A city is a combination of many things: memory, desires, signs of a language; it is a place of exchange, as any textbook of economic history will tell you—only, these exchanges are not just trade in goods, they also involve words, desires, and memories.
—Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities1
I have been asked to close this issue by sharing my opinion, doubts, and pleas about the changes that my city has seen during the last two decades and the projects to come in the future. I want to make clear that mine is not an academic assessment and it is not based on a rigorous and technical expertise in the field of urbanism. My opinion is purely based on my own observations.
During the last two decades, I have been a direct witness of the transformation of Bilbao and, thanks to my own profession as a photographer, I have been able to observe that evolution in detail. I have been able to analyze and interpret the consequences of the different changes led by local authorities and public institutions. I have had long conversations with friends who are architects, politicians, sociologists, historians, engineers, business people, and artists that have allowed me to explore things from multiple points of view. This is, thus, a cross-disciplinary opinion and, like any opinion, completely subjective. I want to recognize beforehand the admirable work done by the public institutions and the different parties involved all these years in the transformation of the city. However, there are certain aspects that I call into question and that I’d like to discuss.
It is evident that, at the end of the 1980s, Bilbao was a devastated city, the result of a deep economic and industrial crisis that contributed to high unemployment and, as a consequence, a lack of resources that triggered a general state of depression and apathy in the society. The government, facing a social decline of such a magnitude, was forced to put forward a new strategic plan, a bold investment that would contribute to the beginning of a new economic model.
The Guggenheim Museum represented that milestone; the turning point. It was a remarkable change that only a few people were able to envision with clarity ahead of time, the same people willing to take the risk to make it happen exactly at the right time. The museum was significant for two reasons. Architect Frank Gehry designed one of his most influential projects, one that quickly became an international reference of modern architecture. It also signified the beginning of the change of Bilbao from a purely industrial economic model to a service industry.
The use of internationally renowned foreign architects such as Frank Gehry and Norman Foster (who designed the Bilbao Metro) to signify the renovation of the image of the city was a perfect ploy of urban marketing. But it is also true that the so-called “Bilbao Effect” could not have been as relevant if it was only with the fame of those architects. It was the result of Gehry and Foster’s two remarkable projects along with the institutional management of Bilbao Ria 2000 and Metrópoli 30, the cleaning of the Nervión River, and the relocation and burying of railroads.
The transformation of the city has been based on a model of ambitious marketing and image campaigns based on hiring high-profile architecture studios. Applying this economic model that started with the Guggenheim Museum and provided undeniable benefits, the city has consequently been able to hire six Pritzker Prize-winning architects, turning the initial and accurate decisions into a sort of amusement park of international architecture. This, in itself, does not have to be bad, when one considers the experience, efficiency, and the repercussion that those projects have had for the city. However, we need to take into consideration other aspects. First, the lack of regard and promotion that officials have had with local studios and companies that could have a promising international career. That in itself is paradoxical, as their work along with international studios has been essential in order to build their high-profile projects in Bilbao. Despite the fact that this relationship has been beneficial to some politicians, it is not directly beneficial for the local architects. It is the capacity to correctly select the architect for each project, transmit the social and cultural values that later are reflected in the project, and the adequate management of the construction costs what will determine if the effort will be noteworthy and correct.
Industry and work have dignified our society for centuries, making us recognizable for our values, commitment, and sacrifice. Physically, the industrial revolution shaped a city with a strong and particular aesthetic due to pragmatic needs, an unexpected beauty that has been a source of inspiration to numerous filmmakers, sculptors, poets, and photographers. It created a landscape of concrete and steel that extended from the city center until the Nervión River reaches its mouth eight miles away in El Abra. Due to this particular and extensive covering of the territory, it would be important to have a comprehensive view of and approach to it. We should go beyond administrative boundaries and apply the same ambitious vision for the city to the metropolitan area of Bilbao, with the river as the structural element. We should connect the dispersed elements of our recent memory (blast furnaces, docks, railings, bollards, piers, barges, and buoys) that dot the territory and are physically and symbolically connected to the river.
The past of Bilbao was defined by merchant ships, steel, and steel mills. Now the city has turned its back to them. It seems to be ashamed of them, unable to show its visitors the glorious past, even if it is through its remains. During the last few decades, we have suffered the continuous denial of our honorable industrial past in the development of the territory, choosing a transformation that erases and replaces rather than a transformation that repairs and recovers. However, it is the industrial architecture that provides our society with the tools to rediscover its own past, establishing a temporal connection between past and present. We need to be able to identify ways to improve our quality of life with new economic activities. Unfortunately, many places have been left to deteriorate for specific institutional interests. They have been demolished leaving no traces, a tabula rasa that prevents uncomfortable questions and looks. But this lack of sensibility with our historic idiosyncrasy and our memory defines a model of society, our sense of belonging to a place, and thus a city. We need to understand that the improvement of our quality of life does not have to be associated with a determined aesthetic, and that we are not forced to abandon our idiosyncrasy nor our industrial past.
However, I also don’t think that the solution is to create an endless list of buildings with a high level of protection that ultimately is of questionable usefulness. The government needs to generate flexible protocols to address the legal voids that facilitate the looting and defacing of our industrial heritage, Babcock Wilcox, Cromoduro, or Tubos Reunidos being perfect examples of buildings in this situation. Currently, there is a double standard. On the one hand, there is an excessive protectionism by the government. Unable to cover the cost of maintaining such a vast amount of industrial heritage, it has looked away, allowing its continuous decline and its slow disappearance by the work of scrappers. On the other hand, whenever private investors propose alternative plans or social uses for those spaces, it is the government that imposes requirements of restoration and adaptability impossible to meet. The local authorities need to identify, protect, and find a viable solution, in collaboration with private investors, to propose new uses and economic activities in order to retain the traces of our history in our current territory. It needs to become a mediator and adapt those regulations that have become more and more complex. We should foster a change in the model of the city that does not compromise the opportunities to propose new uses and activities with the high cost of the land and the application of more and more restrictive regulations. That would inevitably force the displacement to the periphery of all those modes of alternative living and creative professionals that look for more expressive and less conventional spaces.
Curiously, during the last few years, Bilbao has bragged about a model of city based on creativity as a sustainable economic model. However, I sincerely see the government having trouble distinguishing between culture and entertainment, identifying leading creative agents to be able to connect them to small ecosystems, and creating the ideal spaces to foster the development of those activities, taking into account that the value that they generate is not just measured economically. It is a value generated by hundreds of authors that share their interests with others, generating a professional and social structure that ultimately could define the city. The city, and image, would benefit by promoting the values of its own authors, by fostering cultural activities (design, music, theater, visual arts, fashion, etc.), and by building the appropriate spaces. In short, the city should provide the tools to develop a sustainable economy that is truly accepted and supported. It is time to stop seeing the creators as bums that provide the city with an alternative, exotic, and irreverent image, temporarily giving them spaces to satisfy their egos and pushing them to the periphery again and again due to the inability to pay the cost that the city imposes on them to be able to be part of it. Diversity and differentiation is richness. It is important to avoid a standard and homogeneous model. The downtowns have turned into something similar to airport terminals, all having the same shops, independently of the city we are in.
The city must avoid an overly euphoric message void of self-criticism about the architectural and urban transformations that have taken place in the last twenty-five years. We need to understand that a city is more than a group of buildings and that architecture is the visible manifestation of our different ways of living in the city. At the end of the 1980s, Bilbao needed the help of ambitious publicity campaigns to recover the self-esteem and boost the image of the city. It used the power of architecture to achieve that goal. Now, twenty-five years later, the prestige and image of the city have been established, now being associated with quality of life and good architecture. As an established brand, “BILBAO” needs to shed any inferiority complex and assume its leadership role, identifying excellence in each and every industrial sector, professional or artistic discipline, that takes place in the city, and promote them as local values that generate a shared benefit, tangible or intangible, understanding that they are a value in themselves and that the city will ultimately benefit from them.