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.


Baden-Württemberg Journal: Design Driven Architecture in Old World Germany

Stuttgart’s Kunstmuseum is a glass cube art museum on a historic, downtown square. (photo courtesy Kunstmuseum)

Baden-Württemberg Journal: Design Driven Architecture in Old World Germany


The area of southwest Germany, bordering France and Switzerland, is one of the oldest regions of the country, dating to the 12th century. Known today as the state of Baden-Würtemmberg, it has dozens of castles, medieval towns and tiny, black forest villages that haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. But the region is also known for its modern architecture and high tech companies, especially in the area of solar energy.

Entrance to Museum Ritter, Waldenbuch, a contemporary art museum next to Ritter Sport chocolate factory. The square-shaped museum building and the original Ritter chocolate bar have something in common. (photo Ron Bernthal

In the medieval town of Waldenbuch, a suburb of Stuttgart with 8,000 residents located just 15 miles south of the city, a new museum opened in 2005 dedicated to the collection of Marli Hoppe-Ritter, a descendent of the Ritter family that began a small chocolate company in the 1920’s, now known as Ritter Sport, one of Germany’s largest confectionary companies.

The chocolate factory is located next to Museum Ritter, a stunning stone and glass cube structure designed by Swiss architect Max Dudler, houses Mrs. Ritter’s art collection. The unique, cubed design of the museum, which houses Mrs. Ritter’s art collection, mimics the iconic squared chocolate bar that Clara Ritter invented in 1932, which the company became famous for. Even today it is the only square-shaped chocolate produced in Germany, and the architecturally savvy museum next door, with its collection of colorful, geometric paintings, and stunning views of the countryside, has become one of southwest Germany’s most visited attraction.

Geometric artwork by Gloeckner at Museum Ritter (photo courtesy Museum Ritter)

Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (photo Ron Bernthal)

Ballingen is another small, historic town near Stuttgart that was first mentioned in the 9th century, but their town hall, known as the Stadthalle, was given a modern face lift a few years ago by 4a, a creative German architectural firm that designed a new addition to the Balingen Stadthalle. In Germany a Stadthalle is not used for municipal offices, like in the U.S., but as a town civic center where concerts and other events are held. The new glass and wood addition, along with the permanent displays of artwork, including original Picasso and Miro works and other paintings, as well as modern lawn sculpture, has become one of the town’s most popular venues.

Design for Stadthalle Balingen, a new extension of the former Town Hall in historic town in Baden-Baden Wurttemberg. (photo courtesy 4a Architects)

In the far southwest corner of Baden-Würtemmberg is a town called Weil am Rhein, which borders the River Rhine and the Swiss city of Basel. It is here that the Vitra Design Museum and campus is located. Vitra is a Swiss furniture manufacturer, with headquarters near Basel, and is best known for producing the Herman Miller designed Aeron office chair as well as the Charles and Ray Eames-designed furniture.

Vitra campus, Weil am Rhein, sculpture “Balancing Tools” by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen (photo Ron Bernthal)

Vitra opened an ordinary-looking  manufacturing plant in Weil am Rhein in the early 1950’s, but after a fire destroyed the building in 1981 Vitra hired architect Nicholas Grimshaw to design a modern new factory, which led the company to start a stunning collection of other contemporary buildings by famous architects, including Frank Gehry, who designed the Vitra Design Museum, his first building in Europe. During the past 20 years, and continuing today, Zaha Hadid, Tado Ando, Renzo Piano, Herzog and de Meuron and many other well known designers contributed model structures to the site.

Jasper Morisson’s beautiful bus stop shelter is located on the main road in front of the Vitra campus, a public bus stop for transport to Weil am Rhein. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Today, the Vitra campus is a mecca for design and architectural enthusiasts, and tourists from around the world. Even the bus stop shelter on the road in front of the campus was beautifully designed by British industrial designer Jasper Morisson.

Vitra Design Museum was Frank Gehry’s first European building, and is one of several architectural gems on Vitra factory campus in Weil am Rhein. (photo courtesy Vitra)

Freiburg is known as Germany’s southernmost major city, and the country’s sunniest as well. Although some winter days can be dreary and cold, Freiburg gets more than 1,800 hours of sunshine per year, and the number of solar installations and solar research and manufacturing companies in the city has given Freiburg the nickname, Solar City. Even the city’s Badenova Stadium and City Hall, as well as many schools, churches and private houses are using solar installations.

In addition to the sun, energy is also produced in Freiburg by hydroelectric systems on the River Dreisam; wind turbines on the heights of the Black Forest; and other technologies like biomass plants. This ecologically minded city has been recognized as one of the greenest cities in the world, with a walking and bicycle friendly street pattern and an incredibly efficient public transit system. All this within a medieval university city with a town hall dating to 1303 and a cathedral built in 1513.

Photo shows the Solar Settlement in Vauban district, Freiburg, Germany, which generates 420,000 kWh of solar energy from a total photovoltaic output of about 445 kW peak per year. (Photo/permiegardener via Flickr)

Although regulations prevent high-rise buildings in the old part of Freiburg, modern structures flourish in several new urban neighborhoods where blue glass photovoltaic panels cover every rooftop. In 1994, in the Vauban district, a German architect named Rolf Disch built his private solar residence on a revolving pedestal that follows the sun’s rays across the sky. Known as the Heliotrope, it was the first building in the world to capture more energy than it uses.

The historic Heliotrope in Freiburg stands above the other solar installations in the district of Vauban (photo Ron Bernthal)

In addition to the Vauban district, a newer and larger sustainable neighborhood was constructed in Freiburg called Rieselfeld, where 12,000 residents live in a community which enacted Germany’s first mandatory, strict energy saving measures in every residence, especially using solar design. Cars have not been banned from the district but underground parking keeps them out of sight, and extremely low speed limits keeps vehicles moving no faster than a pedestrian. Bike lanes and a central light rail line make it easy for residents to get around with minimal fossil fuel and noise air pollution. This district was completed in 2010.

Freiburg, with its high-tech sustainable buildings and renewal energy psyche, is Germany’s “Green City,” but a historic Freiburg tradition, established in the 13th century, provides visitors with as much excitement as the more modern inventions. Throughout the Old City district small water-filled runnels, narrow, open stone trenches, run parallel to sidewalks and streets. The Bächle once served as the city’s water supply, fed by the nearby river Dreisam, but with modern water treatment plants and underground pipes the crystal clear Bachle are maintained these days because they are part of the soul of the city, and, according to many residents, the cool Black Forrest water running along the streets seem to make this clean and green city even cleaner.

The streets of Freiburg’s historic core still have the historic bache (water streams) which keeps the air clean and cool during hot summer days. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2014, the modern Museum Frieder Burda occupies a pristine spot in the centrally-located Lichtentaler Park in the historic city of Baden-Baden, famous for its elegant bathing spas, summer music festivals, and traditional Christmas market. The naturally lit building, designed by the New York architect, Richard Meier, is snow white concrete and glass, and offers a beguiling juxtaposition with its adjoining neighbor, the 100 year-old Staatliche Kunsthalle, with the two buildings connected by a glass-enclosed, second-floor pedestrian bridge.

During the last half of its anniversary year The Museum Frieder Burda is holding a special show of the best parts of Frieder Burda’s private art collection, focusing on German Expressionism, as well as paintings from Pablo Picaso’s late period and the works of American Abstract Expression including work by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

Museum Freider Burda, designed by noted architect Richard Meier, is located with a part in the center of Baden-Baden. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Perhaps the two most popular modern structures in Baden-Würtemmberg are two post-modern museums in Stuttgart whose collections are quite different than the city’s art museums, but equally as impressive architectually. The Mercedes Benz Museum opened in 2006, not far from the auto company’s large manufacturing plant. Rising 150 feet into the sky, the Dutch firm responsible for the building’s exterior used aluminum and glass to create a unique structure based on a double helix, with no closed rooms or straight walls, and with 1,800 triangular window panes.

Mercedes Benz Museum, Stuttgart. (photo courtesy Daimler AG)

The other fabulous looking museum building was designed by an Austrian architect to house the collection of Porsche automobiles, which are also manufactured in Stuttgart. The Porsche Museum, opened in Stuttgart in 2009, and displays the company’s earliest models, from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, developed by the company’s founder, Ferdinand Porsche, as well as all the sleek, newer models built since. The building, designed by Delugan Meissl, is supported on just three V-shaped columns, and this post-modern, eye-catching, white glazed concrete façade seems to float above the ground like a monolith.

Porsche Museum, Stuttgart (photo courtesy Porsche AG)


Why Go? To visit a stunning glass-cube-designed museum in the middle of Stuttgart with five floors of contemporary art, and a rooftop restaurant that offers excellent casual dining by day, and gourmet dining at night, with nice views of the city at any time.

Where to Stay? The five-star Althoff Hotel am Schlossgarten has a beautiful, modern exterior, and exquisitely designed interior, in a park-like setting in the middle of Stuttgart.

Why Go? To see both the post-modern, silvery aluminum and glass double-helix-shaped museum building as well as Mercedes models from 1886, the birth of the legendary combination of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, to present day designs.

Where to Stay? The V8 Hotel, an automobile-themed property that is appears tacky at first, but truly does offer pop car culture with interesting design flourishes. About 12 miles SW of Stuttgart, near village of Böblingen and Motor World attraction.

Why Go? Of course, to see the “gem in the park,” as architect Richard Meier describes his perfect-looking, light-filled, iconic ode to Modernism. And don’t leave Baden-Baden without experiencing one of its many historic bath houses.

Where to Stay? The deluxe Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa has been welcoming guests since 1872 and exudes an old-world charm that still symbolizes much of Baden-Baden. The five-star property offers 100 rooms and suites, spa treatments, and a Michelin-star restaurant. It is also just a five-minute walk to the Museum Freider Burda.

Why Go? To see the collection of geometric-shaped paintings and other art work displayed in the unique, cubed-shaped glass and stone building next to the Ritter Sport chocolate factory, a firm made famous by its square chocolate bars. The museum café has outdoor sitting, and stock up on chocolate from the factory store next to the museum. It all comes together in the beautiful countryside south of Stuttgart.

Where to Stay? The modern Ibis Stuttgart Airport Messe is conveniently located near Stuttgart Airport, a little south of the city, which makes this an affordable, convenient lodging option just six miles (15 minutes) from Museum Ritter. The property also makes sense for early morning departures or late arrivals.

Why Go? All the Porsche models since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s developed by the company’s founder, Ferdinand Porsche, are displayed in a building that is as beautiful, dramatic and well-designed as the sleek, shiny vehicles inside.

Where to Stay? The V8 Hotel, an automobile-themed property that is appears tacky at first, but truly does offer pop car culture with interesting design flourishes. About 12 miles SW of Stuttgart, near village of Böblingen and Motor World attraction.

Why Go? To see the permanent and temporary exhibitions at the Frank Gehry-designed museum, and the other design-driven structures, including those by Zaha Hadid, Tado Ando, Renzo Piano, Alvaro Siza, Jasper Morisson, and Herzog and de Meuron, all constructed on the Vitra furniture factory campus.

Where to Stay? Radisson Blu is a stylish, well-designed, modern property in downtown Basel, Switzerland, about 15 minutes’ drive from the Vitra complex.

Why Go? To see the solar power and sustainably-designed homes, offices and retail shops, as well as the unique Heliotrope house, in this unique neighborhood a few minutes outside center city Freiburg.

Where to Stay? Designhotel am Stadtgarten is beautifully designed hotel with walking distance to the historic Münsterplatz and University of Freiburg. Vis-à-vis café-bar-lounge offers lovely outdoor patio for drinking and dining for lunch and dinner in season, and complimentary buffet breakfast.

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