The Basque city locals remember as grimy and industrial has changed a lot since the Frank Gehry-designed building sprang up 25 years ago
Evening approaches Bilbao’s old port, bringing with it the joggers who pinball along the promenades, the tourists mulling a cruise on the dark green waters of the estuary, and the woman in the artisan ice-cream booth who keeps vigil behind tubs of dulce de leche, passionfruit and bubblegum-flavoured “blue smurf”.
Close by, its titanium scales glowing yellow in the last of the sun, lies the building that helped make such now-mundane scenes possible. Before the Guggenheim Museum opened in the Basque city 25 years ago this month – and before the massive urban regeneration project it helped to drive – Bilbao looked, felt and smelled very different.
“Back then, it was a much greyer, dirtier city whose skies were polluted by the smoke from the steel factories and the shipyards in the centre of the city,” says the mayor, Juan Mari Aburto, of the Bilbao of his childhood and adolescence.
“I remember a terribly dirty estuary – and it wasn’t just the industrial activity; there weren’t proper sewage channels and the smell that came off the water was pretty unbearable.”
By the late 1980s, that industrial powerhouse was in decline – and in the throes of an identity crisis. Devastating floods in 1983 were followed by years of economic upheaval that left many parts of the city’s heavy industry sector struggling to survive. Some managed to restructure; some did not.
Realising that Bilbao would have to diversify from its traditional economic bases, the Basque authorities embarked on a mega-project to overhaul the city, which included a €1bn programme to restore the polluted estuary and a new metro network.
As the push to move Bilbao from an industry-based economy to a service-based one continued, word arrived that the Guggenheim foundation was looking to increase its European presence.
In 1991, the Basque government and the regional authorities struck a deal with the foundation that would see the building of a new museum, designed by Frank Gehry, which would host some of the Guggenheim’s famous art collection.
The project, however, was not without its critics.
“The idea of using culture as a transformative element wasn’t that clear back then; it was a bit of a dream,” says the museum’s director general, Juan Ignacio Vidarte. “And there was opposition and criticism from those who thought the resources should go on supporting businesses in crisis and helping to prop them up for a few more months or years – and from those who thought the money should go on healthcare or infrastructure.”
There was also profound disquiet from some within the Basque cultural world, who saw the arrival of the Guggenheim as an “imperialist intervention” and an affront to native Basque culture.
“It was very difficult,” remembers Vidarte. “But none of it was surprising.”
A little over 30 years ago, the site of the museum and the office where Vidarte now sits was a forgotten corner of the old port, a no man’s land of disused industrial units, cranes and warehouses that was close to the heart of Bilbao but decidedly not a part of it.
“This whole area wasn’t an urban zone because, even though it was very close to the city centre, it wasn’t accessible,” says the director. “I think one of Gehry’s greatest ideas with the building – which was meant to be the beginning of the re-urbanisation process and rather define the character of everything that followed – was to make the museum a connection between the city and the estuary.”
As Gehry’s building grew – and as Barcelona and Seville reaped the respective civic and tourist rewards of the Olympics and the Expo in 1992 – so, too, did confidence in the Bilbao project.
A few months before the Guggenheim opened, it hosted the 1997 Pritzker architecture prize. And when it was inaugurated in October 1997, the opening made the evening headlines on CNN.
“That really surprised me,” says Vidarte. “But it showed that something was happening and that we were moving towards a time where a peripheral city such as Bilbao could become a place of global interest. And that’s what’s happened.”
Triumphant as the museum’s opening was, it came at the end of a long and bloody summer during which the Basque terrorist group Eta committed some of its most infamous atrocities. In July 1997, Eta kidnapped and murdered Miguel Ángel Blanco, a 29-year-old councillor for the conservative People’s party. And then, less than a week before the Guggenheim opened, a Basque police officer called Txema Aguirre was fatally shot by Eta as he foiled a grenade attack on the museum.
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A quarter of a century on, the Guggenheim is a glittering and essential part of the city’s fabric, attracting almost 25 million visitors since opening its doors and bringing an estimated €6.5bn (£5.6bn) to the Basque country. Industry today is concentrated on the outskirts of the city and tourism now accounts for 6.5% of the city’s GDP – a far cry from the days when few people chose to go to Bilbao unless on business or to see family.
But how much of the transformation can be attributed to the “Guggenheim effect”? The phrase elicits a mixed response in the city itself.
“We can’t reduce Bilbao’s transformation to the arrival of the Guggenheim,” says the mayor, who sees it as the fruits of a far longer period of inter-institutional collaboration and investment.
“The Guggenheim was the engine of that transformation, and then we had very important elements. The entire city has been transformed in a way that’s probably unprecedented on an international level. The recovery of our estuary and our environment – and that €1bn investment – is paradigmatic in that.”
The museum’s director is similarly circumspect.
“If people use the phrase ‘Guggenheim effect’ to communicate the idea that cultural infrastructure can have a transformative effect that goes beyond the purely cultural sphere – that it can have a social, architectural, planning and economic impact – then I’d go along with that,” says Vidarte.
“But they need to understand what all that involves. I don’t like it when that phrase is associated with projects that have nothing in common with this one besides a spectacular building, or with grabby projects. It’s about having the other ingredients that are fundamental to understanding why it worked here but hasn’t worked in many other places.
“This project was part of a much bigger plan and it fitted in with that plan and didn’t happen in isolation – it wasn’t done on a whim.”
Roberto Gómez, who runs the Bilboats estuary tour company, stands on the promenade not far from the thrusting Iberdrola skyscraper, which somehow manages to look a little underdressed next to the Guggenheim.
He points across the city to another tower as he explains Bilbao, past and present. Once upon a time, the 25-metre brick chimney in the Parque Etxebarria belched the smoke from a steelworks. Today, it is a relic, just like the stretches of industrial ruins that offend the eyes of those of his passengers who come in search of the new Bilbao.
“I remember when I was a kid how when the factories started pumping out smoke, the women in the neighbourhood would call out, ‘Shut your windows! Shut your windows’ because the grime got everywhere – and I was asthmatic,” says Gómez.
“Everything was industrial here and it was like that until the end of the 1980s. The sky was pretty brown back then, and so was the estuary. But a lot of work went into the river and now there’s life there once again.”
Some things were lost, he says, and some were found. “And we carried on going forwards. It’s what you have to do.”

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