Iconic, breathtaking architecture funded by the public purse requires bravery, risk taking and faith in the face of often hostile political opposition. But the rewards can be immense. Just ask the people of Bilbao who have seen their city transformed by one building.

The city is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao, a twisting, titanium-plated masterpiece of curving forms, designed by Frank Gehry, which has been called ‘the greatest building of our time’ by the famous US architect Philip Johnson.

Many people of the blighted city that opposed the original plans are now applauding the vision of the city’s leaders in inviting and funding the Guggenheim Foundation to build the museum which has since had ten million visitors from all over the world.

"There are many buildings that would probably not have been built if this had not happened," said the Guggenheim Bilbao’s director general Juan Ignacio Vidarte. "It has made cities far more aware of the power of architecture and it has provided proof that bravery when it comes to architecture can very successful."


The port city of 500,000 in the Basque region of northern Spain was suffering from severe economic strife in the early 1990s principally because of the decline of its port, its ship building and heavy manufacturing base. Unemployment was high and people were crying out for job-creating initiatives.

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By GlobalData

Instead, the Bizkaia Provincial Council and the Basque Government presented an economic regeneration model that included creating a $100m cultural icon for the city that would create an economic ripple effect from 400,000 visitors a year spending money in hotels, shops, bars and restaurants and regenerating areas near the port on the left bank of the River Nervion that had fallen into disuse.

The vision was deeply unpopular with many people who claimed the money would be better invested in creating manufacturing jobs. And such was the ferocity of some of the opposition the contract with Guggenheim was nearly never signed.

"The museum was very controversial because in the situation of an economic crisis it was not an obvious thing to do," says Vidarte, who played a pivotal role in negotiations from 1992 and has been director of the museum since 1996. "The obvious way to confront it was to put more money into declining industries. There was a lot of political opposition and a high level of scepticism from the public."

Undeterred, the public authorities approached the Guggenheim Foundation with its plan in 1991 and construction started in 1994.


Not surprisingly its meteoric success, which has seen more than a million visitors a year pass into the 24,000m² limestone and titanium-clad structure to view exhibits such as the world renowned A Matter of Time, has silenced the dissenters. Meanwhile, the museum has contributed more than £1.5bn to Spain’s GDP and £260m in tax revenue for the Basque government and helped to maintain 4,500 jobs a year.

"More than a million visitors a year pass into the 24,000m² limestone and titanium-clad structure."

"The magnitude of the success was far more than we imagined," says Vidarte. "I think the timing was right. We built it at a time when the world was becoming much more connected and people were travelling much more and seeking cultural experiences."

Not surprisingly, Vidarte feels vindicated by the faith shown in Frank Gehry’s vision and stresses the sensitivity of the building to the surrounding area and the consultation with artists to ensure that the 20 exhibition spaces within are functional.

"He provided us what we asked of him, which was to give us a great building which would be a great museum and a great icon for the city. He showed us he understood the problems of the site and how it needed to help connect the left bank of the River Nervion with the rest of the city. The design provides the museum with spaces that are absolutely unique which has enabled us to do extraordinary things."

Architecture in Bilbao has also flourished with projects designed by such luminaries as the nearby bridge by Santiago Calatrava and the subway station Norman Foster. Meanwhile, Zaha Hadid has designed the headquarters for the Regional Transport Authority.

Such has been the spectacular success of the Guggenheim Bilbao that the Guggenheim Foundation has actively tried to create similar success elsewhere in the world.

But this is not just supreme egotism but a response to city leaders and mayors who want the ‘Guggenheim effect’ in their back yard.


"I receive requests from ambitious mayors in cities all over the world who have seen what the Guggenheim here has done for Bilbao," said Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas R Krens in a recent interview. "I get them from everywhere. So if there is potential, we send in a team which does a feasibility study, for which we get paid, and we’re getting very good at this now. We look at the financial questions, the social mix, the physical and logistical set-up; we look at what art collections there are in the region." There’s a $600 million price tag for a Bilbao, you know.

"The Guggenheim Foundation has actively tried to create similar success elsewhere in the world."

So can the ‘Guggenheim effect’ be replicated in other cities? Yes and no says Vidarte.

"Of course there are many lessons that can be learnt from Bilbao but each city has its own problems, agendas, advantages and disadvantages. So I’m very sceptical about replication because the building needs to be in sync with the other elements of transforming the city."

Despite these sensitivities, new Guggenheim projects have been sneered at by critics as cashing in on success and simply franchising the brand elsewhere like a branch of McDonalds.

"I think certainly there is a branding factor with art organisations such as the Guggenheim, the Louvre or the Tate," concedes Vidarte. "People tend to associate these organisations to a certain profile and certain values. But it’s not a franchise. You can go to a McDonalds in London, Barcelona or Singapore and the burgers taste the same. You cannot say that about a cultural institution because if you had the same experience the relationship would be lost."

Undeterred, Guggenheim is proceeding with an ambitious expansion programme to house the ever growing collection which has doubled in recent years.


New Guggenheims have also been built in Venice, Berlin, Las Vegas but a scheme to build one in Rio de Janeiro foundered in 2003 because of political opposition.

The next definite Guggenheim museum to open in 2012 will be on Saadiyat Island, in Abu Dhabi, also designed by Frank Gehry, and the foundation is looking at building new museums in Salzburg, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Taiwan, Tokyo, Osaka, Mexico, St Petersburg, as well as a second one in New York.

"The people of Bilbao have seen their city transformed by one building."

Back in Bilbao, thoughts are already turning towards a new Guggenheim building.

"We are looking at adding more space although it will not be an extension to the museum which is a finished piece although it may be close to the museum," says Vidarte. "It will be a different experience in architectural terms."

In the meantime, visitors to Bilbao can still enjoy the enduring attraction of Gehry’s masterpiece. "It’s a very rich building that keeps uplifting and surprising," he adds. "It’s very dynamic and very alive and is still a major source of pleasure."