Joel didn't add a comment, perhaps inviting me to decide whether or not the Guggenheim has been a good thing for Bilbao and, by extension, whether or not a similar signature piece of architecture could do the same for Pittsburgh.
It appears that the Guggenheim has been a mixed blessing for Bilbao as a whole. Now that a million visitors a year come on a Gehry pilgrimage:
A tangle of construction cranes today rises over the city's terra-cotta rooftops, but the changes are already apparent at the street level. Bilbao, a muscular town of steelworkers and engineers, is slowly becoming a more effete city of hotel clerks and art collectors. . . .
The cleaner water, however, hasn't necessarily brought more tourists upriver. Despite a host of tourist information centers, including a glass shed outside the Guggenheim staffed with professional guides and a rainbow of color brochures, Bilbao remains very much a one-attraction town. . . .
No wonder many guidebooks still devote as many pages to the Guggenheim — reprinting floor plans, offering tips and expounding on the museum's design — as they do the rest of Bilbao. On paper at least, Bilbao seems to have it all: world-class museum, fine Basque cuisine, a rollicking night life and lots of shopping. But like the new bike paths that were rarely used during my visit, the city lacks the critical mass of attractions to take it from a provincial post-industrial town, to a global cosmopolitan city. And in the meantime, it is losing the shabby edge that gave the city its earlier appeal.
The concentration of first-rate architecture is astounding, even without Gehry's titanium masterpiece. But architecture alone does not a city make. Bilbao is all dressed-up, but hasn't figured where to go.
“Our local culture still hasn't integrated with the Guggenheim,” said Alfonso Martínez Cearra, the general manager of Bilbao Metropoli-30, a public-private partnership that is guiding the city's revitalization. “This is still an industrial city.”
The disconnect between Bilbao the brand, and Bilbao the city was on display one Saturday night, when the narrow streets of Casco Viejo were once again packed with young bar-hoppers. The smell of marijuana wafted from a crowd outside a bar on Calle de Somera. In the group was Ikel, a 22-year-old studying to be an engineer, like his father.
“I've never been to the Guggenheim,” Ikel said between puffs, as mechanical street cleaners starting scrubbing beer and urine from the cobblestones. “It's for tourists.”
To my knowledge, no one is offering Frank Gehry or an architect that I prefer, such as Santiago Calatrava, to Pittsburgh. That's OK with me. Much as I appreciate signature architecture, and much as I think that casinos and arenas shouldn't be regional priorities, I don't think that Pittsburgh needs to experience the Bilbao effect.