How stunning architecture breathes new life into tired cities

The guggenheim museum, bilbao by frank gehry
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao by Frank Gehry / © Getty

Bilbao is the kind of place described in guidebooks as a “working city”. Go back three decades, and few tourists came to this salty port – except, perhaps, those taking a coffee before proceeding on their way to its quainter resort neighbour in the Basque country, San Sebastian.

But this year the fireworks are coming out for a special anniversary. It’s 20 years since the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was built and the Frank Gehry building, with its astonishing tumble of intersecting titanium panels, introduced the now-commonplace idea that a set-piece cultural icon could play a central part in the regeneration of a city – still something of a novelty at the time. In doing so, it ushered in whole new tier of art-urbanist professionals and gave rise to the dread word “icon”.

“It was a harsh time in 1991,” recalls Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the long-term director of the Guggenheim Bilbao. “There was 21 per cent unemployment. Worst, the city itself had an identity crisis.” The Basque separatist group ETA was active, adding a threatening hint to a city that was already in a bit of a post-industrial hole. A feasibility study was undertaken in 1991; an auspicious area of the Nervion riverside identified, the architect Frank Gehry contracted, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in October 1997.

This set in train a series of events that has been dubbed the “Bilbao Effect”, a coinage claimed by writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades. As well as adding the icon, the Guggenheim also charted the change in museums from dutiful storehouses to zones of visitor experience (as Vidarte says, “They have become hybrid spaces and social hubs), which had almost magical palliative effects. “The Guggenheim has been a tool of social transformation, and a good example of the transformational aspects of culture,” adds Vidarte. “And the effect has been greater than expected, as we underestimated the effect of globalisation – how the Museum would become a world-famous image.” […]

Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today.
Aline Chahine
Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today. Highlights Aline founded Architecture Lab in 2008 Lead editor of dan | dailyarchnews since 2019 Founded and Creative Director of DesignRaid Licensed architect with creative sales and marketing experience Experience As full-fledged architect, Aline's background involved a great deal of research that lead to the creation of Architecture Lab as an online database of exemplary design. Her experience snowballed into founding two architecture platforms, Architecture Lab and DesignRaid. Education Aline received USEK’s Master of Architecture in 2004 and BA in English from the University of Toronto
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About Architecture Lab Architecture Lab is a MKR.S Media brand, a website devoted to extraordinary design and aesthetics aiming to promote exceptional aesthetic values and sustainable design in all it's shapes and sizes. Learn more about us and our editorial process and feel free to contact us if you would like to see something in particular on the website, our certified experts will get back to you with the most trustworthy advice as soon as possible. Read all articles by Aline | Follow her on LinkedIn

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