Bilbao Journal: Basque Gamble Still Drawing Crowds

Exterior of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (photo GMB)

By Ron Bernthal

In the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, they will come,” and proceeds to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his vast yellow corn field, attracting thousands of curious tourists and the ghosts of baseball players past.     A few years later, in 1991, authories in the Basque region of northern Spain must have heard the same message when they proposed the idea for a Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.  Surprisingly, the Spaniards persuaded the Guggenheim Foundation to take a lot of their money and build an art museum in an industrial wasteland on the west bank of the polluted Nervion River.

No one could have known at the time that the Frank Gehry-designed museum would forever change the fate of this 720-year old city. When it opened in 1997, the $100 million Guggenheim-Bilbao, with its gleaming, titanium-covered roof, and Jeff Koons’ 43-foot tall flowered “Puppy” sculpture displayed outside the bujilding, was the most talked-about structure in the world, a crazy-angled, metal UFO juxtaposed against the bleak surroundings of rusted iron factories, derelict ship yards, and Bilbao’s 19th-century stone buildings.   

Local man with kayak takes a break from the river to view the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (photo Tourist Office of Spain in NY)

Before the Guggenheim, Bilbao was a traditional, hard-working Basque city of 350,000, founded in 1300. By the 1990′s the city’s residents worked in steel factories and shipbuilding yards, fished in the Bay of Biscay, and put whatever extra energy they had into Athletic Bilbao, their beloved fύtbol team. The shining, metallic Guggenheim shattered Basque traditions by calling attention to itself, and, thus, started out quite isolated, not only in the minds of the reserved Bilbainos, but physically as well, standing alone outside of downtown, surrounded by old cranes and shipping containers.   

But, like the miraculous Iowa baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, crowds began to arrive in Bilbao, in dribs and drabs at first, a few wealthy art patrons and groups of student back packers; tour buses with curious Europeans; rental cars with Americans and Japanese. Architects, urban planners, journalists, celebrities, and photographers soon made the pilgrimage to Bilbao as well, heading straight to the Guggenheim from the airport or train station even before checking into their hotel. Eventually, the startled Bilbainos grew to admire, if not love, their strange-looking new neighbor.

Frank Gehry’s daring design of the Guggenheim-Bilbao began what is now called  “architecture tourism,” where tourists and industry professionals follow the world’s leading “Starchitects” (Gehry, Foster, Libeskind, Piano, Calatrava, Koolhaas, Ando, and Kengo Kuma, among others) to wherever they have completed a building. Large  cities and small villages all over the world now compete to pay big name architects for new and exciting-looking cultural attractions. What these cities are really hoping for, of course, is to be blessed by what is now called the “Bilbao-effect” or the “Bilbao-moment,” that period following construction and media hype, when the new mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” is achieved. 

Santiago Calatrava’s Puente Zubizuri (White Bridge) is another archiectural gem in Bilbao. Opened in 1997, the footbridge attrarcts many visitors. (photo Ron Bernthal) .

Fortunately, for Bilbao, Gehry’s innovative building continues to attract not only tourists (1.2 million museum visitors in 2019), but other well-known architects who love the creative challenges of the Basque terrain and have designed their own cultural and commecial projectgs in the city.  It is said that the city’s ethereal northern Spanish light, which turns the museum’s 33,000 titanium shingles into shimmering planes of gold, purple, magenta, and pink, as day turns to night, is another major attraction for artists and designers. 

Although Bilbao has not been immune to Europe’s Covid-19 issues (Spain had one of the highest rates in Europe), as the city has experienced just 21 positive cases, and one death, out of a populaton of 349,000, the city did close many public venues during summer 2020 (the Guggenheim reopened in mid-October 2020).

Before Covid-19 arrived in Spain, Bilbao was benefiting greatly from the post-Guggenheimm economic boom.  It’s current unemployment rate of about 10% is still  less Spain’s overall 15% rate in 2Q, 2020. Local Basque officials calculate that the total direct expenditures in Bilbao generated by the activities of the museum was  over US$500 million in 2019, with much of that ending up in the Basque treasury, which reinvests the money in the form of new technology parks, well designed residential apartment blocks, and a stunning array of public amenities ranging from modern and efficient public transport, pristine city parks, and new mixed-use urban projects.  The Bolsa de Bilbao (Bilbao Stock Exchange), founded in 1890, and local businesses like Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, were instrumental in Bilbao’s early industrial development, and now in its recent economic and cultural revitalization.

Bilbao recorded its highest visitor numbers in its history with close to one million visitors, and more than 1.9 million overnight stays, in 2019. The number of visitors increased by 6.4% (992,890 visitors in 2019) and overnight stays by 5.7% (1,901,622 overnight stays in 2019) compared to the data obtained in 2018.
International tourism grew 8 points, mainly that which comes from France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The percentage of domestic visitors in 2019 also increased, by over 5% in a ranking led by people who traveled to Bilbao from the Madrid, Catalonia and Basque regions. .

This downtown Bilbao Metro station’s entrance was created by the UK-based Foster + Partners, the beautiful glass canopy inspired by Guimard’s 19th-century design of the Paris Metro . (photo Richard Davies/Foster + Partners)

The Bilbao Metro (1996), designed by the British architectural firm Foster + Partners,  is noted for its innovative glass entrances, and the eye-catching concrete and steel Zubizuri Bridge (1997) was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Its white, curved, post-modern lines are set against the rugged former industrial terrain nearby, and the now clean NervionRiver it was built over. Calatrava also designed Bilbao’s new airport terminal (2000), a soaring white concrete and glass structure that is known locally as “La Paloma” (the Dove).

Bibao Airport’s beautiful main terminal was designed by Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2000. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Near the Guggenheim is the Euskalduna Congress Centre and Concert Hall (1999), designed by Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios. Located on the site of the former Euskalduna shipyard, its exterior is said to resemble a ship.  The building is home to the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, and its 2,164-seat performance theatre is the second largest stage in Europe The revitalization of the Abandoibarra district, where the Guggenheim is located, continues to be one of the more ambitious undertakings in Bilbao’s master plan. One of the city’s most visible buildings is the 40-story IberdrolaTower (2012), designed by the Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, and partly financed by Bilbao’s largest electric company. It is the city’s tallest building. 

Bilbao’s Zorrotzaurre district, another former forlorn river-sited parcel, is on ongoing mixed-use project that is turning the site into an urban technology park with more than 5,000 residential units and retail space included in the plan.  It is an integral and sustainable plan that is revitalizing itself into a new urban district, well-connected to the rest of the city, with affordable housing, environmentaly-friendly business areas, social and cultural installations, as well as spacious green areas for residents to enjoy.  The Master Plan for the project was designed by the prestigious architect Zaha Hadid. 

Zaha Hadid Master Plan for the Zoorrettere project (image Zorrotzaurre Management Commission)

The victim of a heart attack, the Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, died in 2016 at the age of 65. Hadid, a Pritzker Prize winner in 2004, and her architectural studio were the main designers of the Zorrotzaurre Master Plan, both the 2004 original version and the review and up-dated plan of 2007, which included the opening up of Bilbao’s Deusto canal to turn the Zorrotzaurre peninsula into an island.

The Basque Museum (photo provided with the permission of Bilbao Turismo)

Although it is the Guggenheim that receives much of the initial attention from visitors, Bilbao’s other unique cultural attractions are also impressive. These include the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, offering classical, contemporary, and Basque art in a beautiful modern building; the Basque Museum’s interesting collection; the historic Arriaga Theatre offers theatre and opera performances;  the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra at Palacio Euskalduna; and Casco Viejo (Old Town), where the bustling crowds in the Mercado de la Ribera’s early morning fish, meat and produce market confirms Bilbao’s dedication to eating fresh food.   

Bilbao’s revitalized and redesigned San Mames Stadium (photo courtesy Athletic Club Bilbao)

Estadio San Mames is the oldest (1913) soccer stadium in Spain and, according to many residents, the city’s true heart and soul. A revitalized and redesigned San Mames opened in 2013, and was built on the same site as the old stadium, continuing its legacy of being one of football’s most revered sports grounds, living up to the nickname it inherited: The Cathedral. Its modern and innovative architecture, as well as its classic location, means that its 53,000 spectators have an authentic Bilbao football experience. Winner of the ‘Sports’ category at the 2015 World Architecture Festival and Venue of the Year at the 2017 World Football Summit, the new San Mamés has become an icon in the city. Athletic-Bilbao’s stadium retail store is open daily, so visitors can buy a red and white striped scarf or shirt and be welcomed in almost any Bilbao bar.

Plaza Nueva (photo provided with the permission of Bilbao Turismo)

Plaza Nueva, a large, arcaded, Neoclassical square built in 1821 is filled most nights with families, young kids kicking soccer balls,  and with almost everyone else participating in the age-old Basque tradition of going from bar to bar with friends, having small glasses of wine at each stop. Many of Plaza Nueva’s “pintxo” (tapas) bars are sheltered within the 189 year-old arches around the square.

The magnificent Basque countryside is just beyond the city limits, easily reached by rental car, or with the modern Metro system, which goes all the way to the Atlantic coast in about 30 minutes. The upscale residential and shopping area of Getxo is a good destination for lunch, or an afternoon of golf at a course overlooking the sea. A slightly longer auto trip will lead into the mountains and valleys of Vizcaya Province, where wineries and historic Basque villages provide great off-the-beaten path adventures.

 

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