Guggenheim effect: how the museum helped transform Bilbao | Spain

EEvening approaches the old port of Bilbao, bringing with it the freaking joggers along the promenades, the tourists who ruminate on a cruise on the dark green waters of the estuary, and the woman with the artisanal ice cream maker who keeps watch behind pots of dulce de leche, “blue smurf” flavored with passion fruit and chewing gum.

Nearby, its titanium scales glowing yellow in the last rays of sunlight, is the building that helped make these now mundane scenes possible. Before the guggenheim museum opened in the Basque city 25 years ago this month – and before the massive urban regeneration project it helped drive – Bilbao looked, felt and smelled very different.

“At the time, it was a much grayer, dirtier city, whose sky was polluted by smoke from the steel mills and shipyards in the city center,” explains the mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, of Bilbao from his childhood and adolescence. .

“I remember a terribly dirty estuary – and it wasn’t just industrial activity; there were no proper sewage channels and the smell from the water was quite unbearable.”

The Port of Bilboa in the 1970s, a time many locals remember as a dirty town and estuary. Photography: Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
In the 1990s, the Basque government and regional authorities reached an agreement to build a new Guggenheim.
In the 1990s, the Basque government and regional authorities reached an agreement to build a new Guggenheim. Photography: Gerard Sioen/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

By the end of the 1980s, this industrial powerhouse was in decline – and in the throes of an identity crisis. The devastating floods of 1983 were followed by years of economic upheaval that left many parts of the city’s heavy industry sector struggling to survive. Some have managed to restructure; some did not.

Realizing that Bilbao should diversify from its traditional economic bases, the Basque authorities embarked on a mega-project to redesign the city, which included a billion-euro program to restore the polluted estuary and a new metro network.

As efforts to transition Bilbao from an industry-based to a service-based economy continued, rumors arose that the Guggenheim Foundation was looking to increase its European presence.

In 1991, the Basque government and regional authorities reached an agreement with the foundation that would see the construction of a new museum, designed by Frank Gehry, which would house part of the famous Guggenheim art collection.

The project, however, was not without its critics.

“The idea of ​​using culture as an element of transformation was not so clear at the time; it was a bit of a dream”, says the general director of the museum, Juan Ignacio Vidarte. “And there was opposition and criticism from those who thought resources should continue to support businesses in crisis and help sustain them for a few more months or years – and from those who thought that the money should go to health care or infrastructure.”

There was also deep concern from some within the Basque cultural world, who saw the arrival of the Guggenheim as an “imperialist intervention” and an affront to native Basque culture.

“It was very difficult,” recalls Vidarte. “But none of this was surprising.”

The director of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, its founding director, Richard Armstrong, and the city's mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, during the museum's 25th anniversary celebrations this year.
The director of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, its founding director, Richard Armstrong, and the city’s mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, during the museum’s 25th anniversary celebrations this year. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

Just over 30 years ago, the site of the museum and office where Vidarte stands today was a forgotten corner of the old port, a no man’s land of disused industrial units, cranes and warehouses that was close to the heart of Bilbao but decidedly not a part of it.

“This whole district was not an urban area because, although it was very close to the city center, it was not accessible”, explains the director. “I think one of Gehry’s biggest ideas with the building – which was to be the start of the re-urbanization process and rather define the character of everything that followed – was to make the museum a link between the city and the ‘estuary.”

As Gehry’s building grew – and Barcelona and Seville reaped the respective civic and tourist benefits of the Olympic Games and Expo in 1992 – confidence in the Bilbao project also grew.

A few months before the Guggenheim opened, it hosted the 1997 Pritzker Architecture Prize. And when it opened in October 1997, the opening made evening headlines on CNN.

“It really surprised me,” says Vidarte. “But it showed that something was happening and that we were heading towards a time when a peripheral city like Bilbao could become a place of global interest. And that’s what happened.

As triumphant as the museum’s opening was, it came at the end of a long and bloody summer in which the Basque terrorist group Eta committed some of its most infamous atrocities. In July 1997, Eta kidnapped and murdered Miguel Ángel Blanco, a 29-year-old adviser to the conservative People’s Party. And then, less than a week before the opening of the Guggenheim, a Basque policeman by the name of Txema Aguirre was shot dead by Eta as he foiled a grenade attack on the museum.

A forensic team examines the debris after a car bomb exploded in Bilbao in 1997, killing a Spanish policeman.  The bomb was thought to be the work of Basque separatists ETA.
A forensic team examines the debris after a car bomb exploded in Bilbao in 1997, killing a Spanish policeman. The bomb was thought to be the work of Basque separatists ETA. Photography: Javier Bauluz/AP

A quarter of a century later, the Guggenheim is a scintillating and essential part of the fabric of the city, attracting almost 25 million visitors since its opening and bringing in around 6.5 billion euros (£5.6 billion) in the Basque Country. Industry is now concentrated on the outskirts of the city and tourism now accounts for 6.5% of the city’s GDP – a far cry from the days when few people chose to go to Bilbao except for business or to see the family.

But how much of the transformation can be attributed to the “Guggenheim effect”? The phrase elicits a mixed response in the city itself.

“The transformation of Bilbao cannot be reduced to the arrival of the Guggenheim”, says the mayor, who sees in it the fruit of a long period of inter-institutional collaboration and investment.

“The Guggenheim was the engine of this transformation, then we had very important elements. The entire city has been transformed in a way that is probably unprecedented internationally. The recovery of our estuary and our environment – ​​and this €1 billion investment – ​​is paradigmatic in this respect.

The director of the museum is equally circumspect.

A lively tapas bar in Bilbao, where tourism accounts for 6.5% of the city's GDP.
A lively tapas bar in Bilbao, where tourism accounts for 6.5% of the city’s GDP. Photography: Travelstock44/Alamy

“If people use the phrase ‘Guggenheim effect’ to communicate the idea that cultural infrastructure can have a transformative effect that goes beyond the purely cultural sphere – that it can have a social, architectural, urban and economical – then I would go with that,” says Vidarte.

“But they need to understand what all of this entails. I don’t like this phrase being associated with projects that have nothing in common with this one other than a spectacular building, or eye-catching projects. It’s about having the other ingredients that are fundamental to understanding why it worked here but didn’t work in many other places.

“This project was part of a much larger plan and it was part of that plan and didn’t happen in isolation – it wasn’t done on a whim.”

The Iberdrola skyscraper, also a sign of the regeneration of the city.
The Iberdrola skyscraper, also a sign of the regeneration of the city. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

Roberto Gómez, who runs estuary tour company Bilboats, stands on the boardwalk not far from the Iberdrola skyscraper, which manages to look a little underdressed next to the Guggenheim.

It shows through the city another tower explaining Bilbao, past and present. Once upon a time there was the 25-meter brick chimney in Parque Etxebarria that belched smoke from a steelworks. Today it is a relic, as are the stretches of industrial ruins that offend the eyes of those of its passengers who come in search of the new Bilbao.

“I remember when I was a child, when the factories started pumping smoke, the women in the neighborhood were shouting, ‘Close your windows! Close your windows because the filth was getting everywhere – and I was asthmatic,” Gómez says.

“Here, everything was industrial and it was like that until the end of the 1980s. The sky was quite brown at the time, as was the estuary. But a lot of work has been done in the river and now there is life there again.

Some things were lost, he said, and others were found. “And we kept moving forward. That’s what you must do.

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