Bilbao’s popularity soared after building the Guggenheim Museum with the help of star architects. But is it enough to reinvigorate a post-industrial city?
About two decades ago, the Spanish city of Bilbao struggled to redefine itself after losing its former glory as a manufacturing centre. However, everything changed when Spain joined the European Union in 1986. Basque Country authorities launched an ambitious redevelopment program to reinvigorate post-industrial Bilbao.
The local government hired some of the world’s best, not to mention the most expensive, architects to breathe life into the city. They hired Santiago Calatrava to design an airport and a footbridge, and Norman Foster for a metro system. And, of course, who could forget star California architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Bilbao branch of New York’s legendary Guggenheim Museum?
Guggenheim was the push the city needed, and when the museum opened in 1997, it was an instant hit. With a world-class landmark, Bilbao’s popularity soared almost overnight. Visitor spending in the city rose, allowing the city to recoup the $89 million it spent on building the museum in just three years. Five years after constructing the Guggenheim, the local government estimated that its impact on the local economy was worth €168 million. It also brought in an additional €27 million worth of tax income to the local economy, equivalent to adding 4,415 jobs.
Bilbao didn’t stop there. In 2010, French designer Philippe Starck renovated a former wine cellar to create the Alhondiga culture and leisure centre. Zaha Hadid also presented plans to redevelop the Zorrozaurre peninsula by transforming it into a high-tech residential and cultural island.
Hoping to replicate Bilbao’s success with the so-called Bilbao effect, some cities follow Bilbao’s lead by hiring star architects to reinvigorate the local urban scene. Abu Dhabi, for instance, is building a museum complex called Saadiyat Island that will feature branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. In Hong Kong, the locals are building M+, a new museum of Chinese contemporary art in the West Kowloon Cultural District. New cultural hubs centred on museums are also planned for Mecca, Tirana, Belo Horizonte, and Perth.
While building cultural centres and famous landmarks did improve Bilbao, there is more to reinvigorating struggling post-industrial cities than hiring star architects. Manu Gomez-Alvarez, founder of the Zorrozaurre Art Working Progress, a decentralized group of young artists, theatre-makers, musicians, and designers, said support should also be given to grassroots culture. If the government doesn’t nourish local talents, then building the Guggenheim is just for earning money, not spreading the city’s rich culture.
“The Guggenheim put our city on the map, no question. But you also can’t get anything support here unless it’s top-down,” he said.1
1 Chris Michael. “The Bilbao Effect: is ‘starchitecture’ all it’s cracked up to be? A history of cities in 50 buildings, day 27.” http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/30/bilbao-effect-gehry-guggenheim-history-cities-50-buildings?CMP=share_btn_tw
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