When Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (pictured) first opened its doors in Bilbao in 1997, few could have predicted that it would unleash a global urbanism phenomenon. About 1.2 million people a year visit the city; in 2021 almost 531,000 people came to see the building, which has also ushered in a wave of development across the region. The “Bilbao effect”, a term used to describe the power of architecture to revive a city’s economy, has been used (and abused) around the world as other urban centres have emulated the Basque city’s success.
Now, 25 years later, Bilbao’s Guggenheim hopes to recreate its own effect. This week the museum announced that it would proceed with a €127m expansion almost 40km away in the Urdaibai area, connected to the main site by a tunnel. While this isn’t the first time that the Guggenheim has touted the idea, a pledge of €40m towards the project by Biscay province is a clear sign that things are finally moving forward. Former industrial sites in Guernica and Murueta will be adapted for the project, which is expected to create at least 900 jobs. Officials predict that there will be some 148,000 visitors a year when the annex is completed.
Successful transformative urbanism is not unique to Bilbao. Architectural marvels have been commissioned around the world in the hopes of reviving cities or neighbourhoods: witness the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Louvre Abu Dhabi or the MAAT in Lisbon. But it will be interesting to watch this city attempt to apply its own namesake effect on itself. Recreating an international phenomenon carries risks, of course, but surely nowhere is better qualified to implement the Bilbao effect than Bilbao itself.
Carlota Rebelo is Monocle 24’s senior producer/presenter and makes the weekly Monocle 24 radio programme and podcast ‘The Urbanist’.