The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, September 1997, the month is opened. Photograph: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
The Guggenheim effect and how the museum changed Bilbao
Locals recall the Basque city as filthy and industrial, but much has changed since the Frank Gehry-designed building erupted 25 years ago
As evening draws near, the joggers who pinball along the promenades, the tourists considering a cruise on the estuary’s dark green waters, and the woman in the artisan ice-cream booth who keeps watch behind tubs of dulce de leche, passionfruit, and bubblegum-flavored “blue smurf” will all be present in Bilbao’s old port.
The structure that helped make such now-commonplace views possible is nearby, its titanium scales blazing yellow in the waning light. Bilbao looked, felt, and smelt considerably differently before the Guggenheim Museum in the Basque city debuted 25 years ago this month, and before the enormous urban reconstruction project it assisted in driving.
The mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, recalls the Bilbao of his youth: “It was a much greyer, dirtier city back then, whose skies were polluted by the smoke from the steel factories and the shipyards in the center of the city.”
“I remember a horribly dirty estuary – and it wasn’t just the industrial activity; there weren’t proper sewage channels and the smell that came off the water was pretty intolerable,” the author recalls.
Port in Bilboa during the 1970s, when many people recall a filthy city and estuary.
Bilboa’s port in the 1970s, a time when many locals remember a dirty city and estuary. Photograph: Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
In the 1990s, the Basque government and regional authorities struck a deal to build a new Guggenheim. Photograph: Gerard Sioen/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
That industrial giant was in decline and going through an identity crisis by the late 1980s. Following devastating floods in 1983, the city’s heavy industrial sector struggled to survive in many areas due to years of economic instability. Some were able to reorganize; others weren’t.
The Basque government launched a massive effort to modernize the city after realizing that Bilbao would need to diversify from its traditional economic basis. This project included a €1 billion initiative to clean up the filthy estuary and a new metro system.
As efforts to transition Bilbao’s economy from one focused on industry to one centered on services intensified, news spread that the Guggenheim foundation was aiming to expand its European footprint.
A settlement was reached between the foundation and the Basque government and regional authorities in 1991 that called for the construction of a new museum with Frank Gehry’s design and the housing of a portion of the renowned Guggenheim collection.
However, the initiative wasn’t without its detractors.
According to Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director general of the museum, “the idea of using culture as a transformative element wasn’t that clear back then; it was kind of a dream.” And there was resistance and criticism from those who believed the funds should be used to assist struggling firms and keep them afloat for a few more months or years, as well as from others who believed the money should be used for infrastructure or healthcare.
Some people in the Basque cultural community expressed their significant unease as well, seeing the Guggenheim’s entry as an insult to traditional Basque culture and a “imperialist intervention.”
Vidarte recalls, “It was incredibly hard. But nothing was a surprise.
The Guggenheim Bilbao director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, its foundation director, Richard Armstrong, and the city’s mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, at the 25th anniversary celebrations for the museum this year. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters
The location of the museum and the office where Vidarte currently works was a neglected nook of the ancient port, a wasteland of abandoned industrial buildings, cranes, and warehouses that was near to the center of Bilbao but clearly not a part of it, a little over 30 years ago.
Even though it was extremely near to the city center, the director claims that the whole region wasn’t an urban zone since it wasn’t accessible. Making the museum a link between the city and the estuary was, in my opinion, one of Gehry’s best ideas for the structure, which was intended to mark the start of the re-urbanization process and rather determine the nature of all that came after.
The faith in the Bilbao project increased as Gehry’s building did and Barcelona and Seville saw their respective civic and tourism benefits from the 1992 Olympics and Expo.
It served as the venue for the 1997 Pritzker Architecture Prize a few months before to the Guggenheim’s debut. Additionally, CNN ran evening headlines on the opening in October 1997.
Vidarte remarks, “That truly astonished me. But it demonstrated that something was taking place and that a period was approaching when a little town like Bilbao may attract attention from across the world. And that’s what took place.
Even though the museum’s inauguration was triumphant, it took place at the conclusion of a brutal summer in which the Basque terrorist organization Eta carried out some of its most horrific crimes. Miguel Angel Blanco, a 29-year-old councilman for the conservative People’s party, was abducted and killed by Eta in July 1997. Then, less than a week before the Guggenheim Museum opened, Txema Aguirre, a Basque police officer, was tragically shot by Eta while thwarting a grenade attempt on the building.
A forensic team examine the debris after a car bomb exploded in Bilbao in 1997, killing a Spanish police officer. The bomb was thought to be the work of Basque separatists ETA. Photograph: Javier Bauluz/AP
Since opening its doors about 25 years ago, the Guggenheim has drawn nearly 25 million people and contributed an estimated €6.5 billion (£5.6 billion) to the Basque region. It is now a glimmering and crucial component of the city’s fabric. Today, the majority of the city’s industry is located on the outskirts, and tourism contributes 6.5% of the city’s GDP, a dramatic change from the days when few people opted to visit Bilbao unless they had business there or needed to visit relatives.
But to what extent can the “Guggenheim effect” be said to have contributed to the transformation? In the city itself, reactions to the term are conflicted.
The mayor, who views Bilbao’s development as the results of a much longer period of inter-institutional cooperation and investment, asserts that “we can’t reduce Bilbao’s transformation to the arrival of the Guggenheim.”
The Guggenheim was the catalyst for that transition, and after that, there were other crucial components. The whole city has undergone a transformation that is possibly unheard of on a global scale. The restoration of our estuary and environment—and that €1 billion investment—is illustrative of this.
The director of the museum is cautious as well.
A busy tapas bar in Bilbao, where tourism accounts for 6.5% of the city’s GDP. Photograph: 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, planning and economic impact – then I’d go along with that,” says Vidarte.
“But they need to understand what all that involves. I don’t like it when that phrase is associated with projects that have nothing in common with this one besides a spectacular building, or with grabby projects. It’s about having the other ingredients that are fundamental to understanding why it worked here but hasn’t worked in many other places.
“This project was part of a much bigger plan and it fitted in with that plan and didn’t happen in isolation – it wasn’t done on a whim.”
The owner of Bilboats Estuary Tours, Roberto Gómez, is standing on the seafront next to the imposing Iberdrola building, which nevertheless manages to seem a touch underdressed next to the Guggenheim.
He describes Bilbao’s history and current state while pointing across the city to another tower. Once upon a time, a steelworks’ smoke was belched from the Parque Etxebarria’s 25-meter brick chimney. Similar to the lengths of industrial ruins that annoy his passengers’ eyes when they arrive in quest of the “new Bilbao,” it is now a relic.
When the factories began spewing out smoke when I was a child, the ladies in the neighborhood would yell, “Shut your windows! Because the muck went everywhere and I had asthma, Gómez advises closing your windows.
“Up until the 1980s’ end, everything in this place was industrial. The estuary and the sky were both a rather dark brown at the time. However, a lot of effort was put into the river, and it is now alive once again.
He claims that certain items were recovered while others were lost. “And we kept moving ahead. That is what you must do.
Thanks to Sam Jones at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.