The Bilbao Effect: Frank Gehry’s Garbage Can Turns Twenty

There is a very interesting article – or rather, pair of articles – in Apollo about the so-called “Bilbao Effect” on cities, twenty years on. Bilbao, as you probably know, is the Basque industrial city in northern Spain, that suddenly became a major international tourist destination even before the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenhiem Museum opened to the public in October 1997. With its reflective titanium surfaces and abandonment of convention, it was the urban cause célèbre of its time: suddenly cities around the world wanted to have something like it, in order to demonstrate their wealth, status, and trendiness.

As the writers point out, the myth of the “Bilbao Effect” is not an entirely accurate one. Bilbao had already made significant efforts to try to improve itself before the arrival of Mr. Gehry. Other cities such as Sydney and Paris had been undergoing significant changes decades earlier, building unusual Postmodern structures long before the crumpled Canadian garbage can rose on the banks of the Nervion River.

Bilbao was of course something new however, in that it was a place which most people had never *wanted* to visit before – not if they could help it, anyway. Despite lacking a history of significant architecture or particularly attractive natural surroundings, and being plagued by some of the most depressing weather in Spain, it suddenly became the belle of the international urbanism ball. The city even managed to find a role as a giant set piece during the frenzied opening sequence of the Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” – an entirely contemporary confection, since one doubts that Sir Ian Fleming had ever heard of Bilbao.

In a way, the “Bilbao Effect” is no different than the competition to build ever larger and grander cathedrals, which dominated Christian architecture for centuries and turned growing towns into the major commercial centers which many became. Some of these structures were so expensive and complicated to construct, that they were only finished long after they were begun. The massive and imposing Cologne Cathedral in Germany for example, which looks like something out of Gotham City, was begun in the 13th century but only completed in the late 19th century.

These religious structures are, in a way, a moral two-edged sword, which secular structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao are not. The great churches were designed to honor God, and to celebrate the lives of the saints to whom they are dedicated. Yet they are visual expressions of the great sin of pride, as towns vied with each other to see who could build the tallest, longest, widest, or most lavishly-decorated building, in order to draw in the punters. For tourism, be it pious or secular, comes hand-in-hand with income, and what burgher or alderman doesn’t yearn for some more taxation flowing into his coffers?

There are also some more fundamental differences between these ancient religious structures and the secular confections of contemporary starchitects like Mr. Gehry. There is no question that the former were built to last, for despite their great age, most of them have managed to survive major disasters from plague to invasions to bombing raids relatively intact. Meanwhile, the formerly undulating and sparkling Guggenheim Bilbao looks increasingly lumpy and dirty, a fact which the architect blames on the people for whom he built it, rather than himself (natch.) This is as if Leonardo da Vinci – although Mr. Gehry is no da Vinci – blamed the Dominican friars at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan for the rapid deterioration of his “Last Supper”, despite the fact that he was the one who chose an experimental and ill-advised painting method.

Moreover, the world’s great churches serve a supernatural purpose. Even if pride was involved in their construction, their underlying function remains that of praising God, not man. The motivation for the construction of structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao however, and indeed their underlying function, is to honor those who are already far too pleased with themselves to begin with. Both types of building have elements of pride involved in their construction, but whereas the church leads to the worship of God, the “Bilbao Effect” leads to the worship of oneself.

While none of us will be around to see it, my guess is that roughly two centuries from now, when the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres turns 1000, she will still be filled with worshipers and visitors every Sunday, while the Guggenheim Bilbao will be long gone. It is an easy bet to make, I grant you, because no one will be around to point at me and laugh like Nelson Muntz if I am incorrect in my assumption. And yet, when we take a step back, we can see that throughout human history pride and self-worship, at some point, inevitably fails – particularly when it comes to architecture.

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