Beyond the museum that has turned it into a world-renowned city, Bilbao has a very recognizable identity: a homogeneous medieval Old Town that is active and in a good state of preservation; the Expansion district that grew primarily during the beginning of the twentieth century (and that features a magnificent mix of eclectic, regionalist, and rationalist buildings); and the Nervión River between both of them that is now, finally, the heart of the city.
The Guggenheim Museum is the most paradigmatic element of the recovery of the river. The reclamation of the Nervión, initially a port and industrial area, was achieved mostly through the demolition of obsolete infrastructures and industries, the creation of new pedestrian riverwalks, and the construction of new buildings along its banks. Without questioning the benefits of the museum, a false notion was created about the need for new buildings to turn things around and that these new buildings would have to be designed by renowned architects.
The new Bilbao has unquestionable value, but it can also resemble an architectural amusement park, without a strong cohesion between the signature buildings and lacking the character and idiosyncrasy of a city built around the industrialization of the river. That industrialization provided innumerable remarkable industrial buildings as well as wonderful residential buildings for the booming middle and upper-class of the time.
Last fall, the headquarters of the Basque/Navarre Association of Architects in Bilbao organized the exhibition Identitatearen Eraisteak/Derribos de la Identidad. It presented a selection of significant buildings that have been demolished in the metropolitan area of Bilbao in the last twenty-five years. The exhibition was a strong wake up call for the blindfolded sensibility by the government towards the built heritage. This issue not only affects Bilbao, it is a general endemic problem and so the exhibition included buildings from the larger metropolitan area, too.
Organized as an educational tool, the exhibit used photography as a medium to facilitate the understanding and assessment of the issue by the general public and to raise awareness about the destruction of the heritage—and loss of identity—of Bilbao and its surroundings.
One of the most significant aspects the exhibition showcased was the level of protection that buildings had when they were demolished, something that made evident the alarming tendency of total permissiveness by the government. Other buildings that did not have any protection status were included in the exhibition, too, as they were unique and exceptional examples of the architecture of the city, its industrial past, and the remarkable work of its architects.
Among the demolished buildings, there are two examples of noteworthy cinemas among the vast number that Bilbao once had. Not only were they a key part of the built heritage, but also a reflection of the immensely active cultural life of the city. They are the Ideales (designed by Pedro Ispizua) and Abando (designed by Germán Aguirre and Hilario Imaz), yet the exhibition could have also included other examples such as the Olimpia Theater on Iparraguirre Street. There are other cinemas that are still standing but are no longer used for their original purpose: the Ayala Cinema is now a gym and the Consulado is a clothing store. (There’s something very universal in this notion of beautiful old movie houses being destroyed. Maybe it doesn’t need to be gotten in to, but it reflects not only a lack of forethought and respect, but a huge cultural shift in how people consume popular art.)
There are also examples of powerful industry, such as the buildings for Unión Cervecera, Talleres RAG (a fantastic example of rationalist architecture designed by Diego Basterra), Santa Ana de Bolueta (one of the oldest steel factories), or Sefanitro (designed by the great Germán Aguirre). And, of the big companies based in Bilbao, one stands out: Iberdrola, with its two headquarters demolished in the last decade. The first one, a rationalist building built before the Civil War and designed by Manuel I. Galíndez, José M. de Smith, and Juan de Madariaga, came down in 2008 while it was being considered for landmark status. Last summer, the expansion designed by Francisco Hurtado de Saracho that, along with the original headquarters created a perfect combination, was also brought down.
We can also highlight examples of the past use of the Nervión River as a port, such as the loading bay of Olabeaga, one of the final links between the mine and the ship, and the bonded warehouse (designed by Edesio de Garamendi), where only a few walls remain nowadays, almost like a film set.
The exhibition also included more contemporary buildings designed by fantastic professionals who are not as valued as they should be. This is the case of the School of Teacher Training, designed in 1960 by Álvaro Líbano and demolished in 2013, or the bandstand “La Rana,” designed in 1964 by César Sans and Félix Candela and demolished in 1997.
When I visit any city for the first time, I try an imaginary exercise: I place myself anywhere downtown and think if I would be able to recognize the city again if someone would bring me with my eyes closed. Sadly, there are many cities that years later would be unrecognizable. I hope that, in the future, I can continue to recognize Bilbao when, upon my return, someone removes the blindfold from in front of my eyes.