Visiting Bilbao

The idea that a ‘starchitect’ could regenerate an entire city effectively began with the ‘Bilbao Effect’, and a host of other cities have jumped on this particular bandwagon. Apparently, you pretty much have to get Gehry, Calatrava, Foster, Rogers, or Liebeskind on board in order to be considered (by other mayors at least) a world class city.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve been rather wary of this claim since I don’t see how pretty buildings can cover up a multitude of other sins. But more than that, I’ve often found that these great buildings just weren’t all that great up close. MIT is suing Gehry over the Stata Centre. The ROM extension by Liebeskind has been rather controversial for both artists, as well as users of Bloor Street, one of Toronto’s main axes. Some have also noted that as the craze for ‘world class architecture’ heats up, there seems to be a certain… sameness to it all. None of these architects really seems to give a s**t about the urban environment into which their projects are being inserted, they sort of parachute in, draw some straight/curved/intersecting lines on a piece of paper and leave Arup to figure out how to build it.

So… when the opportunity arose to visit the city where it all began, I jumped. Moreover, Bilbao doesn’t just have one Gehry, it has two Calatravas, and no less than three other famous contemporary architects (whose names aren’t quite as much at the forefront of my mind, so perhaps I should call them famous-amongst-architects). Anyway, there is a lot of architecture to look at, all of it by people you’ll probably be seeing more of in a town near you.

Let me start with the Calatrava pieces: the Zubizuri (White Bridge) and the airport. Arriving after dark, my first impression of the airport was that it really was quite impressive — lots of glass avoids that Heathrow Terminal 2 feeling, and gentle arcs keep it from feeling horribly authoritarian. A soaring ceiling completes the feeling of openness and not being stuck in JFK. The white bridge also clearly flows from a clever marriage of engineering and architecture: the bridge has been compared to a sail and certainly floats very lightly on the banks of the Nervion.

Look a little closer, however, and things don’t stand up quite so well. Calatrava spec’d the bridge to have transparent glass to reinforce the desired effect. Only problem is that a gently arcing wet glass bridge is nothing short of deadly for children and the elderly. So the city government had to quickly put down black non-slip tape to save itself from a lawsuit or two. Quite a few of the panels on the bridge floor have shattered like safety glass, and there are stains running down the sides of the concrete as well as peeling paint and obviously new areas where graffiti has been covered up.

Now, I’d guess that Calatrava would blame this on maintenance, but I’d argue that part of the role of the architect is not to think only about how great their building looks right after it opens or, better yet, how great it looked when it was finished and before anyone had actually tried to use it, but also to think about how their building will look in five, ten, or twenty years’ time. If the building can’t age well and requires thousands of dollars’ worth of upkeep just to keep it from falling apart, then I’m not entirely sure that the architect should be considered to have met the brief. And suggesting that the bridge isn’t a one-off case, in the daylight it became obvious that the airport has a similar problem: the concrete is stained and the windows near the jets are filthy (big surprise). Again, partly a maintenance issue, but what city government has the budget to maintain a piece like this in the way Calatrava would expect? Or does he simply not care about what it looks like ten years after it’s finished?

It was with these thoughts in mind that I strolled down to the Guggenheim… about which all I can say is: wow! Of course, the Guggenheim doesn’t really fit with the city’s history (all Gehry’s claims about ‘fish scales’ aside) but in the one case I don’t really care. When the ‘Gugg’ opened in 1997 (I think it was) I remember one reviewer who said: “In a building this good who cares about the art.” But the surprising thing (to me) about the work is that it still leaves space for the art to come alive. The Serras in particularly are just stunning work and the gallery lets them be what they are without impressing you with the whizz-bang curves that litter all of the open areas. There’s a Koons on the ‘balcony’ that overlooks the river, but since it’s quite a shout-out piece it can hold its own against the titanium and glass.

But to me the best thing about the Guggenheim is the way that it appears to change shape over the course of the day as different surfaces reflect or redirect the sunshine. I’d like to believe that Gehry planned this, but it could just as easily be a happy circumstance. Either way, the building seems to morph from hour to hour and is constantly surprising me with new angles and new relations between elements. In short, it’s quite obviously a work of architectural genius (as opposed to mere excellence) and makes a trip to Bilbao well worth the effort.