What Does Foster + Partners’ Sparkling New Museum Tell Us About Gehry’s “Bilbao Effect”?

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum prompts discussions about the legacy of Gehry’s controversial museum in the Basque city.

Hannah Feniak Hannah Feniak

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On November 17, 2022, construction began on Foster + Partners’ extension for the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. The remodeling project builds on the existing 20th-century building on the site. In addition to restoring the historic structure, the British firm is responsible for the addition of a floating pavilion, which will host a new public atrium space and contemporary art galleries. At the heart of this design is the desire to reorient the museum towards the city, which has dramatically transformed since the building’s last extension was completed in the 1970s (that’s not to mention countless changes since the original structure went up in 1945). Foster + Partner’s design will expand the existing structure by fifty percent to meet the needs of the institution’s significant growth in traffic and ambition in recent decades.

As Norman Foster stated, “The project is a celebration of the important role that culture can play in the civic life of a city.” His quote, while referencing his firm’s project, also evoked the specter hanging over most big-name architecture projects that are planned for the Basque city: the so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’ that cemented the city’s association with global architectural culture.

The date of the press release for the groundbreaking of Foster + Partner’s project came on the heels of a notable anniversary in the same city. One month earlier, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. In the years since the torquing metal behemoth went up, it has become the topic evoking both awe and ire around the world. For some, it exemplifies the power of architecture to uplift struggling cities or areas and proof that investments in culture are sound. For others, however, the Bilbao Effect is a misnomer: though it has spawned countless admirers who have tried to replicate its effects around the world, Bilbao’s prosperity cannot be chalked up to the museum, but to a constellation of human-initiated events that coalesced at a precise moment.

Worse, for these detractors, is that the museum’s showy architecture has been replicated around the world, giving credence to the culture of starchitecture and rise to a focus on façades rather than content. Notably, this rise of flashy façades was not simply abetted by the desire for an urban showpiece, but rather by the rise of computer-aided design, which was pioneered by Gehry’s team at Bilbao. They used CATIA, a software meant for aircraft design, to help achieve their aesthetic visions while remaining within their sizable $100m budget.

The building recouped its cost in just three years, as museum visitor rates soared. Five years after the doors opened, impact on the local economy was reported at €168m; not to mention the extra €27m the Basque government counted in their coffers (the equivalent of adding nearly 4, 500 jobs to the local economy). Meanwhile, before the building’s 20 year anniversary, it could count over 20 million visitors. While the numbers are in, the argument surrounding the concept of the Bilbao Effect lies in the question: Can the effects on the rest of the city really be attributed to the museum alone (and, in particular, it’s architectural design)?

One of the “Fosteritos” part of the Bilbao Metro by Foster + Partners, Bilbao, Spain

The short answer is: No. The longer answer requires some historical context. Located on Spain’s northern coast, just west of the border shared with France, the Basque city has long been associated with the industry. Having grown precipitously in the 19th century, as iron foundries and steel mills expanded, the city continued to develop throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century, as the metallurgic sector strengthened and the country industrialized. All of this came to a halt with the steel crisis of 1973 (though the industry first began to falter in the decade leading up to it). The once bustling port on the Bay of Biscay went quiet, and as factories languished and Spain entered a period of political uncertain, the region became increasingly associated with domestic terrorism.

While the local authorities did concoct a scheme to help turn around the fate of their city, they had never entirely rested all of their hopes in a single building. After the country began integrating with the European Communities in 1986, authorities in the Basque government began elaborating a wide-reaching redevelopment plan for their city. Beyond physical changes to the city fabric, they considered how they could reorient the economy towards tourism, which would require more than a single museum for urban renewal. In fact, it required an entire network that would not only connect various areas of the city, but that would also insert the Basque city into larger European transit networks. To this end, funds were not only poured into starting new business and training schemes and refurbishing major civic buildings, retail and cultural centers, but provisions were also made to introduce a tram system, new metro lines and an airport.

In this sense, the Bilbao Effect can hardly be attributed to a single building. However, that’s not to say that this network-approach did not lean heavily on the global design recognition to help with its rebranding. Beyond Gehry, Bilbao’s renaissance relied (and continues to rely) on a smattering of contributions by other Starchitects. Indeed, the 2022 Foster + Partners’ museum expansion and reorientation attest to the city’s dramatic change over the course of the previous decades. Yet, the project is not the firm’s first in the city: in fact, The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum will be the practice’s second project, following Bilbao Metro, which was appointed in 1988 and completed in 1995 (Gehry’s museum, but contrast, was appointed in 1991 and completed in 1997).

For the record, Gehry himself does not subscribe to the concept of the “Bilbao Effect”, nor to the narrative that his building was the forefront of the city’s rejuvenation. Rather than resting in an architectural design, he emphasizes the power of connectivity — the fact that his design is related to its surroundings: the river and the streets of the medieval city’s 19th century expansion. The Guggenheim museum’s director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, who was part of the 1991 conception, has also spoken up about the superficial implications of the term’s popularity. He stresses that the building was just one point in a larger “sustainable” plan that involved investment in urban development and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Bilbao’s relevance remains today in part to the city’s sustained investment in urban renewal. Consider the Bilbao Waterfront Abandoibarra Master Plan and the Plaza Euskadi, by New York City-based firm Balmori Associates, both completed in 2012 and conceived after the museum was already constructed (the site is adjacent to Gehry’s work). The former literally reimagines the area, once an industrial center, transforming it into a cultural and tourist district, where two-thirds of the 30-hectare site are dedicated to parks. The open space forms a public oasis that has created a space for new buildings by handful of globally celebrated architects: Léon Krier, Richard Legorreta, Rafael Moneo, Cesar Pelli, Alvaro Siza and Robert Stern.

At the heart of this plan, which weaves together the 19th-century ensanche with the new, globally-oriented development, is the Plaza Euskadi, a new urban pivot whose construction in 2008 coincided with Spain’s economic downturn. (As a result, the final design was reconceived to dramatically reduce the cost to one sixth the original budget). From the angle of sustained growth, the city has continued re-investing money into itself — even in the face of an economic crisis.

Now, Foster + Partner’s extension continues this legacy of urban-focused development; at the heart of the Fine Arts Museum’s transformation is the desire to reorient the building towards the 21st century city while respecting the existing museum. This is achieved not only though the construction of a new pedestrian path across the museum from north to south, but also by making the building more permeable at street level.

The new addition, however, continues to raise the bar in terms of design; in a city that was once associated with the carbon-heavy industry of refining steel, the new museum champions sustainable design principles including passive strategies such as harness cross ventilation and natural light, as well as high thermal mass, solar energy and rainwater collection. The cherry on top? The new extension will be made using low carbon steel. In this sense, it continues to underline the original desire to rebrand the post-industrial city through urban renewal and design, demonstrating that the weight of this task does not fall in a single building.

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Hannah Feniak Author: Hannah Feniak
Hannah Feniak is Architizer’s Architecture Editor. When she’s not leading our talented team of writers and interviewing the industry’s most innovative designers, Hannah is likely to be found exploring the latest exhibition openings. A trained art historian and educator with a focus on architecture and urbanism, Hannah holds degrees from McGill University in Montreal and NYU.
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