A 1999 Washington Post article posed the question:
“Can a single building bring a whole city back to life?”
“More precisely, can a single modern building designed for an abandoned shipyard by a laid-back California architect breath new economic and cultural life into a decaying industrial city in the Spanish rust belt?”
The building is Bilbao’s world famous Guggenheim Museum, and given the city’s quality-of-life improvements and the record number of visitors each year, the answer is a resounding yes.
We passed through Bilbao in 1991 BG (before Guggenheim). In those days, it was a gray, industrial city with little of interest for tourists. So, like most visitors, we just moved on to more interesting spots along the north coast of Spain. But the turnaround we saw on our trip this year was astounding. With its relaxed atmosphere, tourist-friendly improvements, diverse attractions and great food, this bustling, medium-sized city has a vibe that’s contagious.
And the jewel in the crown is the Guggenheim Museum. If ever a picture was worth a thousand words this is the money shot. The museum is unconventional architecture as outlandish sculpture, and it almost defies description. It’s stretched along the Nervion River on the north side of the city center looking like a shiny, metal-plated, intergalactic cruise ship docked to pick up passengers.
Designed by the now uber-famous Frank Gehry, and completed in 1997, this decade-old building is still drawing art aficionados, architecture enthusiasts, and curious tourists to the city. As proof, the museum’s latest annual report proudly declares a record 1.2 million people visited in 2016. And you can bet the museum director sent a copy of this report to the mayor.
In fact, the new museum and the accompanying city revitalization has been so successful, politicians have christened it the “Bilbao Effect.” And if you think this is just another vote-getting sound-bite term, have a look at Skopje, Macedonia’s multimillion-Euro project to resuscitate their city center.
Of course, the Guggenheim is only one of many improvements that has helped rejuvenate Bilbao. The Guggenheim and the other new museums that surround it have become the arts district for Bilbao. There’s a multi-use riverside trail that hums with activity, a new Norman Foster-designed subway, a modern and convenient tram which runs a horseshoe-shaped route from the train/bus station in the west, along the river (with a Guggenheim stop of course), to the historic center in the east. And while each of these projects is a piece of the puzzle, there’s no denying that the Guggenheim was the catalyst of change.
With a clever Field of Dreams misquote, The Economist says “If you build it, will they come?” In the case of Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum it all seems to have worked perfectly. Whether you go for the artwork, architecture, or just a fun city-break, Bilbao and the Guggenheim should be on your travel list.
James & Terri
P.S. And then there’s the cute, floral watchdog Puppy. He came for the opening, and by popular demand, took up permanent residence.