Guggenheim Bilbao – A Spectacular Symbol of Renewal

When we dashed across, nearly a decade ago, on a (crazy) day trip from Barcelona to Bilbao just to gaze upon those stunning overlapping waves of shimmering titanium, we were clueless about the city’s history of industrial decline, or of the conception of the Guggenheim museum as an icon of urban reinvention. 

It is hard to imagine that the stretch of the Nervión that the sinuous structure straddles once ran dank and fetid with effluents, its banks congested with shipyards and steel furnaces. It is that very harsh industrial aesthetic, that allegedly inspired renowned American architect Frank Gehry’s design. So outrageously conspicuous in that setting that it more often than not distracts from the valuable collections it hosts.

That ‘WOW’ factor was the brief for this private-public enterprise between the Basque administration and the Guggenheim foundation. Part of an extravagant, visionary plan by the city council to regenerate economic prosperity and Basque identity that has paid for itself many times over since its 1997 opening.

The ‘Bilbao effect’, as this huge urban renaissance with the use of flagship architecture is referred to, has its share of critics who deride the franchising and internationalising of art and culture. ‘McGuggenheim’ is a new addition to my vocabulary! But all we perceived during our visit last week was the great sense of civic pride the edifice inspires among Bilbainos. And the hope it symbolises for cities with putrid rivers.