25 years of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

25 years of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao celebrates its 25th anniversary in October 2022. Located on the banks of the Nervión River in the Basque Country, Spain, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim boosted the city’s economy with its astonishing success and changed the role of the museum in the development of the city. Twenty-five years later, the Bilbao effect continues to challenge assumptions about urban transformations and inspires the construction of iconic architectural pieces that elevate the status of cities, appealing to investors and visitors.

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Gehry Partners has transformed Bilbao from a small town with traditional Basque baserri buildings into a global icon that attracts 1.2 million visitors a year. In 1991, regional public institutions accepted the ambitious plan of a Bilbao Guggenheim to transform the industrial city on the seafront. The project would attract more visitors and change the general perception of Bilbao, as a neglected industrial area and a bastion of the Basque separatist organization ETA.

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Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Image © cincinnato/Flickr
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Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Image © Iker Merodio/Flickr

The transformation of Bilbao was not entirely the result of a building. After the Guggenheim boom, the city brought in other star architects to modernize the city. Norman Forster built an entire metro line, Alvaro Siza designed a university building and an airport terminal, and Santiago Calatrava made his mark with the “Zubizuri” pedestrian bridge, located near the museum. A series of hotels, shops and restaurants followed, renovating the city but also segregating the neighborhoods.


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Cities around the world saw the potential to create their own “Bilbao”, aligned with the millennium celebration. The London Eye by Marks Barfield Architects opened to the public in 2000 and is now one of London’s most popular tourist attractions. Just like Bilbao, “the Eye is a symbol that allows people to interact with the city. Not just specialists or the wealthy, but everyone. That’s its beauty: it’s public and accessible”, pointed out Richard Rogers. Additionally, the buildings of Calatrava and Zaha Hadid contributed to the economic development of American cities in the Midwest. In fact, the impact in Milwaukee of the Spanish architect led the mayor to declare September 16 “Santiago Calatrava Day” to commemorate The Quadracci’ Pavilions opening in 2002. Manchester has undergone a process of rebranding through a series of landmark developments, including star architects: Calatrava, Libeskind and Koolhaas. Kengo Kuma’s V&A Dundee Design Museum has manifested the phenomenon by attracting companies and retailers interested in investing in and transforming the city.

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The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Image © bvincent/ Flickr – licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
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V&A in Dundee. Image courtesy of Rapid Visual Media

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao also influenced the architectural process. The curved and angular titanium-clad building and the introduction of CATIA digital technology was a sea change that introduced unprecedented architecture in the 2000s: the Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & Meuron, the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind in Berlin and Heydar Aliyev by Zaha Hadid. Center of Baku, Azerbaijan.

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Beijing National Stadium. Image courtesy of IAKS

The Bilbao effect has played a central role in the economy of medium-sized cities and has fostered the emergence of talent around the world, although some studies stressed that urban entities should be more skeptical of new cultural centers and expansions, and that urban development is not a predictable socio-economic process, but a continuous cyclical exercise.


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Buildings by Calatrava and Zaha Hadid contribute to the economic development of cities in the American Midwest