If You Build It, Will They Come?: The Guggenheim and the Bilbao Effect

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.

Happy Trails,
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.

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

51 thoughts

  1. Since its inception, I’ve dreamed of visiting this Guggenheim. Little did I realize that it had such an incredible impact on the city’s economy, flourishing as it has. Wow. I REALLY need to get myself over there…

    1. Amit, too bad you didn’t get a chance to visit when you were on the Camino. It has a unique feel, and it’s small size makes it an easy place to enjoy. Maybe next time. ~James

  2. I wonder how the public opinion was like when the plan to build the museum was unveiled given the amount of money needed to build it. But I believe over time some of those who used to oppose to it must have changed their minds, and hearts. This is a proof that spending so much money to build an iconic landmark, if done right, can bring benefits to a city.

    1. Bama I suspect that anytime a large amount of money is spent on a government project there are supporters and detractors, and given the state of the economy in Bilbao a the time, I’m sure there was an uproar. But the world is in a constant state of change, and cities must adapt, and the Guggenheim is an excellent example of a project that worked. ~James

    1. Thanks Marilyn. It’s interesting that you mention angles, because in my opinion, Gehry’s design has no boring or unattractive angles. I had seen lots of photos, but being able to walk all around the building and have a good look made all the difference. And interestingly, the inside is large with lots of open spaces, galleries, and huge glass expanses for natural light, but compared to the outside, it’s rather plain. Basically, the art is the show on the inside. ~James

  3. Your photos are spectacular. But then the subject is, too. I recently felt compelled to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall–of all the things in Los Angeles that was first on my list. It too is a Frank Gehry design. And just as stunning with its curvy, shiny facade. It doesn’t look like it could shelter a thing. And yet on the day I was there it was filled with children learning about the arts and attending concerts. A wonder of sights and sounds.
    Thanks for sharing your visit to Bilbao. I know when I get to Spain, I will definitely want to see the Guggenheim.

    1. Mary, I’ve only seen photos of the Disney Concert Hall, and it looks wonderful as well. I was reading an article about Gehry’s design, the Bilbao Effect, and city officials who approached his agency after the completion of the building. Apparently, there were a number of cities that said they wanted a Guggenheim building as well; not similar, but the exact, same building. Luckily, the plans weren’t carried out, and there’s only one Guggenheim. ~James

  4. The revitalization is good, but as far as I am concerned that building is hideous and a reason NOT to go to Bilbao. I skipped it when I was in northern Spain a couple of years back. Visited Pamplona (not during the running of the bulls!) instead and was pleasantly surprised.

    1. Kathy, modern architecture is frequently polarizing, and this building is no exception. But I will say, that even without the Guggenheim, Bilbao was a fun and interesting city which was worth a visit. ~James

    1. Thanks Leslie. I guess that Gaudi and his peers can take credit for kicking off the trend of innovative architecture in Spain. The interesting thing about Bilbao is that for a gray, industrial place, there had to be some real visionaries back in the day. Lucky us. ~James

  5. Reminds me of the MoPop Museum (former EMP museum) in Seattle, WA designed by Frank Gerhy (Gehry Partners). It is nice how one design element in a city can put the life back into it.

    1. Terry, I haven’t seen the MoPop in person, but the photos look wonderful. And all those folks that say Gehry can’t work with colors need to visit this museum. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. ~James

  6. I’m a Frank Gehry fan, and the Bilbao museum is a great example of the wavy metal design I admire. As such, it’s long been on my travel list, but I’ve never made it there (yet!). I see “Maman” (the big spider sculpture) is there also! I saw one of these at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art this summer in Arkansas and had no idea there were multiples!

    1. Lexie, even though the building is 10 years old, it has help up well, and obviously, is still very popular. “Maman” holds a prominent position on the river side of the museum. Like you, I thought it was the only one. I read in the info brochure that the artist dedicated this sculpture to her mother. Wiki says: “It alludes to the strength of Bourgeois’ mother, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.” It’s a dramatic piece, but I might have used another insect. ~James

  7. Wow! What an incredible building and what an amazing story of revitalization! When you described how you walked all around it, I – for some weird reason – had to think about walking all around Uluru in Australia’s Outback, and photographing it from every angle. Impressive features seem to do that to us. Thanks for sharing this new to me info and place, James. You pick and choose some interesting blog subjects!

    1. Liesbet, everything about this building is designed for maximum visual impact, particularly the location. It has a river on one side, and busy bridge on another. But visitors are still able to get views from all sides, and given the museum’s complex design, this is a very good thing. I haven’t visited Uluru, but from photos, I suspect that the contrast of the wavy, weathered stone and a bright, blue sky would be wonderful – a bit like the Guggenheim. ~James

  8. Fabulous building, I love the 3rd picture on your first set of 5 pictures..the people on that photo give a great sense of scale and how huge this building is. A genius piece of architecture that has transformed this before unloved corner of Spain into a tourist magnet. It is on my list😄

    1. Gilda, Bilbao would be a fun, easy trip from the UK and would make a great weekend trip. In fact, we took a cheapo flight out of Bilbao to Gatwick on our way home, so there a few cheap flight options. In addition to the Guggenheim and other museums, the historic area is a cool walkaround, and the weekend market has a wonderful pintxos (Basque tapas) scene that’s a tasty way to feel like a local. ~James

    1. Alison, the Guggenheim is one of those buildings that must be seen in person. Photos just don’t do it justice. It was a warehouse district before, and when you see the building and the transformation of the area, you won’t believe it. Also, Bilbao is a nice size with great, relaxed feel. ~James

  9. Fantastic post, as always you two! (Or one, depending on who wrote it this time…) I am also just realizing that I don’t think I’ve ever seen that building from a distance! It’s always close-ups of the curves and angles, but a wider shot is oddly rare. Thank you! Or I guess eskerrik asko would be more appropriate. 😉

    1. Ez horregatik. One of my favorite photos in this collection is the long shot I took from the bridge at the east end of the museum. I realized after seeing this photo that the building looked like an “intergalactic cruise ship.” It’s hard to overstate how unusual and fabulous Gehry’s design is. It’s attractive close up, from far away, and from all sides. It really is genius. ~James

  10. Hi James & Terri, I too remember Bilbao as an old industrial city along the otherwise beautiful and interesting north coast of Spain. Your descriptions of the revitalized city have awakened my desire see it again. I think that building a museum to kick-start an urban transformation is brilliant. Whether the museum promotes the arts or sciences, it draws us in, and inspires, informs, and awes us. Happy trails!

    1. Joe, Bilbao is a changed city, that’s for sure, and the Guggenheim undoubtledly kicked it off. I read some of the history of the museum, and risky decisions and deals were made on all sides to bring it to fruition. But everything worked out really well. As for the old Bilbao, you’ll get a kick out one of my most memorable experiences. I visited when the Basque problems were still going on, and I vividly remember looking out the window of the plane to see everyones’ luggage (including mine) lined up on the tarmac being given the explosives sniff-test by a huge german shepherd. Ahhh … those were the days. 🙂 ~James

      1. James, That is a stunning visual of the former ETA terror threat that thankfully has subsided over the past few years. With peace and calculated financial risk, Bilbao seems to be a worthy, but probably still mostly overlooked, travel destination.

  11. I am in awe of good turnaround stories and the cities that manage to reinvent themselves. So many try and fail, while others succeed. This was a bold plan and the gamble worked.
    Your “money shot” is great. It shows the scale of this museum with the very tiny people on the walkway.

    1. Thanks Joanne. I like that shot as well, as it was really the only way (without a boat) to show the scale of the place. And your words “bold plan and gamble” are perfect. If you read some of the history, there were big and risky decisions made by all parties to make this work. I thought it was interesting that the Guggenheim Foundation didn’t want to be just another of many “art museums in Paris, London, etc.” They wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, and where better than a place like down-on-its-luck Bilbao? Risky business for sure. ~James

    1. Thanks Pam. Terri just finished Origin and it’s on my reading list. Lots of travelers have heard of Bilbao, but I suspect, the general public not so much. So I’m sure that city officials love the publicity. Anyway, Terri loved the book and I’m looking forward to reading it. Glad this post helped fill in some blanks. ~James

  12. I’m fascinated by Gehry and his many revolutionary, artistic designs. Although I’ve only seen a couple of buildings up close and personal, I’ve looked at pictures like your fabulous ones for years. He’s definitely a starter of things, and there are other buildings that move and curve a la Gehry. Thanks for noting his impact on Bilbao. I’ve heard that in Waco, Texas, the Gaines couple is having a similar (well, sort of) experience in bringing people and money to town, even though they’re just renovating. As always, a great post!

    1. Thanks Rusha. We stayed in Bilbao 4 days, and each one was gray and cloudy. As you can imagine, with a gray sky and a reflective building, my photos of the museum were, well, gray. The day we left was pretty much the same and I had essentially given up on decent photos. We had checked out of the hotel and were walking to catch the bus to the airport, when the clouds cleared, the sun popped out, and I was one happy photographer. It’s a fabulous building, and very photogenic on the right kind of day. Gehry is a genius no doubt. ~James

      1. The weather is definitely a factor. I have several gray pics of mornings in Maine, albeit that’s really the “way it was.” So, I’ve kept them. But a Gehry building would profit from sun bouncing off the exterior! Thanks for sharing this post. We may never get there, but I feel as if I’ve been.

  13. I visited many years ago, and it was so worth the trip! I didn’t know the story behind it so much, though, so this was a very interesting read.

    1. Dee, even though Bilbao is now clearly on the tourist radar, it seems to have the crowds well in hand. There are tourists around sure, but it still feels very much like a city for locals, and this makes a good balance. The tourists bring in money to support bars, restaurants, and museums, and the locals have more options than they normally would. ~James

  14. I have yet to visit Bilbao but hubby has been there and was very impressed. He found the people to be very friendly as well. Your pictures are excellent. Love that floral puppy.

    1. Darlene, we had very good experiences with the locals as well. The folks at our hotel were incredibly helpful and friendly, and the waitresses and barkeeps smiled and tolerated my hatchet job on the Spanish language. ~James

  15. Fantastic photos!! We are both huge fans of architecture and this building is of course one of the most exceptional unique and creative ones around. Would love to see it in person. On our wish list.

    thanks for sharing such a great post.


    1. Peta, as I said to another commenter, the first few days in Bilbao the weather gods weren’t cooperative, and I was afraid it was going to be nothing but gray sky/gray building. Luckily, on our way out of town, it cleared and these photos were the result. The building is unique and beautiful no doubt, but for me the main appeal is that it has not bad angles. If you’re in that part of the world, Bilbao is worth a stop. Happy New Year to you both. ~James

  16. Excellent post and photos, James. Visiting and photographing Bilbao was a highlight of our trip to Spain. You have made some gorgeous captures of this stunning building. Your history is interesting to read, too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jane. My photography isn’t in your league, but this fantastic building can make almost anyone look good. Not only is the design radical, but when it was built much of the technology was new and untried. In that respect it’s much like the Sydney Opera House. I was lucky to catch it on a sunny, clear day. ~ James

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