Twenty years ago the Guggenheim put Bilbao on the map. But can art really transform a city?by Andrew Dickson / November 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
At 10am on a crisp autumn morning, Bilbao was bustling. Tourists were drifting down to the riverside, filling the cafés across from the Guggenheim Museum. Around them, men in shorts fussed with spotlights and loudspeakers, preparing a sound-and-light show to commemorate the museum’s 20th anniversary. As gardeners began to replant Jeff Koons’s flower-covered Puppy sculpture—it was looking a touch threadbare—the nickel-bright whorls of Frank Gehry’s building shimmered in the sun. All across town there were hoardings and adverts carrying the legend el arte lo cambio, “art changes everything.”
Since the museum opened in 1997, that motto has been both creed and catechism. Back then, so the legend goes, the tired old port of Bilbao was a basket case: polluted, filled with rotting heavy industry, crushed by unemployment, dying a slow death on every available measure—the Kingston upon Hull of Spain. These days it is the very model of a modern European cultural destination, filled with new buildings and bustling cafés. Literally a model, in fact: the “Bilbao effect” is an established part of the urban planner’s lexicon. It enshrines the idea that, by investing heavily in culture—ideally an iconic gallery or museum—down-on-their-luck cities can embrace a dynamic new future.
Yet the curious thing about the Bilbao effect is that no one can agree what it is. Few terms in urban studies are so bitterly disputed. For proponents, it is a formula for how post-industrial cities can use architecture and art to fast-track redevelopment, one that planners have attempted to replicate in locations as diverse as Perth, Metz, Belo Horizonte, Aarhus and Hong Kong.
British cities have been especially keen to do a Bilbao: huge amounts of money was spent remodelling Glasgow for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 1990, while
Liverpool, West Bromwich and Margate have all invested heavily in cultural infrastructure in the last decade, with varying degrees of success. (The fact that the “Glasgow effect” now refers to the city’s high mortality rates indicates how divergent the results can be).
Even if it succeeds, for more critical commentators the Bilbao effect isn’t something to aim for, but something actively to avoid. It has become sinister code for tearing the heart out of communities and turning their inhabitants into service-sector drones, catering to the whims of latte-sipping tourists and fat cats in penthouse flats. Gehry himself, amusingly, is one of many who doubt its impact: the Bilbao effect, he recently told the Observer, was “bullshit… I blame your journalistic brethren for that.”
No one apart from a museum marketing department would claim that art can change everything. But perhaps the more interesting question is this: when it comes to urban regeneration, can art change anything?
In an airy, white-walled conference room inside the Guggenheim, its director Juan Ignacio Vidarte seemed as bemused by the question as anyone. A neat man in his early sixties given to matching his cufflinks with his ties, Vidarte looks more like the head of a think tank than a big beast of the contemporary art world, and with good reason: trained in business, he worked his way up the Basque Country government before joining the Guggenheim project at its inception. He has run the place ever since.
I expected a touch of well-earned triumphalism, but Vidarte was only too keen to point out that the Bilbao effect wasn’t what it seemed. “Sometimes there are certain misunderstandings,” he said delicately. One myth was that tourism had saved the city. Although the museum has attracted 19.2m visitors since its opening, over half from overseas, tourism still accounts for only 5.2 per cent of Bilbao’s regional economy; a rise from 20 years ago, but still only a “support activity” (and less than San Sebastián just up the coast).
Another semi-truth was that the city was irreversibly on the skids when the Guggenheim came along. Far from it: by then regeneration had been under way for nearly a decade. In 1988, a new metro system was commissioned from Norman Foster, followed by César Pelli’s major “masterplan for Bilbao” in 1989, which suggested razing industrial areas and redeveloping them into business, residential and leisure hotspots. In 1999, the bullish politician Iñaki Azkuna was appointed mayor, and relentlessly cajoled the city into change. (At Azkuna’s death in 2014, the newspaper El Mundo wrote that “Bilbao is already crying”).
In other words, Vidarte explained, Gehry’s building was not so much the magic ingredient as the cherry on the pre-existing cake. The idea was never to swing Bilbao’s economy around, nor to “turn an industrial city into a beach city”: instead, the hope was that the institution would form part of the larger revitalisation project. “If this had just been an isolated idea, even with a great architect, it would have been a failure.”
Vidarte was also candid about the fact that, the closer one looked at the Bilbao effect, the more it resembled a succession of lucky breaks. Yes, the Guggenheim board had been keen to expand its operation beyond the main museum in New York and Peggy Guggenheim’s former villa in Venice, but Bilbao wasn’t even on the map until negotiations in Salzburg fell through (the Basque government promised to stump up the equivalent of £75m for construction, plus a franchising fee of £19m and £38m to build a collection, which succeeded in getting New York’s attention). In the Basque Country itself, nationalists were beginning to lose interest in violence and enter mainstream politics; Eta was experimenting with ceasefires, while separatist parties were starting to abandon calls for outright independence in favour of limited self-government. Broader geopolitical changes were also being felt: Spain had recently joined the Schengen area of the EU, cheap flights were about to transform European travel, and global communications were in a growth spurt, particularly the internet.
Vidarte remembered his astonishment at hearing that CNN had splashed the museum’s opening on the evening news. “I thought, how can this be happening, an opening of a museum in a city on the periphery of Europe? What was happening was that the world was becoming global.” While Bilbao was certainly dreaming big, he added, it had little concept of how fortunate it would be. “Back then, we didn’t really understand what we were talking about.”
He had serious anxieties about offering Bilbao as a one-size-fits-all model, still less a panacea. “You hear people from different parts of the world, saying, ‘We have a similar problem, we’re going to hire this amazing architect, we’re going to build this amazing building, and this is going to be revolutionary.’” He grimaced. “I’m sorry, but that’s not what’s happened here.”
Across the River Nérvion, at the economics faculty of the University of the Basque Country, I found the sociologist Lorenzo Vicario inclined to agree—for very different reasons. For the last two decades, Vidarte has waged a campaign against the changes to his native city with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet. Inside a cramped office, he spent a painstaking two hours outlining why his city had not been saved but the reverse. “Here in Bilbao, you only have a discourse of success, but it’s not a real study,” he told me. “If you criticise the model, you are dead.”
Vicario’s criticisms were withering. In trying to rebalance its economy towards tourism and the “creative industries,” the city had exposed itself to a notoriously fickle market (tourists might just stop coming), and was vainly trying to chase after another (few people can agree what “creative industries” actually are). Given tourism’s shortcomings, it was only a boom in private high-end apartment blocks, underwritten by large-scale, publicly funded infrastructure projects, that were keeping the city alive. “It’s not culture-led redevelopment, it’s property-led redevelopment,” he said, adapting a line from Trotsky: “Not permanent revolution, permanent regeneration.”
The sneering term adopted by early critics of the museum, “McGuggenisation,” was apt, Vicario added. The arrival of this American franchise had changed the city, but rarely for the benefit of the people who had paid for it. Industrial livelihoods had been replaced by McJobs, neighbourhoods were gentrifying, multinational stores had moved in, and the fabric of the city was being torn down rather than repurposed. On his computer, he clicked through photographs: an elegant 19th-century customs warehouse gutted into a facade, screening anonymous office blocks, a bustling dockside cleansed into sterile pedestrianised space, empty apart from a few pieces of contemporary sculpture. “Bilbao is like a Potemkin village,” he said. “It’s a mirage.”
Vicario reserved special scorn for the city’s latest wheeze, the plan to transform the Zorrotzaurre peninsula, a former industrial zone near the Guggenheim, into another apartment-cum-cultural quarter. Unveiled a decade ago by Zaha Hadid, one of Gehry’s few rivals in the starchitecture stakes, the scheme was swallowed by Spain’s catastrophic economic crisis. At Hadid’s death in 2016, the ground had not been broken; its future is uncertain.
When I asked Vicario whether he was against change, he shook his head vigorously: it was simply that the changes experienced by Bilbao were not ones that any planner would want. As the city centre became richer, poor inhabitants were forced to live further out, where the effects of migration (in 2016, half of the city’s incomers came from abroad, chiefly Romania, North Africa and South America) put more pressure on housing. Unemployment in the metropolitan region was now nearly 18 per cent, higher than the already woeful Spanish national average. The city was doing worse than its Basque rivals, particularly in severe poverty.
The only abundance seemed to be in luxury flats. Vicario showed me one developer’s advert: Many people see [the apartments] from the outside, only a few experience it from the inside. He laughed sardonically. “What kind of regeneration is this?”
We travelled to the working-class area of Otxarkoaga, a citadel of 1950s estates clinging to the steep slopes surrounding northeastern Bilbao. A 15-minute taxi journey from the Guggenheim, it felt like a different world. Though hardly a ghetto—a rail station has recently opened, part of the never-ending public-works programme—the place looked unkempt. The market had closed down, replaced by a discount supermarket that was shut when we passed. At 5pm on a Monday, only the bars were busy. Bilbao’s facelift seemed a long way away. When I asked him again what he thought, Vidarte sighed. “Sometimes I hate Bilbao,” he said.
Not everyone is so pessimistic. For every urban theorist who conjures the spectre of community displacement, there is another who praises the Bilbao model as an efficient way to jump-start moribund neighbourhoods. For every critic allergic to show-off architecture, someone else points out that an “iconic” cultural project, even if temporary, can sometimes be the best way for a city to get its act together, and attract much-needed investment and publicity.
The truth is that, as with many things in urban studies, it is head-scratchingly difficult to measure. Despite the dozens of academic papers that attempt to classify and describe the Bilbao effect, economists and sociologists run into the same issue—that backing up an ideological hunch with reliable comparative data is all but impossible. Urban systems are just too complex; variables and measurables too numerous.
The changes experienced by Bilbao in the last two decades might indeed be down to one art collection—but they could also be a result of cheap air fuel or faster internet connections or low interest rates, or all three, plus a thousand interrelated influences. Even one of the Guggenheim’s doughtiest defenders, the Bilbao-based economist Beatriz Plaza, concedes that all these strands cannot be unravelled. “It’s obvious that the impact has been positive,” she told me. “But it’s not a case study that can be copied easily. There are so many factors and circumstances.”
Plaza has authored numerous academic papers quantifying the museum’s impact, using measures including productivity, transaction costs and tax revenue. Overall, these paint a cheerful picture: increased tax returns from visitors’ ticket sales, meals and hotel stays, which contribute to an expanding and more diverse economy—a growing series of multipliers, or a localised trickle-down effect so pure that Milton Friedman might have envied it.
Plaza is prepared to believe the institution’s own figures, which claim that the museum has generated €4.2bn for the Basque country economy in the last 20 years. She also thinks that the overall return on investment has been positive, if slower than projected (the upfront cost took nearly a decade to pay off). But she is doubtful about the Guggenheim’s estimate that it has supported 5,000-plus jobs, and suggests the ripple effects might have less to do with the museum, and more to do with high-tech manufacturing. I canvassed the views of another expert, Beatriz Garcia, who runs the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool. Her diagnosis was that Bilbao was “a work in progress. It’s not a failure, but there are numerous question marks.”
One effect no one denied is the change to Bilbao’s image. The sweeping curves of Gehry’s building have imprinted themselves on everything from clothing to pencil erasers to municipal logos, transmitting the image of a shining city on a hill. The question of whether the city looks quite so shining close up is disputed. But the legend has proved resilient.
Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. Perhaps the best way to understand the Bilbao effect is to interpret it not as points plotted on a graph, but as something more numinous—an exercise in branding, or (depending on one’s terminology) a necessary myth. From London’s emergence from fire in 1666 and New York’s recovery from the crack epidemic of the 1980s to Barcelona’s redevelopment after the 1992 Olympic Games, the story of a city rescuing itself is one we find hard to resist. Yet, Garcia suggests, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; such narrative strategies are a vital ingredient of success, especially for once-great cities struggling to adapt to changed circumstances. “In 30 years of experiments, going back to cities such as Baltimore and Minneapolis, the one thing they share is an iconic intervention,” she told me. “It might be an event, a piece of architecture or a revitalised waterfront. But you need something to help tell the story.” If art can’t change everything, then maybe stories can.
Such interventions need to be backed up by improvements on the ground, but they can have their own multiplying effect, she argued, not simply for outsiders but also longtime inhabitants, eager to feel renewed pride about the place in which they live. “Those effects are very provable. The city becomes a place you choose to stay in, as opposed to being the place you want to escape. It’s an act of storytelling.” How did storytelling differ from sloganising, I asked. “All stories are simplifications,” she replied. “Simply because a story is negative doesn’t mean it’s more true.”
The fact that the debate about the Bilbao effect remains so vigorous shows how potent such narratives can be. Of the myriad facts and figures trumpeted by the Guggenheim, the number I found most arresting is 23,000—the estimated number of articles on Bilbao published by the global news media in the last 12 months alone. Even if only a tiny fraction of readers ever visit, it is hard to believe such articles (including this one) would have been commissioned if a former shipbuilding town had not invested in a museum for contemporary art, one that happened to be extremely photogenic. Social media was still a pipe-dream in 1997, or else it would be tempting to call the Bilbao effect something else: the Instagram effect, perhaps.
But of course this carries its own dangers, particularly in a world where every city seems to be rebranding itself as a cultural hotspot, complete with “creative quarter” and signature architecture. Indeed, Bilbao now has two rivals breathing down its neck: San Sébastian 100km away, which commissioned a Rafael Moneo-designed conference centre soon after the Guggenheim; and Santander, whose €80m art gallery by Renzo Piano opened earlier this year. Bilbao risks less being a victim of its own success than something even more dangerous—being beaten at its own game.
The Guggenheim’s Vidarte insisted he felt only “positive pressure,” but admitted that expectations have grown. Even so, one museum can only do so much, he added. “We cannot heal every possible illness; we are not a remedy for everything.”
When I asked Garcia how ideas about Bilbao have evolved, she suggested the city’s enduring image might not be the phoenix risen from the ashes, but another kind of beast—a guinea pig for a certain kind of city-wide regeneration that relies on architecture and public-private investment. Even now, this approach is passing out of vogue. “These days urban planners talk more about wellbeing and sustainability,” she said. “There’s a much wider range of vocabulary. People take a much more transversal approach, thinking about how different urban networks intersect.”
Expensive “icons” and “flagships” are regarded more dubiously, she continued: they can so easily become white elephants. Instead, planners are more eager to talk about ploughing effort into existing resources, building confidence as well as buildings. “Regeneration doesn’t have to be physical,” she said.
Perhaps one lesson of Bilbao is that urban areas do not travel on a linear trajectory, from the wreckage of the past towards an ever-brighter future. Instead, like the humans who inhabit them, they wax and wane, falter as well as soar; sometimes surging ahead, often slipping behind. That cycle will continue for as long as there are cities and people to live in them.
After finishing my interviews, I went back to the Guggenheim to see the sound and light show. With about 25,000 others, I watched as spectacular digital projections shimmered over the museum’s titanium skin. One moment the building was enveloped in glittering sparks, a nod to the city’s industrial heritage. Then it was encased in a white glow, which cloaked Louise Bourgeois’s three-storey-high bronze sculpture of a spider in sinister shadow. For a few moments, it seemed like art might be enough.