The Many Effects of the Guggenheim Effect

March 27, 2017

Essay by Koldo Lus Arana.


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Abandoibarra. © Carlos Garmendia.

Built when I was still a rookie architecture student, the Guggenheim Museum was a building we were thoroughly taught to despise, because of all its arbitrariness and extravagance. However, as I saw it growing in my regular trips back to Bilbao, evolving from a sort of constructivist vision á la Tatlin into an ethereal compound of reflecting titanium veils, it always struck me as a building firmly anchored in Bilbao’s urban tissue. Tightly framed by the severe buildings of Iparraguirre Street and the green color of the mountain behind it, slowly revealing the mountains of containers at its back, the building certainly—and quite unexpectedly—did not feel out of place within its context. Some even claimed Frank Gehry had produced a strangely contextual piece. The problem would arrive when that very context was drastically changed.

A measure of the building’s success in integrating itself within the city can be found in its rapid endorsement by Bilbao’s population. If at first the building under construction was received with widespread skepticism, occasional disgust, and even some mockery (it rapidly became the subject of several tongue-in-cheek jokes), soon it became affectionately referred to as “Guggy,” confirming its adoption by the citizenry. Soon after its opening, the Guggenheim Museum had become an inalienable part of the collective imaginary of the inhabitants of Bilbao. Furthermore, it had become an element that came to represent the city at its best, at its most heroic, an emblem of Bilbao’s proverbial pride on pair with the Athletic Club soccer team.

The notion is telling, for it points to the new centrality of architecture in cultural discourse. This centrality (…) is clinched by the contemporary inflation of design and display in all sorts of spheres: art, fashion, business, and so on. Moreover, to make a big splash in the global pond of spectacle today, you have to have a big rock to drop, maybe as big as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao…1

Meanwhile, outside Bilbao, the bean counters everywhere soon did the math and tried to reproduce the effects of the operation by copying what they understood as the cause of its success, inaugurating the cascade of empty cultural centers (sometimes literally, as in the Ordos Art Museum) housed in flamboyant vessels that we have witnessed in the last two decades. As Foster notes, if Guy Debord “defined spectacle as ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes an image’,” with Gehry “the reverse is true as well: spectacle is ‘an image accumulated to the point where it becomes capital.'”2 And so, power and architecture started a new (b)romance, where speculators and politicians alike reduced architecture to its most folkloric features, populating the cities with fashionable, expensive, and surprisingly vacuous exercises of contemporary kitsch. Architects, in a race to design the building of the century each week, joined forces with city planners, consolidating the sort of “World Fair urbanism” that is shaping the Far East: the city as an architectural theme park, in the case of Spain, “Port Arquitectura,” or maybe “Arquitectura Mítica.”3

However, the effect has proven difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. An old adage states that “in Hollywood, nobody wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second.” That is, nobody wants to take the risk of being the one trying something untested, but everyone wants to be the first to catch on its success if/when it happens. However, those who tried to use “Guggenheim maneuvers” outside Bilbao forgot the rule that applies to almost all film sequels: they attract a rapidly decreasing interest. Thus, increasing budgets invested in trying to create instant icons created bigger debts, rather than proportionally bigger benefits. As it turned out, attaching big names to big buildings was not enough of a formula for success. Apparently, nobody realized that even Frank Gehry’s name, even if already in the pantheon, was not the force behind Bilbao. The “Bilbao anomaly” happened because of a particular synergy brought about in a very specific moment and context.

That said, it was possibly in Spain itself where the Guggenheim’s success had its most dramatic effect. Trapped in the euphoria of an economic boom driven by the still early stages of the economic bubble, the parallel “Bilbao bubble” rapidly took over Spain, with every other mayor of a small village in the countryside wanting to build his or her own version of the Guggenheim in front of the town hall. The list would be too long to reproduce here, but among the most sadly remarkable wreckages included Toyo Ito’s never used Parque de la Relajación in Torrevieja—currently in a ruinous state—, Oscar Niemeyer’s Centro Cultural Internacional in Avilés—active from March to December, 2011—or the megalomaniac City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, a sort of mix between the Luxor complex and an Elephant graveyard where the Government of Valencia commissioned Santiago Calatrava to celebrate himself. Its ability to boost the economy of the city, or even to recover the investment, is doubtful at best.

In Bilbao, the result has been success at the price of identity. The astonishing profit of the Guggenheim operation installed a fetishization of the new, and furthermore, of the flamboyant, showing a similar lack of understanding of the phenomenon as the one displayed everywhere else. Thus, Bilbao grew more modern and comfortable, as well as more standard and anodyne, losing some of its character in the journey, and what’s even sadder, some of its decisive character. Allegedly, in order to make room for the new Bilbao, the old Bilbao had to disappear, thus giving us the opportunity to get rid of a past we now seemed ashamed of. Perhaps demolishing the icons of the industrial past seemed a good way to exorcize the scars left by the accelerated decline that had shaken the economic basis of a historically solid region. However, most probably it was prompted by the sheer fascination for the glitter of the new.

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Industry and Nervión River. © Carlos Garmendia.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this Orwellian will to erase the past that runs parallel to Bilbao’s transformation was the demolition of the industrial city of Altos Hornos de Vizcaya (AHV).4 For those who had to take the train on the left bank of the river, driving through the guts of its Blade Runner-esque for several miles, the images of the apparently infinite superimposition of layers of pipes, boilers, and steel structures are an inalienable part of Bilbao’s ethos, even more so in the city of Sestao. Even if it effectively became a barrier between the city and the river, AHV was also a crucial part of Sestao’s tissue and self-image. Soon after the demolition of the factory, the parts of the city closer to it started a rapid decline, with bars being shut down and dwellings abandoned. AHV could have been transformed into an industrial park, or integrated within new facilities, as has been successfully done in many other places such as Dortmund, Lorraine, and the Fundidora Park in Monterrey. Instead of that, here it was rapidly torn down, as if in a race to erase it from memory, while pastiche parks, which would be equally anonymous in Bilbao or in Shanghai, were erected in the newly developed areas. As of today, most of AHV’s old plot remains undeveloped, standing as a post-apocalyptic site left there to remind the village of its own absence. Only one of the blast furnaces was kept, standing today as a decontextualized, undersized reminder of what once was there, waiting its turn to be suitably sanitized and become a sort of Disney-fied version of itself, as has happened with the other isolated industrial icons that have survived Bilbao’s transformation. Of course, it was immediately declared a Property of Cultural Interest. Because we care.

On the other hand, the perfect portrayal of the de-characterization of post-Guggenheim Bilbao may be the Abandoibarra development itself. When Gehry did his original design, the area was certainly a space of conflict: with its abandoned warehouses, piles of containers, and the La Salve Bridge crossing above it near its end, the area provided the kind of dense, rugged context where the museum’s smooth curved surfaces could find a solid substratum to cling to. Twenty years later, the area, restructured and presided over by a master plan and a tower designed by Cesar Pelli is yet another example of the city-as-a-theme-park mentality. Joining Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, the Deusto University library by Rafael Moneo, the Basque University assembly hall by Álvaro Siza, the Sheraton (now Meliá) Hotel by Ricardo Legorreta, the Euskalduna Congress Center and Concert Hall, a Po-Mo shopping mall by Robert Stern, and a couple of kiosks sit on the green like a group of Easter eggs. Spread in between them, a pretty posh—even if harmless—park is insufficient to compensate the lack of real urban tissue which, aside from a few author-housing blocks sitting in the contact with the urban grid, presides over the area. The overall feeling is that of a series of architects laying their architectural eggs, trying to outdo each other with a “hey, mom, look at what I’m doing” attitude, all climaxes without any tissue to sew them, Abandoibarra is, borrowing a scholar’s apt description of the Euskalduna Concert Hall, “a little bit of this and that.” Unfortunately, this has also destroyed the previous perception of the Guggenheim. If, back in the day, the museum had found in Abandoibarra’s post-industrial decay, the perfect backdrop to display its flamboyance without apparent disruption, nowadays it fits the new context quite well, too. With its “urban piece” qualities lost forever, it is now one more in the carnival of fair rides that the area has become.

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Melia Hotel in Abandoibarra. © Carlos Garmendia.

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Iberdrola Tower in Abandoibarra. © Carlos Garmendia.

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EHU/UPV Auditorium in Abandoibarra. © Carlos Garmendia.

This same approach has guided some of the other urban developments undertaken in the Bilbao of the Guggenheim era, such as the Miribilla area or El Desierto in Sestao. Composed of a mixture of sometimes kitschy, sometimes individually successful buildings and fashionably enough icons, these formerly industrial areas, located in privileged enclaves close to the riverside, seem infected by the “cutesiness” that seems to have become endemic of Bilbao’s renewal, and while the pieces themselves might be certainly above average, there is a general absence of Bilbao’s characteristic rusty, dense texture. One can surely appreciate efforts such as the Lasesarre Stadium, or the El Desierto Square, both designed for Barakaldo by Eduardo Arroyo, a Madrid-based architect who wears with pride his Bilbao-an origins. But the whole feels like a collection of ready-mades, lacking the substance of the real thing, or the ability to convey an authentic sense of place. The same goes for the Miribilla area, Bilbao’s latest newly created neighborhood, which shows the typical combination of extensive, calmly awful pseudo-historicist-well-not-really housing blocks and author public buildings. Disheartening as it may be for those of us who dreamt of a future Bilbao that re-built itself by taking advantage of the gravitas of its own past, at least in those cases the depersonalization task was carried through by local architects.

However, unlike most of its failed copycats, Bilbao and its effect have shown an ability to stay in the international collective eye even after all the ballyhoo—“the party,” if we are to use The Economist’s terms—is over.5 The stubborn reality of the economical data seems to point that way. The lasting effect of the Bilbao Effect on the city that engendered it cannot be denied: The museum keeps attracting visitors at a rate of roughly 1 million a year, with only 12% of the visitors coming from the Basque Country.6 The economic repercussion of the museum in the city has been estimated at 310.5 million euros in 2013, with a benefit of 42.15 million in taxes (it was 110 million in the first three years after the museum opened). And the effect does not seem to wane as time passes. Despite the lasting economic crisis, in July of 2014 the museum received the second biggest number of patrons in its history, with 122,437 visits. Most interestingly, the attendance record was not set in the first years after the opening but in July of 2012 with 127,774 visits. In the last fifteen years, Bilbao has consolidated itself as (it has become, actually) one of Spain’s main touristic destinations, quite a remarkable accomplishment for a rainy post-industrial city in Spain, a country characterized by its beach-and-sun tourism. And, in this sense, the Guggenheim Effect achieved a previously unthinkable attainment: installing in Bilbao’s population a new self-image. We now think of Bilbao as a touristic, cultural, and modern city. If locals previously looked at the city feeling the pride of its industrial development, now they have found a new reason to be proud, as part of a city that successfully achieved to reinvent itself.

Bilbao after the effect

However successful, the strategies that led to Bilbao’s cathartic reinvention relied on changes that were more structural than the construction of a new museum, and as a consequence of this, the city’s journey towards its future self has also survived the waning of the Guggenheim fever. Architectural pyrotechnics aside, the Guggenheim Museum also spawned other modest but nevertheless substantial interventions: originally, one of the reasons for Gehry’s choice of a new site by the river was to create a ‘triangle of the arts’ that would include the new museum, the Arriaga Theater, and the University of Deusto, alongside perhaps the nearby Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts. A year before the Guggenheim Museum opened its doors, a competition for the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts gallery was organized. A local architect (finally!) won the competition with an exercise of intelligent architectural surgery linking seamlessly all the different additions that the museum had suffered through the years. In the 1990s, this low-profile museum barely reached 100,000 annual visitors, most of them locals. When the Guggenheim opened in 1997, that number rose to 190,000. In 2012, almost 300,000 people visited the museum.

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Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts. © Carlos Garmendia.

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Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts. © Carlos Garmendia.

The same can be said about the Euskalduna Conference Center and Concert Hall, which has created a very profitable congress market while joining the Arriaga Theater with a drastic increase of the theater supply. Not only did the cultural market not suffer from this but, in 2010 a new facility, the renovated Campos Elíseos Theater, reopened its doors. Even an ill-fated project such as the Bilbao Arena has managed to put Bilbao in the international rock concert circuit, and since 2006, the city has its own burgeoning music festival, the Bilbao BBK Live, with an estimated 100,000 visitors each year. It is particularly rewarding that the building that perhaps better portrays the progression of the construction of Bilbao as a cultural city after the Guggenheim bubble is the renewed Alhóndiga Bilbao cultural center, now known as the Azkuna Zentroa. Designed by Philippe Starck in collaboration with Thibaut Mathieu, the 2010 Azkuna Zentroa stands for the certainly not humble but more subtle approach that could lead Bilbao’s renewal in future years: a chic restoration of one of Bilbao’s silent landmarks, a former wine warehouse, the building attracts tourists and organizes cultural activities while seamlessly impregnating Bilbao’s daily life. Who knows, maybe this will guide the way in which the city should grow in the future, grounding the new on the city’s rich history.

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Azkuna Aretoa. © Carlos Garmendia.

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Azkuna Aretoa. © Carlos Garmendia.

With the crazy bubble years over, Bilbao still has a long way to go on its journey to consolidate its new, refashioned persona, in some cases developing projects outlined in the Guggenheim era. Next on the horizon is Zaha Hadid’s master plan for Zorrotzaurre, which may well be the Abandoibarra of the next decade. Whether the city officials will be so bold and avantgardist when the time comes for local architects to turn Ms. Hadid’s sharp volumes into actual buildings, or whether those will add up as a consistent new organ of the city, that is something we will have to wait and see.

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Frank Gehry Bridge in Zorrotzaurre. © Carlos Garmendia.


Excerpted from the article “After effects: le Guggenheim et l’effet Bilbao” in Luis Miguel Lus Arana / Jean-Michel Tobelem / Joan Ockman,Les Bulles de Bilbao. La mutation des musées depuis Frank Gehry (Paris: Éditions B2, 2014).

1 Hal Foster, “Master Builder” in Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes) (London: Verso, 2002), 27.
2 Ibid., 41.
3 See Port Aventura and Terra Mítica, two of Spain’s better-known theme parks, another fever Spain suffered during the years of the construction bubble.
4 See José Eugenio Villar, Catedrales de la industria. Patrimonio industrial en la Margen Izquierda y Zona Minera de la ría del Nervión (Barakaldo: Librería San Antonio, 1994).
5 See “The Party’s Over – A special Report on Spain,” The Economist, November 11, 2008.
6 In 1999, still the museum’s best year, the number of visitors broke the 1 million barrier for the first time, with 1,060,000 visitors. With some less successful years in between, the 2012 annual result was 1,014,104 visitors, and in 2013, with the lasting effects of the crisis looming over the economy, it still attracted 931,015 visitors, 65% of them coming from outside Spain, and 23% of them from other regions of Spain. So far, 2014 has shown better results than the previous year.