

What was left was the essence of a rusty city: large swaths of industrial areas were left abandoned, particularly along the waterfront of the Nervión River that winds through the city. A collaboration of federal, regional and local government authorities, BILBAO Ría 2000, was created to oversee the redevelopment of the city. To its credit, BILBAO Ría 2000 saw what was happening and began a plan to transform Bilbao into a post-industrial city. And in this context, the term “post-industrial” is a euphemism for “services” and “tourism.”

Diversifying the existing economy was one primary goal. Fortunately, there was already a tradition of prosperous service industries in this region of Spain. Two of Spain’s largest banks, BBVA and Santander, were founded in this area. BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) was founded in Bilbao and financed the steelmaking industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the United States, the company is known as BBVA Compass, after acquiring Birmingham, Alabama-based Compass Bank in 2007 (Houstonians will recognize BBVA Compass Stadium as the home of the Dynamo soccer team).

Bilbao, Spain
Map of Spain and the city of Bilbao.

Another main focus of the regional planners was tourism. The question being: how do you redirect tourists from nearby tourist mega-capitals like Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and London to a rusty, run-down, hard-to-get-to city in the Basque Country of Spain, which, coincidentally, at the time, was in the grips of a low-level civil war conducted by radical elements of the Basque nationalist political parties?

A tall order indeed. For the planners, the solution was a “destination museum” by a “starchitect” that would be so spectacular that the cultural elite and everyday tourists alike would deviate from the well-trodden European tourist routes and make a stop in an obscure part of northern Spain. And that is exactly what they got, and then some.


In 1991, Bilbao planners approached then-director of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York City, Thomas Krens. Krens was in the midst of a global expansion, opening satellites of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum in NYC. With lots of financial help from the Basque government, Krens and the Guggenheim agreed to oversee the design and construction of the building, manage it, and provide parts of the Guggenheim collection for exhibition. Krens selected Frank Gehry, then a still-up-and-coming Los Angeles architect known for free-form, sculptural buildings clad in exotic materials and designed on software originally used to design airplanes.

I knew Gehry’s work well. As an architecture student at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s, I counted Gehry as a huge influence (he’d graduated from the USC architecture school in 1959). In 1988, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles hosted a Gehry “retrospective” which was a required pilgrimage destination for all Los Angeles architecture students of the time. This was by far the most influential experience of both my career as a student as an architect. Gehry’s highly personal, quirky and voluptuous drawings, designs and models were a welcome alternative to the rigid, inspiration-crushing screeds of the “Deconstructivist” school that was being force-fed to architecture students at the time.

Gehry continued to be an influence at USC, holding lectures there and always referred to in design reviews. Around 1990 I started working for one of my professors, Panos Koulermos, who knew Gehry well. Panos frequently traveled to Madrid where he was working on a project for the Alhambra Palace in the city of Granada. When he returned from one trip, he related that he and Gehry had been on the same flight to Madrid and that Gehry had told him about a museum project for which he was being considered in a city called Bilbao. Certainly an interesting anecdote at the time, but we thought nothing of it.

The rest, as they say, is history. Described variously and dissonantly as a “grounded ship”, “whale”, “artichoke” or any other number of colorful names, there is no doubt that the building was wildly successful in achieving its goals aesthetically, culturally and economically. As soon as it opened, visitor numbers exceeded expectations and Bilbao became an instant destination for tourism. Among architects, the question “Have you been to Bilbao?” became the requisite conversation-starter at cocktail parties.

Documentation and statistics showing the transformation of Bilbao are plentiful. If anything has outstripped the economic boom caused by the Bilbao effect, it’s a scholarly boom. Whole books and websites have been reserved for academic and economic analysis of the effect. I’ll skip rehashing the numbers and stick to my own personal impressions of Bilbao – the city and the museum – as they exist today and how they have transformed over the last 15 years.


Guggenheim Bilbao Exterior from bridge
The monumental “river facade” of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

As a building, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is very much about two different facades. Facing the Nervion River, the façade literally flows and flaps with free-form, curving strips of titanium-tile clad structures. The scale and character of the forms here are perfectly suited to the monumental façade facing the river. A giant portico, which to some visitors may look like the grand entryway, anchors the disparate, clashing gallery forms of this facade. But Gehry has never been overly concerned about defining a building’s entrance. More than once I’ve approached a Gehry building ready to step inside, only to find I’ve stepped into a wall of windows or even a garage entrance.

Guggenheim Bilbao Exterior from city side
The city-facing facade of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with “Puppy” sculpture.

The opposite side of the building, facing the city proper, is a much different affair, as it should be. Block-like galleries are clad in tan limestone and dark blue panels and broken up into a more traditional urban scale. An entry plaza, overseen by the Jeff Koons topiary-sculpture “Puppy,” funnels visitors towards two descending staircases. To the left, a staircase descends to the riverfront; to the right, the staircase descends and narrows to the entry lobby. This is a clever, and perhaps ironic, gesture on the part of Gehry toward the traditionally symmetrical, ascending staircases of many classic museums. Think of the grand staircase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Having descended the staircase into the relatively compressed lobby, you then squeeze through a vertical crevasse into the main atrium of the museum. This space, relentlessly vertiginous and spiraling, is cathedral-like in scale and acts as the core around which the various galleries pinwheel horizontally, while various elevators and stairs wind-up vertically.

Guggenheim Bilbao atrium
The central atrium of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, looking upward.

The entry sequence is a classic spatial technique that architects use to funnel visitors through a compressed space upon entry and then have them “liberated” into a grand, large-scale space. This technique was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the New York City Guggenheim and used the same technique for entering that museum.

There’s no doubt that the museum lives up to its reputation as the most important work of architecture of the last thirty years. There’s no sense of it being outdated, either whole or in part. There’s clearly a timelessness here which imbues all great works of architecture with their ultimate value. The argument that the building might overshadow the artwork can be discounted (an argument surely posited by artists). Just like the Guggenheim in New York, the building and artwork complement each other and create a dynamic environment for both art and architecture.

Finally, on an urban planning level, the building succeeds in tying the city to the river and, more recently, to the ongoing development of the waterfront. There have been some spectacularly misguided analyses of the Guggenheim’s urban context, but suffice to say it is well-knit into the fabric of the city such as it is. I’ve already mentioned the properly calibrated scales of the two main facades. The smaller upper plaza gives way via staircase to the larger lower plaza which connects to the continuing waterfront the west, and the east an arching bridge in front of the building’s river façade.

The spaces in front of the river façade were constantly busy at all times of the day and night when we were there. Locals walking dogs, gawking tourists, and even a recently wedded couple (more on that later) moved constantly through the spaces. Moving further east, a grand staircase leads up to the Puente de La Salve bridge (which received its own makeover by artist Daniel Buren) over the Nervion.

Stairs up to the Puente de La Salve bridge
Stairs up to the Puente de La Salve bridge.

Ultimately, though, the future of Bilbao as a tourist center lies west along the riverfront, past the museum. It is along this well-designed series of roads, sidewalks, bike paths and parks that the long-term vision of Bilbao continues to be realized.


What I found fifteen years after the Guggenheim’s opening is a city totally transformed into a tourist and services oriented city. The area around the museum continues to be developed and transformed. Venturing briefly into the surrounding neighborhoods reveals a city which has taken the initial criticism to heart – in general the city has been cleaned up and beefed up with an organized tourism campaign. My fiancée and I stayed at the Gran Hotel Domine, directly across for the museum. Hotel staff was multi-lingual and quick to whip out a tourist map and circle the various food and entertainment districts beyond the museum. The requisite continental breakfast, one of the best spreads we encountered in Spain actually, was set forth on the top floor of the hotel with a stunning view of the museum and the mountains beyond.

Unlike other Spanish cities, especially in the south, there’s a sense of energy and bustle and general activity here. The population is younger than other parts of Spain. On an early morning photo shoot near the Guggenheim, the newly redeveloped waterfront was packed with strolling senior citizens, runners, dog-walkers, and bicyclists.

In the ensuing years since the qualified reviews after the grand opening, there’s obviously been a push to fill out some of the original architectural and urban planning ideas. The entire waterfront area is now complete, with parks, waterfront promenades, restaurants, offices and shopping centers all connected to the museum via sidewalks and bikeways. It’s a sophisticated and civilized urban environment, at least for this part of the city.

Admittedly, Bilbao is still mostly a one-trick pony when it comes to tourism. The Guggenheim will be the one and only place that tourists visit. But the more I did research on the city, the more I wanted to send time there. In addition to a day at the Guggenheim, at least two more days could be spent exploring the old town as well as other lesser-known museums like the Fine Arts museum.

And this being Basque country, the food is worth staying for. In addition to the innumerable “pinxtos” or tapas restaurants, Bilbao is known for the asador y sidreria houses, translated to steak and cider houses.

And beyond just tourism, Bilbao has demonstrably diversified its economy while filling out other infrastructure needs like an expanding subway and a new airport and concert hall. Unlike other Spanish cities like Valencia and Santiago de Compostela, where one-dimensional attempts to mimic the Bilbao effect have resulted in billion-dollar white elephants, the Guggenheim was indeed part of a larger, grander vision that at least in this instance was successfully implemented.

Wedding picture, Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, Spain
Wedding picture, Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, Spain.

I’d guess that Bilbao has achieved much of what it set out to do some twenty years ago. Most of the rust and soot is gone, tourism is booming and Bilbaínos clearly take pride in their city. On the last day we were there, walking around and snapping pictures of the Guggenheim, a young couple in full wedding regalia used the museum as a backdrop for their wedding pictures. They exuded a glow and energy and self-confidence that many towns in the Rust-Belts-of-the-world lack, and in that sense they represent hope for those cities where the soot and rust remain.

Photo gallery:

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5 Responses to Return to Bilbao

  1. Pingback: Una extraordinaria visión de la Transformación de Bilbao y del Guggenheim Bilbao desde Texas - About Basque Country | About Basque Country

  2. Enjoyed this lengthy article, a long read. There aren’t many places where I can enjoy a detailed, thoughtful article on a subject because most postings are so short. Really enjoyed the context and I didn’t know you were such a fan of architecture.

  3. Nikki says:

    Great article, writing a case study for my sustainable design masters course and quoting/citing your article. Thank you!

  4. Nikki says:

    ps: Amazing photographs as well!

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