Bilbao, the Pittsburgh of Spain

Joel sent me a pointer to this New York Times story about the tourist boom in Bilbao, "the Pittsburgh of Spain," that followed construction of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum.

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.


8 Responses to "Bilbao, the Pittsburgh of Spain"

Brendan said... 9/22/2007 1:12 AM

It can go either way. You mentioned Calatrava...though he hasn't done anything interesting in quite some time, his Milwaukee Art Museum was not only a great project, it also had what might be the closest thing to the Bilbao Effect in the States. Since Calatrava used to be a good architect, the building is particularly well integrated with the city and the lakefront, and it's very popular with both tourists and locals.

The MAM has had a definite impact on Milwaukee; even if that can't be quantitatively measured, it's done wonders for Milwaukeeans' perception of their city, and that's exactly the kind of jolt that Pittsburgh could use. Really, it's been within the past ten years that people have stopped apologizing for being from Milwaukee.

Mike Madison said... 9/22/2007 8:05 AM

I've been to the MAM. It's fabulous, and it clearly gives Milwaukee a lift. (That's a metaphoric pun.)

Miller Park, however, is a disaster.

Anonymous said... 9/22/2007 9:42 AM

I don't know a lot about Bilbao but it sounds like there isn't much else for tourists there. Whereas Pittsburgh has several great museums and cultural attractions. So if we did get some amazing new museum or whatever, would the term "Bilbao effect" even apply?

I guess it would in that Pittsburgh isn't typically seen as a tourist destination. But once people get here they have lots to do.

Of course we could certainly use a little self-esteem boost. But if the many smaller projects, plus PNC Park, the Warhol, the convention center... if those all haven't improved our collective self-esteem I don't know that anything will.

Jim Russell said... 9/22/2007 12:57 PM

What does it mean to be the Pittsburgh of fill-in-the-blank?

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.

Pittsburgh's local cultural assets are not disconnected from the city and the orientation is decidedly inward, not outward (as in Bilbao).

I don't think Pittsburgh the city is the best example of Pittsburgh the global icon.

Anonymous said... 9/22/2007 10:34 PM

I always thought we could make a big, sustanined jolt if some old-money Pittsburgher would build a Louvre-style structure for a museum on the north shore. But that was back before the ballparks, office buildings and casinos filled in the space. Maybe it can happen on the other river, or at the point (where Frank Lloyd Wright had some interesting ideas)... maybe a museum of american industry or invention or immigration or engineering... things that are connected to Pittsburgh's past

John Morris said... 9/25/2007 5:57 PM

It's interesting that Pittsburgh isn't considered a tourist destination. You would be hard pressed to find another city of it's small size, with such a small tax base and land area that has dedicated so much space and tax money to what are essentially tourist destinations.

The North Side, has pretty much been declared for non residents only. Small minor benefits for residents of the city have to be smuggled in on the space left over after all the other plans are done with.

Karen said... 10/02/2007 12:30 PM

I've been to Bilbao twice. The first time, I admit, was just to see the Guggenheim. It was a drizzly, chilly day and I didn't see much of the city.

But the second time, I spend several days there and can honestly say it is one of my favorite cities in the world. The people, the cafes, the river, are all beautiful.

It is the Pittsburgh of Spain -- and Pittsburgh should do more to emulate it. Maybe not a big-name museum, but definitely more sidewalk cafes!

jose del moral said... 9/25/2009 5:29 PM

Well, there is a lot to see in Bilbao, besides the Guggenheim: the old city has great restaurants, the main avenue is gorgeous. Don't forget the seaside and the Bizkaia Bridge, the oldest hanging bridge world wide and now a Unesco wonder.

Search Pittsblog

About Pittsblog

Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

Comments are moderated.
Subscribe to Pittsblog comments


Blog Archive

Header Background

Header background images licensed from (left image) lemonad and (right image) plaskota under Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 2.0 Generic licenses.


Copyright 2003-2010 Michael J. Madison - WP Theme by Brian Gardner - Blogger Blog Templates,