There is something special about places in transition. We know their past and we can speculate about their future, yet their present is usually ambiguous, unconventional, unrestricted, and full of opportunities. Aware of living on borrowed time, the present is where experimentation takes places, testing interesting activities and social interactions, and nurturing alternative ways of living different from those that take place in the established city.
Zorrotzaurre is in that special moment of a transition. The latest major urban project to be implemented in Bilbao, it currently sits between its industrial past and its future as a new neighborhood shaped by a yet-to-be built master plan from Zaha Hadid Architects.
The Zorrotzaurre Peninsula was formed when the Deusto Canal was dug for industrial purposes between 1950 and 1968. Prior to the existence of the canal, the area included houses and open fields where the renowned tomatoes of Deusto grew. With a quarter of a mile remaining to be completed, work on the Deusto Canal stopped, creating an artificial peninsula instead of the island initially planned. The peninsula, over 200 acres, was home to many important industries providing jobs to thousands of people, creating a bustling area of workers, residents, bars, and restaurants. My first memories of the area came from my father, who for years would go to companies such as La Aeronautica, Artiach, and Cromoduro to take care of their computers. Those companies and many others are now gone, with the remains of several buildings as the only traces left behind. The industrial crisis of the 1970s and 1980s that affected the entire metropolitan area of Bilbao inevitably had an important impact in Zorrotzaurre.
To address the decline of the area, in 1995 the General Urban Plan modified the zoning of the area from industrial to residential use. The master plan, first presented in 2004 and later revised in 2007, to guide the transformation was prepared by Zaha Hadid Architects. (In the this issue, we feature that master plan project). Ultimately approved by City Hall in 2012, the master plan aims to create an area for 15,000 new residents along with workshops, labs, studios, and offices for nearly 6,000 working people. To avoid the risk of flooding, the plan also calls for the finishing of the Deusto Canal, at last creating the island originally intended. The island will be connected to the surrounding areas through a series of bridges and the light rail that will extend from the center of the city. From the existing industrial buildings, seventeen are expected to remain, maintaining the character of the façade to the Nervión River. Overall, it is an ambitious project that will reshape a large area of Bilbao. There is no defined schedule for the completion of the project, but due to its scale and complexity it will undoubtedly take several decades.
So, what about its present and why is it so important? Today, there are about five hundred residents living on the peninsula, with several industries still in operation. Branded as a “creative island” by the Zorrotzaurre Management Commission (who own 65% of the land in Zorrotzaurre), it is also home to many initiatives that have found, in this transitional moment, a place to develop their activities. It started in 1998, when the Haceria cultural association took over an abandoned warehouse to offer theatre, music, and dance activities. In 2008, the ZAWP Project (Zorrotzaurre Art Work in Progress) was created to promote artistic and creative activities during the transition, operating in a dozen former industrial buildings. The former Artiach cookie company is now home to thirty companies and associations, ranging from a skateboarding school and artisans to 3D printing and tech companies. One of the most successful initiatives is the Open Your Ganbara flea market that takes place every Sunday. Besides that, the Deusto Rowing Club, the indoor rock-climbing Piugaz Bilbao, and the circus initiatives of Karolazirko and Zirkozaurre are a few of the businesses that call this area home.
All of these associations have established an important and successful network of activities that have flourished in this area in transition. They have generated an alternative cultural and creative landscape in the city, one that is unique and has provided a new identity. Not only are their activities filling cultural voids, but also reusing buildings that otherwise would sit abandoned and deteriorating. It is crucial that, as the overall master plan for Zorrotzaurre gets developed and implemented, these initiatives (and new interesting ones) as well as the needs of the existing residents are incorporated to keep these unique qualities when the transformation is complete. It is obvious that not all the activities that exist today need to continue in the future, but it would be a missed opportunity if those that are successful and could benefit the area disappear as the city changes. Now there is the right set of circumstances to continue to transform the city and to improve the quality of life of its residents while reusing the industrial buildings that are the identity of the place.
Most of the industrial buildings in Zorrotzaurre are deteriorating quite quickly, due to the constant looting of cables, copper, and any other material than can be sold. Fires and the fear of personal injuries due to the collapse of roofs and walls could push these buildings to the point where no recovery can exist. The Papelera (Paper Mill) Building, one of the abandoned industrial buildings, was recently restored and is now open to the public to host cultural activities. Konsoni Lantegia has been storing important artifacts of the industrial past with the goal of creating the Museum of Basque Industry in the future. Hopefully, there are more opportunities in the near future to recover the buildings that are architecturally and culturally significant to Bilbao and the region.
The first signs of the implementation of the new master plan are now visible. In 2014, work to complete the Deusto Canal started and the Frank Gehry Bridge, the first connection of the soon-to-be island to Deusto, opened to traffic in early in 2016. The IDOM headquarters across the Deusto Canal (a renovation of an old industrial building) and the IMQ Zorrotzaurre Clinic (new construction) are the first two completed buildings in the area, with the first few residential buildings expected to start construction in the first quarter of 2017 and designed to provide 112 social housing units, 117 price-controlled units, and 131 market rate units. The global economic crisis, though, has delayed the start of some of the projects and limited the resources available, and in so doing, might provide valuable extra time to look more carefully at the process and interventions ahead. Many significant buildings have been lost in the last three decades in the process of transformation of Bilbao. As we approach this new transformation, we have the opportunity to maintain the same ambition for change demonstrated in the past while respecting and embracing what made Zorrotzaurre unique. Its singularity will set this new neighborhood and Bilbao apart from other cities.
The photographs that accompany this text are the work of photographer Aitor Ortiz, whose studio is located in Zorrotzaurre. They document a place in transition, full of possibilities ahead. They are a good reminder of the importance of remembering our past as we create the future of Zorrotzaurre.