The Guggenheim effect An architectural milestone for urban renewal

View of the Abandoibarra district and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Photo: Bernardo Corral © El Correo

The Basque city of Bilbao has undergone a remarkable recovery from its industrial decline in the late 20th century thanks to a large-scale urban renewal plan. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997 was the cornerstone of that plan. Previously avoided by tourists, the city now receives a million visitors a year.

The Guggenheim Museum was built on the site of an abandoned sawmill, just a few metres away from where dozens of containers were stockpiled for the merchant ships plying the Nervión River. As the new museum was being built, leading up to its inauguration in 1997, Bilbao succeeded in shedding its image as an ugly grey industrial town step by step, scouring the fronts of its inner city buildings and preparing a warm reception for tourists and convention-goers.

The Guggenheim is the spectacular symbol of Bilbao’s metamorphosis twenty years ago. The aura of this iconic edifice, designed by US architect Frank O. Gehry, drew the world’s attention to a city whose visitors used to stay only a few hours, long enough to take care of their business, and then hurry away. 

The inimitable Bilbao effect

Was this architecturally outstanding museum the only thing that set this sea change in motion? Why have over two hundred institutions failed – with the exception of Abu Dhabi, where construction has been delayed for several years, however – in their attempts to emulate this strategy with help from the Guggenheim Foundation in New York? Is there such as a thing as a “Bilbao model”? And if so, does it depend on an economic, cultural or urban planning strategy?

To understand Bilbao’s resurgence, it’s worth taking a look at the reasons that induced the municipal and regional administrations to call in a foreign foundation in the first place: their object was to present works of art and put on first-class exhibitions. Their proviso was that a unique work of architecture be built in Bilbao for this purpose.
 
  • View of the old sawmill on the Campa de los Ingleses (“Field of the English”, once a cemetery for British subjects), where the Guggenheim Museum was to be built Photo: Miguel Angel González © El Correo
    View of the old sawmill on the Campa de los Ingleses (“Field of the English”, once a cemetery for British subjects), where the Guggenheim Museum was to be built
  • Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with a model of his design © El Correo
    Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with a model of his design
  • View of the grounds before construction of the Guggenheim Museum began © El Correo
    View of the grounds before construction of the Guggenheim Museum began
  • Almost-completed shell of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Photo: Bernardo Corral © El Correo
    Almost-completed shell of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
  • Aerial photo of Bilbao und the Ría (estuary) with the Guggenheim Museum © El Correo
    Aerial photo of Bilbao und the Ría (estuary) with the Guggenheim Museum
  • Visitors crowding in front of the Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, 8 September 2016 Photo: Fernando Gómez © El Correo
    Visitors crowding in front of the Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, 8 September 2016
Back in 1991, when the negotiations commenced, the Basque city was in the throes of economic decline with a dim outlook for the future. The wounds of deindustrialization were still far from healing: unemployment among young people was still as high as 50 per cent in some areas (it is currently 29% in Biscay Province). Meanwhile, Seville was preparing to host the World’s Fair (“Expo ’92”) and Barcelona the 1992 summer Olympics. Bilbao’s political representatives felt their city was lagging behind and something had to be done about it. 

9,000 jobs 

The construction of the Guggenheim Museum was part of a large-scale plan for urban renewal. The city’s metro system, designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, started running in 1996. Other new buildings were designed by the likes of Arata Isozaki, Rafael Moneo and Álvaro Siza. But the city needed a more powerful boost of fresh impetus and, under the leadership of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), it was agreed at every administrative level that the new museum could provide that boost. “Bilbao wouldn’t be what it is in the world today if it hadn’t been for the Guggenheim Museum,” says Pablo Otaola in retrospect, current manager of Project Zorrozaurre, the area in which Bilbao is presently expanding. “But the museum wouldn’t have become so world-renowned if the whole city hadn’t changed so fundamentally”.

So the main reasons for the success of the Bilbao model were the clear-cut articulation of the city’s needs and the political consensus at every level, reinforced by the powerful and unshakeable will to implement the museum project without any hesitation or vacillation – unlike the Guggenheim projects that were eventually scuppered in Salzburg and, in 2016, in Helsinki. Two other significant factors should also be borne in mind: for one thing, the world economy was in good shape in 1997, the year the museum opened; for another, Gehry’s edifice attracted more media attention than any opening since that of the Pompidou Museum in Paris in 1977.

In 2016, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao sold 1,169,404 tickets for admission, six per cent more than the year before. 66 per cent of the museumgoers were from abroad: the largest contingent by far were French, followed by German, British and American visitors. According to the museum, its receipts contribute €424.6 million to the gross domestic product (GDP) in the Basque region and provide for over nine thousand jobs. Prior to the opening of the museum, roughly eighty events in the art sector were held in Bilbao per year. The figure now exceeds a thousand such events. The industrial sector still accounts for 25 per cent of GDP in the Biscay Province, though Bilbao’s? companies have pledged to modernize their technology and have moved outside the city. Tourism now contributes 6 per cent to the Biscay economy.
 
Information graphic 20 Years Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Information graphic: Gustavo Hermoso © Goethe-Institut Madrid
Information graphic 20 Years Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

From its inception, the Guggenheim Museum was regarded as a beacon of hope that would make a significant contribution to economic and urban development as part of a broader modernization strategy. Once contact had been firmly established with the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, it was also expected to boost cultural momentum, giving the local population access to works of avant-garde art and improving the cultural infrastructure of the Basque region as a whole.

With over 16,500 members, the association of friends of the museum – the second-biggest in Spain after that of the Prado Museum in Madrid – clearly attested to popular support for its construction. But some trends went the other way. The museum’s presence was supposed to boost turnout and sales at local art galleries as well, but these expectations went unfulfilled. On the contrary, some old-established galleries like Windsor actually had to close their doors after nearly half a century in existence. The time was not yet ripe for a generation change in the Basque art collectors’ scene, and tourists showed little inclination to buy works by artists unknown to them.

The art scene outside the museum

However, the Guggenheim Museum did upgrade the city’s image and helped improve the position of all the gallerists who’d cultivated contacts abroad for some time. “After all, the collectors knew the city as a heavily industrialized area and as a hotspot of terrorism,” explains Nacho Múgica, co-owner of CarrerasMugica, the most successful gallery in Bilbao and in the whole Basque region. “As soon as the Guggenheim was opened, there was a radical change. Collectors started putting us on their itineraries.”

In addition to this development, artists moved into a section of Bilbao’s old town (Bilbao la Vieja), where some spots have still gone unnoticed, and in their wake a creative scene grew up replete with studios, bars and restaurants. Artist and researcher Oihane Sánchez Duro has published an extensive catalogue (entitled Bilbao Dé-Tour-Nement) of Bilbao’s artistic and cultural facilities and activities. “There are plenty of offerings that have emerged independently of the Guggenheim,” she says. “Some are supported by institutions, others are from the fringes or only exist there; they’re formats you could call micro, associative, collaborative. What they have in common is autonomy and precarious jobs.” These initiatives don’t share the same goals as the museum, she concedes, and they have made no discernible profit or less as a result of the museum’s existence.

20 years after its opening, the Guggenheim Museum remains the symbol of the changes to this city, including its cultural sector. These changes would not have come about without a political consensus and a farsighted urban renewal plan, without the favourable situation of the world economy and the idea of putting up a unique edifice at a time when not very many unique buildings were going up. The Bilbao effect is the upshot of the confluence of these various factors at a specific place and time. Which is precisely why it’s so hard to reproduce this effect at a different place and time.