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.

This Sunday: Come Say So Long to a Great Musician

I was very saddened to learn that Neil Weston, our music director and organist at St. Stephen Martyr parish here in the Nation’s Capital, is going to be leaving us shortly.  Neil and his family are moving out to Ohio, which would obviously make the commute to St. Yuppie’s, as those of us in the know often call it, rather too difficult.  I wanted to mention his departure to encourage those of you who will be in the D.C. area this weekend to come along this Sunday, August 17th, to the 11:00 am Mass, so that you can hear why he will be sorely missed.

To get a sense of why we are going to miss him so much, you can visit my Chirbit site, which features surreptitiously made audio recordings of Neil and our choir at Mass over the past couple of years.  While the audio may not be fantastic, Neil and his singers and musicians most certainly are.  Several of the audio files manage to impart that, even in these less-than-stellar recordings.  And below this post you’ll find an embedded video, properly recorded by someone else, of Neil in action at St. Stephen’s.

When Neil first arrived at the parish, I realized immediately how very lucky we would be to have this educated, extremely gifted Englishman among us.  I was absolutely blown away by his abilities as a musician, his extraordinarily good taste, and his skills in directing our already very good choir to sound even more amazing.  He balanced out the tried-and-true with pieces both ancient and modern that were unfamiliar, but which quickly became new favorites, as I would note the name of the piece for future reference.  For a parish which is not very large, and a choir which is not very large either, the level of musicianship which I would hear on a weekly basis was simply extraordinary.

And of course what is even better, for those of us who are Catholics, is that the music has done its job beautifully.  It inspires us in moments of rejoicing, penitence, and contemplation, rather than simply being an add-on or an afterthought.  Unlike at a concert, the goal of the church musician is not to entertain, but to cause hearts and minds to be lifted up to matters Divine, as an aid to transcending the affairs of this world and focusing on the next.  In this, over the last several years, Neil has managed to bring me, and I daresay many others, into deeper prayer and a closer relationship with God, as we worship together.

In any case, Catholic or not, please do come along this Sunday at 11:00 am for Mass, and you will get to hear what I am rather poorly attempting to write in this post  St. Stephen’s is very easy to get to from anywhere in the D.C. area.  The Foggy Bottom Metro station is a 3-minute walk away, many Metrobus routes pass in front of the church itself, and there are a number of places to park in the surrounding neighborhood.  For more information on how to arrive, visit the “Directions” page on the parish website.

As of right now I haven’t heard who will be replacing Neil on the organ bench and in front of the podium up in the choir loft.  Hopefully it will be someone who appreciates the taste of the parish for the 11am on Sunday (no “City of God” or “And the Father Will Dance”, please.)  Whoever they are we’ll do our best to support them, I’m sure, but they will have very, very big organ shoes to fill, because Neil has been absolutely matchless. Godspeed and God bless, my friend.