Wednesday, October 15, 1997

Bilbao Notebook

Published in Deutsche Bauzeitung, December 1997, pages 22 - 23.
© Deutsche Bauzeitung, David Cohn 1997. All rights reserved.

October 15, 1997, press opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao. A spontaneous "installation piece" appears on the entry plaza: flowers strewn on the pavement before a black-draped Basque flag, surrounded by crime-scene tape and a pair of guards, marking the spot where separatist terrorists killed a policeman who discovered their attempt to sabotage the opening. Beside it, Jeff Koon's 12 meter high, plant-covered Puppy, a Pop sphinx, greets the city.

11:30 AM: the press assembles in Gehry's delirious soaring atrium, part cartoon, part Expressionist stage set, exhilarating in its incomprehensibility. Behind the speakers' podium, a striking sunlit view of the opposite bank of the River Nervión, lined with dreary housing blocks and backed by a steep green hillside, blazes into the chamber through towering crevices of glass, like the brilliant images projected on a cinema's silver screen.
Reality and image mix inextricably in Bilbao. The frantic formal eruption of the Guggenheim, with the over-sized artworks in its sprawling galleries, is nothing less than an attempt to win the battle for the city's future with an image, to challenge terrorist violence and industrial obsolescence with optimism and publicity. Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens has convinced local authorities that art, in his words, will prove "profitable, both socially and economically," that Gehry's work will attract international pilgrimage, patronage and business, and impose the voice of progress over the voices of defeat, violence and fear, allowing Bilbao to compete for the position of commercial center of the Atlantic seaboard. And all this, as one official pointed out, for the price of a few kilometers of highway ($160 million US).

Built on the site of the historic Euskaduna blast furnaces at the edge of Bilbao's business core, the Museum is the centerpiece of a US $1,500 million publicly-financed revitalization plan for this metropolis of one million, the fourth largest in Spain. An American-style office and commercial complex designed by Cesar Pelli begins construction soon on an adjacent riverside parcel. Nearby, a $53 million opera and convention hall, by Madrid architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios, is rising on the site of a former shipyard. A modern $500 million port facility is underway in the Nervión estuary, as well as a new airport by Santiago Calatrava, and a rail-bus station by Michael Wilford. Foster and Partner's subway system was inaugurated in 1995. And an ambitious plan was just announced to recover six kilometers of abandoned industrial land along the river for business, services, housing and recreation, including a new sports stadium and theme park, connected by a grand boulevard and a dozen new river bridges.

The premise that the Guggenheim alone will make Bilbao a tourist destination, attracting 400,000 visitors a year, seems a risky bet in the long run. Krens has also sold the Basques on the American concept of corporate patronage. Basque President José Antonio Ardanza is clearly impressed by the opportunity to run shoulders with American millionaires on the Guggenheim's Board, though the Museum has attracted only four corporate benefactors and seven associates to date.

But its American participants seem equally dazzled by the project. In its gambler's boom-town optimism, the Guggenheim is quintessentially American in spirit, but a similar project would probably be impossible in the United States today, with its under-financed public realm, its lack of public support for culture, its self-doubts and conflicts. For Gehry, the building is "beyond my wildest hopes and dreams." He considers Bilbao "much more advanced" than his native Los Angles, where his Disney Concert Hall is mired in problems. Krens, struggling with the economic problems caused by earlier New York expansions and rebuffed in a similar proposal for Salzburg, Austria, says he "never imagined" he would find such an "opportune partnership" in Bilbao. And New York Times' critic Herbert Muschamp considers the building a "miracle". In modern Spain, American culture has found a glorious reflected image of itself, which it has embraced with enthusiasm and relief.