When the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum opened its doors back in a now surprisingly distant 1997, it had a series of immediate effects. By becoming the built and published equivalent to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” allegedly the most played song by radio stations around the world, it catapulted Frank Gehry into the top of architectural stardom. It spawned an innumerable amount of copycats who tried to replicate its success and the effect it had on the economic regeneration of the city where it was located. It even went as far as appropriating the brand, replacing, in the collective mind, that which had been “the real” Guggenheim Museum for almost 40 years: Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic New York counter-ziggurat.
From the point of view of a local, the most remarkable aftermath was to suddenly put Bilbao, once and for all, on the international map, just by erecting a single building. Before that, the city’s presence abroad had been mostly limited to the sports pages of the newspapers, popular among soccer enthusiasts due to the idiosyncrasy of its local team. Among its few media merits, we could barely count the honor to provide a title for “The Bilbao Song” in Bertolt Brecht’s 1929 musical “Happy End”, and its appearance—as a word—in two plays by William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where it gave its name to a sword, and in Hamlet, where it defined a type of shackles.1 Perhaps, filtered by Tolkien’s lexical erudition and admiration of Shakespeare, it had a role in naming the first inhabitant of Middle Earth. Usually, however, Bilbao’s presence in the international news had been due to much less favorable reasons: as the biggest city in the Basque country abroad, Bilbao’s name had been tarnished, since the 1970s, by the disfiguring light of terrorism, which defined its outer and inner image for decades.
However, even if the museum did unquestionably make Bilbao’s regeneration into a worldwide phenomenon, within the process of regeneration it might have been the icing on the cake, though it was never designed to be its flagship. Rather than the crown atop Bilbao’s refashioning, it was a happy, unexpected, and most certainly welcomed media success that helped boost and publicize a much larger scale operation of reinvention of the city that had been under development for almost two decades.
A 2013 column in The Economist claimed that “[t]he opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in northern Spain in 1997, twenty years after the Pompidou Centre, shows how an imaginatively designed museum commissioned by an energetic mayor can help turn a city around.”2 Other than mixing its facts a little (the museum was not commissioned by any “energetic mayor,” much less by the late Mayor Iñaki Azkuna, who was elected two years after the its opening, but by the Basque Government itself),3 the article falls in the all-too-common trap of presenting the regeneration of the city as a consequence of the construction of the museum. It fails to mention that the Guggenheim itself took place amid a cathartic process of reinvention of a city desperately trying to survive the last stages of its industrial past. A small fourteenth century city located in the Gulf of Biscay, Bilbao had historically benefited from its strategic location and the abundance of iron deposits. Turned into a commercial node, with commercial connections with England and the Netherlands, the city also took advantage of the availability of water, undergoing a heavy industrialization process throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century that made it the economic capital city of the Basque Country. Ship construction and other related industries soon joined steel production and so, long after the local iron resources had been exhausted, Bilbao’s industrial tissue kept expanding. Industry prompted an exponential growth that transformed the city and its surrounding areas into a one million person metropolis, and this situation lasted well into the last quarter of the twentieth century. Then, the 1980s arrived, and everything collapsed.
In its better years, Altos Hornos de Vizcaya (AHV), the gigantic city factory that produced Bilbao’s steel employed some 13,000 workers. In 1980, when the restructuring of the steel sector started, 11,000 still worked there, and the indirect jobs generated by its activity surpassed 40,000. However, heavy industry was doomed in Biscay. In the 1975–1985 period income rates had a spectacular decrease in the Basque Country’s industrialized areas, and throughout the 1980s AHV entered an accelerated process of dismantlement, with a cascade of early retirements and the shutdown of the smaller related enterprises. This was not an isolated event. In 1985, Astilleros Euskalduna, the large shipyard in the Nervión River located in the heart of the city, finally closed its doors, after almost a year that those of us old enough to have lived it remember as a continuing series of demonstrations and riots, with workers entrenched in the warehouses, student groups joining the revolts, gunfire, policemen rallying the facilities, and train cars being welded onto their rails.4 Meanwhile, the enterprise that had monopolized ship construction in Spain from the 1900s onwards, the Spanish Society of Naval Construction (known as La Naval), located back-to-back with AHV a few kilometers down the left riverbank in Sestao, absorbed Euskalduna’s exceeding workers, while trying to deal with its own inevitable decline.
If in 1950 Spain’s shipbuilding industry had a worldwide market share of 1.2%, in 1960 it had grown to 2.5%, and by 1970, it had raised to 4.7%, with Sestao’s enterprise as the main engine of this growth. In the 1970s, it ranked fourth in terms of production, only behind Japan, Sweden, and Germany, and bearing a strong presence in Latin America and Africa.5 In 1978, however, those numbers suffered a drastic decrease: in the status quo of the new world, characterized by the emergence of other economies, the Basque shipyards ceased to be competitive, and the firm entered a process of decay that rapidly destroyed the much larger industrial tissue of the Bilbao area which depended upon it. Meanwhile, La Naval began a slow death in a process of progressive slimming down and successive ownership changes. The industrial tissue was rotten, and the need for a total rethinking of the economic substratum of the metropolitan area of Bilbao area was a need that could not be postponed any longer. In fact, an entire revamp of the very body and image of the city was needed, and it had actually started long before the Guggenheim Museum and even before the crisis itself, when, in the mid-1970s, the first traces of what would later become Metro Bilbao, Bilbao’s railway system, were outlined.
Bilbao had always been an infrastructural city. As a city enclosed by hills and communicating with the sea by a river that ran at the bottom of a long and narrow corridor, the Bilbao metropolitan area progressively grew into a sort of linear city folded unto itself, with all its communication problems but without any of its advantages. Originally, the municipality of Bilbao was built in the only flat land to be found around the river, almost 10 miles away from the river mouth. On the riverbanks, a rosary of small villages started filling the narrow strip of land all the way down to the sea, progressively climbing the surrounding mountains as industries appropriated the lower lands, ultimately turning the whole corridor into a dense, constricted metropolitan area that connected Bilbao with the sea as an umbilical cord. On both sides of the river, a dense network of industrial facilities granted Bilbao the same endemic disease that has traditionally affected all port industrial cities: to live oblivious of the waterfront, in this case embodied by the Nervión River, the true Port of Bilbao.
This aggravated some of the effects of Bilbao’s ‘folded linear city’ nature: With the riverbanks full of factories and shipyards, the river itself had to be navigable all the way up to Bilbao (Euskalduna was located inside the very city), which prevented the construction of connections between both sides. Until 1983, when the Rontegi Bridge, rising more than 40 meters above the high tide line, was opened to traffic in Barakaldo, the only connection between both riverbanks between Bilbao and the sea was the beautiful but painfully slow and low-capacity Vizcaya transporter bridge that linked Portugalete and Las Arenas, located at the very mouth of the river. Any other exchange had to be done via the myriad small boats that crossed the river. For practical purposes, however, facing points of the river were, as in the analogous linear city, miles apart, even if just separated a few hundred feet in reality. All this fostered a physical—as well as class—division between the two banks, and also spawned an infrastructural duplicity: railways and roads run on both sides of the river, usually located at the riverside, thus making the breach between the city and the river even deeper.
The opening of Metro Bilbao in November 1995, roughly two years before the Guggenheim was completed, signaled the beginning of a new era for the city, symbolizing the new persona of the former industrial enclave. The infrastructural renewal had already started in the late 1970s, when the A-8 highway was extended past Bilbao’s beltway down to the river mouth. However, the construction of the subway, a project in the minds of Bilbao’s officials since the early 1920s, was the cornerstone of Bilbao’s new (self) image and spirit. When the first announcements about its actual construction, after years of rumors, finally broke the news, many—myself included—disregarded it as an unnecessary, excessive, redundant, and clearly out-of-scale operation in line with the bombastic attitudes Bilbao’s inhabitants display in the jokes told in other parts of Spain. Twenty years later, it is, with 87 million travelers a year, the most heavily used transportation system in Biscay. But, even more importantly than that, Bilbao’s sleek, superfluously beautiful, and comfortably redundant subway marked a change of mentality for the city. Historically a coldly efficient, cost-effective, and grey industrial city, Bilbao experienced for the first time the charms of the new route that was being constructed for it: from a production machine to a charming business, touristic, and cultural city.