Zorrotzaurre, a peninsula formed when the Deusto Canal was built in the 1950s and 1960s to facilitate navigation and industrial use, is the latest and most ambitious transformation taking place in Bilbao. Encompassing an area of more than 60 hectares, this once mostly industrial area is reinventing itself as a new district of residential, commercial, office, and civic uses.
To guide this renewal, Zaha Hadid Architects designed the first master plan in 2004, later revised in 2007. Officially approved by the local authorities in 2012, the initial changes are already visible with the demolition of former industrial buildings, construction of a handful of new buildings, and the opening of the first bridge that connects the soon-to-be island with the Deusto neighborhood. A long-term, complex, and controversial project that undoubtedly will continue to evolve, we here reproduce, in their own words, how the architects envisioned this transformation a decade ago.
Zaha Hadid Architects has completed the conceptual masterplan for Zorrotzaurre in Bilbao, a 60 hectare area cradled in a long curve of the Nervión River just across from the city’s center. This former port and industrial area will become home to nearly 15,000 new residents and will provide workshops, labs, studios, and offices for nearly 6,000 working people. Zorrotzaurre has been nearly separated from its neighboring communities by a canal opened to enlarge the port during its heyday, and this canal is destined to be extended for flood-control purposes in future years. This will make Zorrotzaurre an island occupying a strategically key position in the future expansion of the city and integration of the region. Zaha Hadid Architects have responded to this challenge by defining a dramatic urban fabric and bold approach to infrastructure and the waterfront that will highlight the great significance of its natural and strategic position.
The plan permits the dramatic character of Zorrotzaurre’s surrounding topography and the broad curve of the Nervión to subtly influence Bilbao’s well-defined urban grid. The resulting building alignment generates a finely textured ground sweeping the length of the site, contracting to conform to the small scale of existing fabric and expanding in response to more open spaces. In this way the plan accommodates both historic buildings and major new investment, while linking both to a generous public waterfront. Zorrotzaurre’s future skyline presents a jagged profile with fine gaps, reminiscent of densely built waterfronts around the world. Zorrotzaurre will be well integrated with its neighbors on both banks of the Nervión by an exciting sequence of bridges. These will allow the river itself to become a meaningful part of the daily life of local communities along the banks. Equally important to the transport system, Bilbao’s existing tram system will be extended the length of Zorrotzaurre and beyond, establishing a central spine of activity running through the island and linking the region’s downstream communities to the city’s center. The plan aims to set the trend for a regionally integrated city, defining new patterns of living and working within the context of a distinctively strong local identity.
At the heart of the plan for Zorrotzaurre is an elegant system of building blocks enabling the achievement of both skyline and collective ground. These building blocks are like a set of “tiles,” each over 1,000 m2, and they allow the ground formation to respond to the curving spine of the river, the street grid, and the shifting orientation of buildings from upstream to downstream. In this way, the tiles give the plan an overall unity while allowing the differentiation of districts and clusters. The platform level of the tiles establishes the critical level of defense against floods while also creating space for underground parking. By linking this critical level to the development of building clusters, the waterside promenade can dip closer to the normal level of the river, allowing the people of Bilbao a closer engagement with the water’s edge. Meanwhile, above the platforms, the buildings are turned perpendicular to the long axes of the river, opening the building fabric so that pathways and views may be enjoyed by all.
The rich pattern of public and private spaces we see in the plan can be achieved through the subtle differentiation of levels, promoting an easy balance between the needs of privacy and the pleasures of community life. The overall structure organizing the tiles permits a densely built environment to accompany the fabric’s strong feel of porosity, with future residents and workers all enjoying a rich tapestry of outdoor places. Waterside promenades, parks, the tree-lined central avenue, small squares, and public gardens—all link together to create a textured setting for urban social life.
The plan promotes the development of three loosely defined districts that effectively integrate with their neighbors across the water, establishing together with them larger and more complex urban areas that will be able to meet the challenges of regional economic change in evidence across Europe. Upstream, Zorrotzaurre lends itself to a natural urban intensification, just across the river from the Bilbao’s nineteenth century core and conveniently located among centers of learning, medicine, business, and engineering, making this area an ideal knowledge-economy district. The built fabric here will be sharper and tighter than in the two downstream districts, integrating the existing historic waterfront into a compelling fabric of offices and residential buildings. Courtyards and public passages create a porous and intricate environment linking old and new. The middle district mirrors the openness of Sarriko Park across the canal, drawing upon the strength of the landscape to establish a strong coherence among historic buildings of very different character. There is an enticingly grand scale to be preserved in the more interesting industrial buildings, with these potentially providing workshops, studios, and classrooms for the further development of local arts-based industries. Meanwhile, the small-scale existing neighborhood that gathers closely around the local church retains its intimacy amongst the trees of an adjoining park where a small amphitheater provides a venue for outdoor performances. The district offers itself as a center for arts, sports, and environmental science, connecting via a “green bridge” to the university and Sarriko Park. The openness of the site creates an opportunity for the development of sports facilities with a wider regional appeal, while the waterside park establishes an important local amenity for surrounding communities. Downstream, Zorrotzaurre will establish a concentrated urban node within the longterm regional development of the Ría, with a set of new bridges creating an essential urban link between across the banks of the Nervión. The district is defined by its close integration with the water, with local docks to moor small private boats, and ponds, boardwalks, and waterside bars to encourage a relaxed leisure culture along the canal. Together, the districts, the ground formation generated by the tiles, and the skyline present an overall picture of a differentiated unity.