Red Herring Magazine: The Bilbao effect by. Joseph Giovannini

The Bilbao effect

Moving beyond national borders, city-states are emerging on the global map, powered by world-class architecture.
By Joseph Giovannini

The history of Bilbao, Spain, stretches back to medieval times, but it wasn’t until Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, with its facade of flowing titanium ribbons, that the Basque port on the Atlantic became internationally famous. The fame, however, was not just a serendipitous by-product of a startlingly original design, but the result of a conscious move on the part of city fathers to reposition Bilbao on the world stage. The rust belt city, Spain’s Pittsburgh, needed a postcard image comparable to the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House to symbolize its emergence as a player on the chessboard of a united Europe and a globalized economy. It needed a monument. One building and $110 million later, Bilbao is now a contender as a world city, and many of the world’s second- and third-tier cities have called Mr. Gehry’s office, hoping for a comparable Cinderella transformation.

The Spanish have a word, capitalidad, to describe that special urban quality possessed by Madrid, Spain; Paris; and Washington, D.C., where colonnaded embassies, treasuries, mansions, and palaces add up to the kind of stately cityscape that eludes most noncapital cities. An approximate English translation would be “capitality.” In Europe, the forces of globalization and its local manifestation, the European Union, are softening national boundaries, and the nation-state is devolving into the city-state. About 16 independent areas have emerged — including Catalonia, Flanders, Lombardy, the Jura, northern Denmark, and the “Atlantic facade” (a coastal region that stretches from Brittany to northern Spain) — which no longer think of themselves as provincial outposts playing backup to the national capitals. They are acting increasingly like Hong Kong and Singapore, freestanding engines powering, and nourished by, the globalized economy. Geographically distinct, they are also economically and culturally discrete areas with highly developed local identities and political cultures. As far-flung economies knit together and national boundaries and identities melt, these city-states are taking a leading role in reconfiguring the world map as a fluid economic field. Many of the new contenders are not the established capitals at the administrative centers of their countries, but old and ancient ports positioned on the coasts for global trade and transport. Barcelona, Bilbao, and Copenhagen have led the trend of using architecture and urban design to promote the image and game plan of emergent city-states.

Bilbao was simply following the example of its fellow Iberian odd man, Barcelona, a city with a long history of competing with Madrid for capitalidad. In 1888, Barcelona hosted the Universal Exposition, which provided the occasion for the construction of beaux arts buildings along the port at the edge of the Gothic city. And in 1929, the Barcelona International Exhibition ushered in museums, stadiums, fairgrounds, and a subway system. With this history of importing outside events to build its urban capital, Barcelona lobbied hard for the 1992 Summer Olympics and, after winning, invested some $7 billion in urban infrastructure and architecture.

Hosting the Games was simply a benign pretext for city building. Back in 1992, Oriol Bohigas — an architect who masterminded Olympic planning and eventually became the city’s head of culture — said, “Everybody is hoping the Games are the beginning of a new economic period, signaling the Europeanization and internationalization of our city.” His British-born partner, architect David Mackay, added, “The importance of putting our house in order for the Olympics, like preparing a house for a wedding, was to catch up with other European cities, to be able to compete with them after the unification of Europe. The aspiration of Barcelona is to be the most important city of the Mediterranean.”


The Olympics provided a handy deadline for fast-tracking the reconstruction of the Catalonian capital — a city neglected during the long regime of Francisco Franco (1939-75). Trophy buildings by trophy architects conferred grandeur: the cameras especially loved the new domed sports pavilion by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and the high-tech telecommunication towers by Sir Norman Foster of England and Spanish-born Santiago Calatrava of Switzerland. But the monuments featured on television were only the tip of a design iceberg that extended to neighborhood parks and the layout and concept of the whole metropolis.

Counterintuitively, this sweeping remake of Barcelona was characterized by a concern for smallness — an approach to urban regeneration that its planners have likened to darning a sock. Abandoning utopian visions, the planners simply mended the holes in the urban fabric with vest-pocket parks, schools, auditoriums, squares, museums, and sports facilities. The improvements also included ramblas (broad avenues), five kilometers of reclaimed beaches, sewage treatment plants that made the beaches swimmable, seaside promenades, 20 new hotels, a recreational port, community centers, and five superblocks of Olympic housing strategically placed to reopen the beach to a city long cut off from its own shore.

“Barcelona is a city that sells design,” wrote Mayor Pasqual Maragall, who also observed that the urban improvements have helped “to launch the name of Barcelona internationally, and recover the lost dignity of the urban landscape.” City building, however, was more important than stand-out architectural excellence. “There is a high level of good architecture, but not the shining piece one would have hoped for,” admitted Mr. Mackay, who said that developers exercised too much control over the process to achieve singular architectural greatness.

Bilbao had ample opportunity to study Barcelona’s use of design to redefine itself, and with Mr. Gehry’s “shining piece,” Bilbao even trumped its urban mentor. But the Guggenheim, like Barcelona’s urban redesign, was a Trojan horse, overflowing with ulterior motives. With the release of the Basque provinces from Franco’s grip and their newfound status as an autonomous Spanish region, Bilbao could recast its economy and shift its relationship with the rest of Europe. In the early ’80s, the people of the Basque country decided to change from an industrial to a postindustrial, service-based economy, to remake the region and its capital into the dominant force on the Atlantic facade. The Basque region occupies the strategic bend where the Iberian Peninsula turns north into the continent. Bilbao, with 400,000 inhabitants, is the capital of a province of 2.2 million (the Basques maintain a distinctive indigenous culture and speak Europe’s oldest language, Euskara; the region may constitute the oldest nation in Europe).


The theory was that the city that controls the seaboard benefits most from what economists call the Big Banana — that arc of prosperity from northern Italy through Paris and Germany to London. Devising networks of economic and social competition and coöperation among different regions, Basque planners were attempting to build a new “country” within the new European map. From the center, planners tried to set off a ripple effect that would spread to a wide economic area. Reinventing Bilbao amounted to a strategy for building up the province to capture a larger role in the Atlantic region. The planners conceived Bilbao as an economic pass controlling the whole coastal facade.

Mr. Gehry’s undulating walls of titanium translated into economic policy for enterprising Basques trying to reach out to the Banana. The museum became, in the words of Jon Azua, a director of the consulting firm Arthur D. Little in Bilbao, “the first symbol and main project that can move all the other projects and decisions to create a convincing vision of the country that we are.” Occupying a highly visible bend in the Nervion River, which flows through Bilbao, the prepossessing museum recentered the city. The museum, the first step in the redevelopment of the former shipbuilding and warehouse district, helped catalyze the urban renewal program. “The museum boosted our self-confidence and started a regeneration of the area,” says Juan Ignacio Vidarte, who directed the museum’s construction.

Downstream stands another cultural component of urban regeneration: the Euskalduna Jauregia Bilbao Conference and Music Center by the Madrid architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios. Transportation projects were also conceived for strategic impact. Sir Norman Foster completed the long first line of a subway system that forms the spine of the program to regenerate the city: it is one of the world’s most handsome lines. Subway entrances are covered by glazed canopies, and platforms with stainless steel hardware float neatly within the vaulted concrete stations. Santiago Calatrava recently finished an airport terminal with a winged structure that recalls Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

With its international roster of architects, Bilbao has telegraphed a clear message that the city has opened itself culturally to the world. The enormous publicity that Mr. Gehry’s Guggenheim has earned makes a persuasive case against Bilbao’s insularity — and against the notion of Bilbao as the capital of Basque terrorist activity — as it garners the city a privileged place on the changing world stage. The Basques have used architecture as an instrument that both defines and opens their culture.


Denmark and its capital, Copenhagen, which have long played second fiddle to the more imperial Sweden, had much to gain from the same dynamic European map. The ability of the country and city to reach beyond their geographic fate, stuck in a corner of Europe, underwent a major boost last summer when the Øresunds Bridge was completed, spanning the Baltic Sea and linking Copenhagen to Malmö, Sweden. A country and city that were quaint but geographically marginal suddenly became the northern threshold of the European continent, and the southern border of Scandinavia. Copenhagen and Denmark’s new position at the head of a funnel had the potential for reëstablishing Denmark’s regional preëminence and international prominence. The new bridge focuses forces of globalization on Copenhagen.

The bridge was a vast undertaking. Copenhagen’s immediate urban response was to build an arm of the city out toward the highway and airport at the end of the bridge to capture some of the span’s energy and commerce. Several governmental agencies and the Federation of Danish Architects held an international ideas competition to plan this new and complex area, designed with apartments, commercial spaces, and a university.

There are other efforts at booting up Copenhagen for international stature. The Arken Museum of Modern Art, which opened four years ago, was a major effort and vote of confidence for a new kind of angular, avant-garde architecture that heralded an artistically adventurous world. The city also greeted its new status with an expanded airport. The addition, perpendicular to the existing terminal, dips into the imagery of flight with its delta wing and Concorde profile. In 1998, Queen Margrethe II opened an extension to the Statens Museum for Kunst (the Danish national gallery) — a much loved and very impressive beaux arts structure that now stands in front of the very clean, white, right-angled extension. About the same time, the Danish Royal Library opened a 21,000-square-meter extension, a monumental structure clad in black granite, whose salient feature is the thrusting shape of its volume. Like the prow of a ship, the entire facade leans obliquely toward the canal it faces. The dynamic form cuts a powerful civic figure on a new waterfront off the old harbor.

The problem of small countries and provincial cities on the brink of bigger destinies is that many have grown accustomed to being small, and they find it difficult making any adjustment to the next size up. Calvinist Danes, by temperament, do not like to stand out, and buildings with the potential of becoming breakout structures did not rise above Denmark’s standing tradition of modesty. The projects, all additions to major cultural institutions, fell short of creating Bilbao-like images that would make their mark at a distance outside Copenhagen. Whether to mind the national garden behind a culturally protectionist fence or to open it to the ebb and flow of foreign influences remains the issue facing a country that has always had to cultivate its own identity in order to avoid being absorbed by its more powerful neighbors, Germany and Sweden.

Small countries fear that in opening themselves internationally they will be mowed over by the forces of globalization. The Danes, with a long history of modern design, went as far as they could go in enlisting architecture to support their new status precipitated by the new transnational traffic patterns, but the results are ambiguous in their reach. The bridge itself, a sound and beautiful piece of infrastructure gracefully stretching across the Baltic, has emerged as the strongest symbol of Copenhagen’s changed role.


Modern international city-states predate the European Union, especially in Asia, where Singapore and Hong Kong have cultivated that role. They may have a long head start, but they are not resting on their laurels. Modern architecture continues its tradition there of being an instrument of a city’s progressive image and presence on the world stage. Singapore has hired an impressive roster of international architects, including I.M. Pei and Paul Rudolph, to design skyscrapers for its Manhattanized skyline. The city never capitulated to post-Modernism, whose historical images would have embodied colonial associations antithetical to Singapore’s emergence as an independent powerhouse. Hong Kong has a similarly modernist financial center: in 1980, Sir Norman built the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building in Hong Kong, and it remains one of the most innovative high-rises of our time, a megastructure conceived as a small city. Nearby, the Bank of China structure by I.M. Pei is an elegant high-rise that spirals up its vertiginous height with a geometrically angular form that squeaked by the feng shui geomancers. Anyone fearing that Hong Kong’s vitality has been swallowed by mainland China will be reassured by a competition now being staged for the commission of the 100-story Kowloon Station Tower; some of the world’s best architects are working on designs.

High-profile megatowers like this are nipping at the heels of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, another emergent world city where a single complex, featuring the world’s tallest building, makes the point about the city’s international role and image. In the realm of international finance, having the tallest building confers the prestige of being a Manhattan without the obligation of building the rest of the city. Other Asian cities also have plans vying for the tallest building.


In the global village, airports are now emerging as architectural status symbols, and city-states that count are hiring world-class architects to design them. Most recently, Asia has set the international gold standard with structures that push building technology to the point of architectural lyricism. Italian architect Renzo Piano set the example several years ago in Japan with the huge Narita Airport near Tokyo, its roof profiled like an airfoil. Vying for honors as architect laureate of the skies, Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa composed in Kuala Lumpur’s new airport a series of thin, expressively contoured vaults springing from sculpted collars topping conical columns. In Hong Kong, the ubiquitous Sir Norman recently completed the vast Chek Lap Kok Airport, featuring long barrel vaults so buoyantly light the structure looks inflated.

Airports are the most obvious symbols of globalization, and any city that wants to be a player has taken care to hire architects capable of internationalizing the image of the city with a photogenic statement. Big and impressive airports have become must-have capital improvements among cities that, if they aspire to maintain or forge their place in the global economy, must now keep up with the Bilbao-Joneses thousands of miles away.

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