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.” […]