The Bilbao Effect – Reviving a City Through Art


The Guggenheim Museum seen from the Puente de la Salve.

Nancy Zubiri, Editor

My trip to the Basque Country did not include a long to-do list. I haven’t been here in 16 years, yet when I arrived two weeks ago, I did not feel compelled to do a lot of sightseeing. I only wanted to attend a family reunion and visit with friends. With the exception of one excursion: a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbo, as Bilbao is called in Basque.

When I was in Europe last, in 1995, the plans for this massive architectural jewel were already in the works and quite controversial. The primary question then: Why Bilbao?

When I was in college, during 1979, I spent quite a bit of time in the Basque Country – mostly in Iparralde – the French side – where my immediate family is from, and a bit in Gipuzkoa. Never in Bizkaia. Bilbo had a tradition of being a very industrial city, and I was told factories poured their wastes into the Nervion River that runs through it. Local friends disencouraged me from visiting, claiming there wasn’t much to see here.

The construction of the Guggenheim changed that image. The museum, which opened in 1997, has brought millions of new visitors. The biggest Basque city has become a must-see stop for international travelers.

In fact, it is referred to in news reports as “the Bilbao effect” -– the regeneration of a city, led by art.

A sculpture outside the Guggenheim Museum with the Salve bridge in the background
Outside the Guggenheim Museum

“Despite attempts to emulate the ‘Bilbao effect’ elsewhere in the world, very few new museums or galleries outside capital cities have succeeded in getting so many visitors. Gehry’s architecture and the Guggenheim’s art have proved an irresistible combination,” a Forbes magazine declared in 2002. This article unfortunately does not take into effect what I call “the Basque factor.” The Basques have survived over the centuries because of their ability to take what is there and work hard at making it better, yet making it theirs at the same time. (Euskadi is an economic cornerstone of Spain. Those who left the Basque Country have found economic success and perpetuated their culture in their new homes.)

The fact is that the construction of the Guggenheim Museum was only one part of the redevelopment of the city. Bilbo, the biggest city in the Basque Country, was already attempting to change its image from that of an industrial port to a vibrant city. A plan for a major clean-up of the river had already been developed in the 1980s.

The Guggenheim Museum

Admittedly, none of the exhibits we saw were specifically Basque. Yet that is as it should be. The museum is international in scope. However, the Basque influence is ubiquitous. The explanations for all exhibits are in Spanish and Euskera. The main signs for visitors are in Spanish, English, French and Euskera. One of my 10-year-old son’s favorite sightings in the museum was the longest Basque name he had ever seen.

One of the longest Basque names was on display at Guggenheim
One of longest Basque names was on display at Guggenheim

The exhibits accomplished their objective. No easy explanations for most of these modern, unusual artistic installations lead visitors to wonder what is the point and question their own thoughts and ideas. The majority of the exhibits we saw were part of “The Luminous Interval,” a private collection of contemporary art that will be here through Sept. 11.

The Basques have survived over the centuries because of their ability to take what is there and work hard at making it better, yet making it theirs at the same time.

The best feature of the museum is without a doubt the building itself. Inside and out, the design creates different, magnificent views from every single spot. Architect Frank Gehry explains through the free multilingual audio guides offered to visitors that nothing except the floor is straight. All lines curve. Much of his inspiration for the museum’s design, he relates, came from the fish he brought home from trips to the market with his grandmother, then put into the bathtub until it was time to cook them.

Outside the Guggenheim Museum

Gehry explains too that part of his goal of placing the museum on the edge of the Nervion River was to have the building itself bring people to its doors. Our personal experience is a testament to his success.

The museum is fairly easy to locate because of its high visibility from many parts of the city. We parked on the opposite side of the river in a parking structure under the elegant Hotel Hesperia. After thoroughly enjoying a classic almuerzo at the Cafeteria Mandobide in the Plaza Funicular, we were directed by the friendly manager to the tree-lined walkway along the river then up the elevator to the top of the Puente de la Salve, built in 1972, whose red arch was added in 2007 by artist Daniel Buren. At the top, we had a stunning view of the shiny titanium-plated architecture.

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The picturesque red La Salva bridge, which is a sight to see in its own right, led down to curving sidewalk around the building to the front of the museum, where a giant pink, red, yellow, purple and white-flower-covered puppy greets visitors. During our visit, many windows and skylights encouraged us to look upward and down. Glass doors in the museum lead to many open spaces where sculptures, water and views encourage visitors to linger. It was a rainy day in the middle of the summer – a moment likely to create a packed house. Yet the Guggenheim never felt crowded, due to the many options and directions available at any point in time.

Consider eating at Nerua, an award-winning restaurant inside the Guggenheim. Here’s a behind-the-scenes video about Nerua.

All in all, the Bilbao effect, coupled with the “Basque factor,” made our visit to this cosmopolitan city one we will readily repeat.

Hours and Admission at the Guggenheim Museum

The red La Salva Bridge in Bilbo, which leads to the Guggenheim Museum.
The red La Salva Bridge in Bilbo, which leads to the Guggenheim Museum. (Nancy Zubiri)