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.

New Life For DC’s Old Library

News broke yesterday here in Washington that one of the most visible white elephants in the city, the former Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square, will become home to a new Apple flagship store. Renovation and conversion of the property, which has been closed off for some time now due to a serious mold problem, will be undertaken by Foster + Partners, the architectural firm headed by Sir Norman Foster. Foster also designed the nearby Kogod Courtyard, a space covered with one of his signature undulating glass roofs, which sits between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

The Carnegie Library (also formerly known as the Central Library) was built in 1903 as a gift to the city by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who spent a significant part of his considerable fortune building libraries all over the country. It was designed by Ackerman & Ross, New York-based architects who specialized in Beaux-Arts style buildings. Carnegie particularly liked their work, and a number of the libraries which he donated were designed by the firm, including those in Columbus, Denver, and East Orange, New Jersey. This particular library ceased to operate as one when the present, Martin Luther King Central Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, opened in 1972.

Since then the building has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but nothing has really “stuck”. When I was in college for example, Placido Domingo and the Washington National Opera were trying to acquire the library to turn it into an opera house. At one point the building housed a DC City History Museum, but that closed due to a lack of interest. More recently, the Spy Museum attempted to obtain a long-term lease in the building, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the city, so that institution is building a new museum elsewhere in town.

While I’m not a fan of Apple, they certainly have the wherewithal to make this building a functioning space again. And although my more classically-minded friends in the world of architecture will no doubt be aghast, personally I think that Sir Norman Foster is going to do a great job on both preserving and bringing this building up to date. It needs the help: it is not by any stretch of the imagination a particularly spectacular example of its style, unlike nearby Union Station, one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings in the world. Plus, the library’s position on what is essentially a giant traffic island makes it seem uninviting and inapproachable.

My ideal solution would have been to restore the building and turn it into the special collections home of the DC Public Library. It would have honored Carnegie’s original intent, and provided much-needed space for this public service. However, since I’m not in charge of these things, this new venture promises to bring back life to what has become a rather sad part of a revitalized downtown, and that does not seem to me such a bad thing.

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Repurposed Urbanism: New Uses for Old Technology in New York, DC

In a few weeks, I’m looking forward to finally seeing American artist Richard Estes’ masterpiece, “Telephone Booths”, which is in the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. This is one of the greatest examples of Photorealism, a genre developed back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s by American artists like Estes and Chuck Close, and one of the few movements in Modern Art where one can be genuinely dazzled by the technical skill of the artist. Sadly, scenes such as that painted by Estes in this work are no longer as common as they once were, because the phone booth has become obsolete. (If you’ve ever tried to find one so that you can change and spring into action, you know what I’m talking about.)

Interestingly though, phone booths are making something of a comeback in New York City of late. Long abandoned to the whims of vandals and street artists – though I repeat myself – these formerly ubiquitous sentinels of urbanism are finding new life as WiFi kiosks. When I was in New York two weeks ago, I noticed one directly outside my favorite pizza place in Murray Hill.

Yet even as they are repurposed, it is nevertheless stunning to learn that there are only four proper, glass phone booths left on the streets of Manhattan. It is impossible to imagine movies like “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” without these objects, yet now they have become as elusive as Fabergé eggs. Telephone booths, be they open or glass-enclosed, are what we might call “urban furniture”, which always changes when technology changes.

For example, there are no lamplighters patrolling America’s streets anymore, lighting gas street lamps at twilight and putting them out at dawn. Coming across a working gas streetlamp in most major cities today would be something exceedingly rare. An unusual variant of the gas lamp persisted for quite awhile in the Nation’s capital, however.

Here in DC, many of the thousands of former police and fire call boxes, which were first installed in the city around the time of the Civil War, did not require the assistance of lamplighters. They were permanently lit by gas lamps from within, so that the public could see to contact authorities in any weather, any time of day or night. Thus, even in the thick fog that sometimes rolls in off the Potomac in Winter, or the torrential downpours of our standard Summer, the lamps of these boxes would still be visible.

By the 1920’s, all of the call boxes had been converted to electric; by the 1960’s, thanks to acts of vandalism and the generally poor behavior and bad taste of the Baby Boomers, they began to be taken out of service. Today, many are being converted for use as historic district markers, or as permanent display stands for commissioned art. Here is a terrific history of both the boxes and the efforts to repurpose them for the benefit of the communities and visitors who come across them.

Like the phone booth, albeit in a more limited fashion, the call box served the purpose of communicating the need for aid. Today, the overwhelming majority of members of the public carry around individual devices which serve this purpose, and more. Yet while phone booths and call boxes allowed a certain degree of safety and communication to be shared among residents and visitors to particular neighborhoods, even with the degree of individual privacy afforded by the glass telephone booth, now these common spaces have been eliminated in favor of a kind of individual responsibility. I don’t have to share space or technology, let alone seek safety merely by being in proximity to anyone else, because I’m expected to carry my own device for that purpose.

What will be interesting to see in the future, after WiFi is replaced with the next big development in technology – Skynet, anyone? – is what will become of the repurposed phone booths, once they are no longer needed for this new purpose. Will they become community plant stands? Rentable spaces in which to conduct (legal) business transactions?

My guess is that, more likely than not, they will they finally be removed for scrap, the detritus of an earlier, seemingly more primitive, but in some ways infinitely better-connected society.

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Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1968)