This article explores the idea of the Bilbao Effect, a term coined by writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades, and aims at showcasing both sides of the argument when it comes to the depths of its actual effect.

In the year 1997, the city of Bilbao saw a drastic facelift in the opening of the famed Guggenheim museum in the banks of Nervion. A month prior to the opening, Frank O Gehry, the globally famous architect of the museum, looked over to the city, saw the shimmering building and thought, “what have I done to this city and its people”. The design stood at stark contrast with the shallow skyline of the sleepy city and it seemed to not belong here at all. For him, the popularity of the museum came by surprise….it was something he absolutely had not foreseen. And yet two decades down the line, the museum is considered to be one of the most influential buildings of modern times.

Guggenheim Bilbao -1
Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry

The huge cultural and economic impact that the Guggenheim museum, a prime exhibit of st-architecture brought about in the city of Bilbao is a very widely discussed phenomenon.  While a major portion of the architectural fraternity and the economists are hailing the museum for the glory it brought, and still trying to quantify its effects, another section claims that the whole ‘Bilbao Effect’ itself is a cooked up narrative, a clever strategy to promote already famous architects, and obnoxious, often useless designs.

The industrial city of Bilbao, situated in the northern part of Spain is one of the major port cities of the country. It acts as the centre of shipping, manufacturing and commerce. The industrial development of Bilbao started after the civil war of 1940s. It functioned as a major supply hub during the industrial revolution. It has been more than 20 years  since the Guggenheim museum was built in Bilbao and with its deconstructivism style vehemently displayed in its façade, through the cluster of overlapping and intersecting titanium panels, it all took form to create a silhouette that stood at contrast to anything the people of the city were used to. The museum was bound to become an icon, a new hope that brought fame to the grappling city, and in effect propelling its growth to what it is now.

Besides being the face of the city, the economic impact of the museum is evaluated to be highly satisfactory.  Since the museum was opened in 1997, over 20 million people have visited the museum, a majority of which were foreign tourists. It had created and maintained around 4500 jobs, mainly in transportation and other hospitality and retail establishments like hotels, cafes, bars etc. Added to all these tangible benefits is the psychological effect of the museum which was to recover the civic pride among its people. But the formula of this success is considered by many to be non- replicable, since a lot of factors came together coincidentally, in the city of Bilbao for the unfolding of this success story.

Director of the museum, Juan Ignacio Vidarte who witnessed the conceiving of the museum to its growth to present stage, says it completely fulfilled what it was supposed to do. During the 90s, in the beginning of the decade, the city underwent a harsh period. Unemployment rate was at 21% and the city itself saw an identity crisis. This transformational project has successfully catalysed an economic transformation, appealed to the universal audience with a positive image, and helped in reinforcing the self esteem of the city. The museum has brought about a million visitors annually to the city, according to Ignacio Vidarte. The agreement worked out for the museum itself was popular by the name ‘McGuggenheim’, a policy where the government of the city and the province in which the museum stood, paid for the construction, acquisitions and running costs. The Guggenheim foundation would in turn lend its name, its management and curatorship and some of its permanent collection. It was considered an act of cultural imperialism, paid for by the same people it subjected, and was notorious globally. Yet, it gave Bilbao access to high quality art which would take the museum to greater heights later on.

But many architecture critics have come out publicly stating that a lot of credit is attributed to the museum, much more than it deserves. They criticise the trend of trying to replicate the effect while claiming that the effect itself is inexistent. They deem the Bilbao case as a one hit wonder, a city that got lucky due to several coincidences coming together, rather than just because of a museum designed by a popular architect. Edwin Heathcote, Architecture and design critic of the Financial Times, goes as far to say that the Bilbao effect is  a myth. He points out how the Sydney Opera house or the Pompidou had transformed their respective cities. Moreover he calls the museum a transnational corporation’s ‘franchise’, owned by the Basque administration but controlled from New York by the Guggenheim foundation, and contributing nothing to the cultural production of the place. The economic impact caused by regeneration projects created by the museum is largely unstable, in the tourism and retail sectors especially. And from the present scenario of socio- economic disparities in the city, and its poverty levels, he goes on to say that the effect cannot be called a success, even in Bilbao.

Guggenheim Bilbao -2

This is one perspective even Frank Gehry agrees with. He tends to stay away from the aspects relating to this surge of fame that the museum garnered. He does not believe in the Bilbao effect and blames the journalists for propagating this ‘rags to riches’ narrative of a city and placing it all upon this one single building. And he states that one aspect the people who try to replicate the success overlook is that it works hard to connect to its surroundings. It was inspired from 19th century street modules and boats and harbours of the Nervion river.

Even when actively compared to the legacies of Sydney opera house,  or the Pompidou centre, what sets Bilbao apart is the contrast between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ faces. The city’s low status before the coming up of the museum and the way it has transformed overtime to be lively and brimming with people, a transformation into a vibrant city of service economy. And myth or not, the Bilbao Effect still seems to be weaving its magic for the city.


Melva Joseph is a young, passionate architecture graduate from TKM College of Engineering, Kerala. Being extremely curious and adaptable made her an extensive reader, avid traveller and a good conversationalist. She holds close the belief that the existing gap between architecture and the common man should be bridged.