More than a Museum

September 12, 2011

Bilbao has reinvented itself in less than three decades, from an industrial city in decay to an international cultural reference. While the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum became the face of this transformation, the scope, scale and ambition of this ongoing change goes well beyond the building.


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Metropolitan area developed along the banks of the river. © MAS Studio.

The development of the city

Diego López V of Haro, Lord of Biscay, founds Bilbao

The consulate of Bilbao was granted to the city by the Spanish crown

Bilbao becomes the capital of biscay, title previously held by Bermeo

The Spanish board of trade sponsors the creation of Banco de Bilbao

Ensanche plan by Severino Achúcarro, Pablo Alzola, and Ernesto Hoffmeyer

The University of Deusto is founded. It is the first university in the basque country

The Stock Exchange is founded. The first trading operation will happen a year later

Altos Hornos de Vizcaya is formed after merging three iron and steel businesses

Federico Ugalde wins the competition for the extension of the ensanche

The first commercial flight takes off from the airport located in Sondika

The global industrial crisis starts directly affecting Bilbao

Bilbao suffers the worst flooding in its history


  1. Decay of an industrial system
  2. High unemployment (about 30%, reaching 35% in certain areas)
  3. Degradation of the environment and the general city framework
  4. Emigration and stagnation of population
  5. Social exclusion


  1. External accessibility and internal mobility for the metropolis
  2. Environmental and urban regeneration
  3. Investment in human resources and technological transformation
  4. Cultural centrality

The critical situation of Bilbao during the 1980s required a determined and comprehensive approach to the issues that the metropolitan area was facing. The urban proposal for Bilbao is above all an infrastructure project, with the recovery of the river banks and freeing them from the industrial uses as the main element. In 1985, the port started to plan its strategy for growth within the framework of urban regeneration of the metropolitan area. Work on the Norman Foster-designed subway started in 1988 and, in 1995, it became the first project of the new Bilbao. It still is the most appreciated project by the citizens of Bilbao. The Guggenheim Museum started construction in 1993 and initially faced strong opposition, predominantly due to the public investment in culture instead of industry and unemployment, and the investment in foreign culture instead of local culture. The total cost of the museum, 132.22 million euros, was recovered by the public institutions who paid for it in four years. And that doesn’t take into account the profit from the amount of articles and news about Bilbao published internationally since the opening of the museum or the improvement in the perception of the city by its residents. Fourteen years after the opening of the museum, the city and other towns of the metropolitan area continue this incredible transformation.

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Chronology. © MAS Studio.

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Chronology. © MAS Studio.

Abandoibarra is the most emblematic of all the projects carried out by BILBAO Ría 2000 in its regeneration of the city of Bilbao. This area at the heart of the city covers 348,500 square meters, of which 115,714 square meters are areas of greenery. Due to its former industrial uses, the general public was denied access to it for many years. When the La Ribera promenade was opened over the Evaristo Churruca quays, the people of Bilbao and visitors to the city were able to walk around this area to discover it for the first time.

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Abandoibarra. © Google Earth.

Bilbao in Numbers

From top to bottom: number of visitors, trading fairs, aerial passengers, cruise ships and cruise passengers, from 1994 until 2008.

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Bilbao in Numbers. © MAS Studio.