18 Hours in Bilbao

Bilbao: Day Twenty

The three minutes between 06:40 and 06:43 yesterday morning were potentially the most costly three minutes of my life. It was by this margin that I missed the check-in for my flight to Bilbao. I had to pay for a seat on a later flight, then had to purchase a ticket for a return flight because my late arrival in Bilbao would mean that the early departure of my train to Barcelona the next day would leave me no time to see any of Bilbao itself – the only reason for making the journey there at all. There were other complications too, but most costly of all was that now, I was late for a very important date.

Bilbao is the archetype for culture-led urban rejuvenation and redevelopment around the world. Located on Ria de Bilbao in Norther Spain, it’s the largest city of the Basque region that straddles the Spanish and French boarder (but let’s not get in to all of that). It used to be a port town which experienced an economic and social decline in the later half of last century. Then they built a lavish modern art galley, and now everything’s sweet (or so it appears).

Like most that visit Bilbao, I found myself propositioned by her younger, prettier companion – wearing a flashy sequinned gown and revealing a little too much cleavage. She was difficult to ignore. In fact, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Metaphors aside, Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Bilbao was my first proper encounter with contemporary ‘starchitecture’. I’m not really sure what the etiquette is for a meeting such as this. Before I left my hotel room this morning I began to wonder: should I get dressed up? Would it be more appropriate if I wore a coat and tie for my visit? Somehow, I felt a little too self aware given the prospect of visiting what is really just a big shed, albeit an architecturally iconic one.

There’s been lots written about the building and the impact it’s had on the fortunes of the city, so I’ve no intention of adding much to that conversation. My metaphor of the other women however, accurately illustrates the relationship that most visitors have with Bilbao. They first see the seductress in her midst, and occasionally they notice her standing there, waiting politely for a glance in her direction. This is of course, a deliberate ploy to lure visitors to an otherwise overlooked part of Spain. The other women is for most, the reason Bilbao appears on their travel itinerary in the first instance. I’m torn. I feel as though I have been played.

But my 18 hours in Bilbao was time enough to discover that the city itself is a special place.

First and foremost, it’s a city that got up off the canvas. I don’t know if things were bad before, but this is now a city of 350,000 or so that ‘benefits’ from about one million visitors each year. There’s something to be said for having the courage to back yourself when the opposition to the revitalisation plans of the 1990s must have been significant. I’m not aware of any cities that have been quite so bold as to wager so much on such long odds. But from what I saw during those 18 hours, this was a well planned and cleverly executed redevelopment campaign.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is the centrepiece of a broad reaching social, physical and economic redevelopment; deeply influenced by (or itself influencing) ‘creative city’ planning ideals. The mistake many cities make is to invest their fortunes in a landmark building without following through with a fully integrated development strategy. Like planting a seed in a bucket of gravel; it might sprout, but it probably won’t.

I have many reservations about the use of landmark architectural centrepieces at the heart of any urban rejuvenation strategy. And these are borne out by those cities that have not properly understood what Bilbao has done. It wasn’t the building that did it for Bilbao, it was what (and who) the building was built to appealed to. It appealed to the creative classes, and love it or hate it, it worked.

Further to this however, Bilbao’s plan seems to have taken everybody in to account, and children in particular. Every 300 meters or so along both sides of the river adjacent to the Guggenheim, there are a series of fully-fledged children’s playgrounds, each different from the others. Between each playground are a variety of spaces that include nooks for hiding, rises to roll down and lots of open space to muck around in. There are none of those unsightly metal knobs designed to stop the young ones from using their skateboards in ways that would solicit a tut-tut from the rest of us, either. These are spaces that people of all ages and interests are welcomed and encouraged by the design treatment, to use.

Bilbao’s compact ‘old city’ has all of the charm that we have come to expect from a precinct with heritage significance, and the buzzing commercial centre and riverfront treatments give the city a richer sense of place, and legitimacy. Of course, I’m yet to fully comprehend what the rejuvenation has meant to the residents of Bilbao themselves. I imagine there have been problems – new problems that have arisen as a result of the “rock star” profile the cig has now attracted. But this is now a city that people visit for fun (and vanity), but it also has a serious purpose. I have to accept that much of what Bilbao has done seems to have been done very well.

Since my visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao I’ve read about other people’s experience of this particular piece of Ghery’s work, on blogs from around the world but mainly America. One lady described her visit as “one of the greatest moments of my [her] life”. This is someone who’s been thoroughly bedazzled by the other woman.

Some people just need to live a little… but let this be where the metaphor ends.

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