Living with art

Not by accident, certainly by design, this city’s belief in the allure of beauty has made it famous

At the AlhóndigaBilbao, swimmers can be seen from below in their roof- level glass-bottom pool. At the AlhóndigaBilbao, swimmers can be seen from below in their roof- level glass-bottom pool.
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / August 7, 2011

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BILBAO, Spain - Local teens are probably oblivious that an international panel of critics surveyed by Vanity Fair last year anointed the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao the most important piece of architecture since 1980. The kids are too busy hurtling their skateboards down the stairs and ramps of the outside terraces or bombing soccer balls against the impossible curves of the museum’s famous titanium skin. Runners in Spandex stride the riverfront path, dwarfed below the museum’s looming mass. At a nearby plaza, adults sip wine and tap their feet to a jazz combo. The people of Bilbao live the “Guggenheim effect’’ every day.

Economic revival through landmark architecture has become an international article of faith since the Guggenheim Bilbao opened in October 1997. But the museum did more than alter Bilbao’s skyline and bring in tourists - it changed the city’s soul.

Bilbainos never tire of relating how grim their once-proud industrial city had become. By the 1980s, the shipbuilding and steel industries had collapsed, leaving double-digit unemployment, decaying dockyards, and a polluted environment. “It was a gray, awful city,’’ says Gaetan De Backer, who guides some of the more than 900,000 foreigners who visit the Guggenheim each year. “We needed to make a big transformation.’’

Bilbao and the Basque regional government launched several ambitious infrastructure projects to improve transportation and clean up abandoned industrial sites, but they placed their biggest bet on culture. To put Bilbao on the world map, they spent more than $100 million to partner with New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which was shopping for overseas satellite locations.

Although Bilbao has an elegant Victorian sector, architect Frank Gehry chose to build on the blighted banks of the Río Nervión, where his architecturally complex building rose in just four years. Its fish-shaped forms were a radical departure, even for Gehry. Seeing the finished building just before it opened, he admitted to Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer that his first reaction was “Oh, my God, what have I done to these people?’’ It took a few years before the building began to grow on him.

“It’s a strange building for Bilbao, but it works,’’ says De Backer. Lest visitors miss Gehry’s intentional references to the massive Romanesque churches found all across northern Spain, De Backer gestures to the soaring ceilings and the museum’s skylit central atrium that floods the interior with daylight. “It’s like a cathedral,’’ he says - a cathedral that showcases contemporary and modern art from 1945 to the present.

Looking more like a gigantic sculptural installation than a building, the Guggenheim also brought art out of the galleries, onto the streets, and into the everyday life of the city. When curators were going to remove Jeff Koons’s 43-foot-tall topiary sculpture “Puppy’’ from the museum plaza, schoolchildren made such a fuss that it stayed put. Covered with such seasonal flowers as purple and yellow pansies, it is a sweet counterpoint to more aggressive works like Yves Klein’s “Fire Fountain’’ of dancing jets of fire, air, and water, or Louise Bourgeois’s undeniably creepy “Maman,’’ a 30-foot-high mother spider. Little children try to climb the spider as if it were a jungle gym. Cyclists zip blithely through her legs on the more than 4-mile riverfront path constructed to link the Guggenheim with the medieval city of Bilbao Viejo. A soaring pedestrian bridge by Valencia architect Santiago Calatrava makes it easy for walkers from both sides of the river to converge on the lively tapas scene in the old city.

And converge they do - especially on the taverns and restaurants beneath the Neoclassical arcades of Plaza Nueva. (Only in a city dating to 1300 could a square built in 1826 be called “new.’’) The arrival of the Guggenheim did not bring great food to Bilbao - stupendous eating has always been a birthright of the Basques. But the flair of the Guggenheim did create a psychic shift by putting a premium on creativity and wit, and that change of heart infected the dining scene. Chefs labor in the tiny kitchens of Plaza Nueva to transform traditional flavors - salt cod, garlic, little hot peppers, flat green beans - into improbably beautiful and sensual small plates. They call their avant-garde tapas pintxos de vanguardia and the chefs line their bars with as many as two dozen choices. Bilbainos elbow their way in and order by pointing. They wash it all down with txakolí, a traditional, tart Basque white wine.

There is a resurgence of pride in all things Basque as Bilbao has become a cultural magnet. In 2009, the Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology opened just outside Plaza Nueva. Within its carefully preserved medieval facade lies a state-of-the-art multimedia museum. It pieces together the remnants from the arrival of Neanderthal man in the area about 100,000 years ago, to vivid depictions of the Cro-Magnon tribes taking refuge from the glaciers in the nearby caves. Curators cleverly use an unbroken string of archeological artifacts to make a case that the Basques are, in fact, the first modern humans in Europe - predating the migration from India and the Near East by tens of thousands of years.

Basque artists have been given a boost as well. While a third of the artists in the growing permanent collection of the Guggenheim Bilbao are Basque, the Basque artistic tradition is showcased at the more encyclopedic Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. Founded in 1908, the museum covers the last 900 years, concentrating largely on Spanish and Basque works. Collections range from starkly beautiful Gothic madonnas to idealized paintings of Basque shepherds and fruit pickers. Expressive renderings of fishing boats, shipyard workers, and exhausted, grubby-faced miners give way to powerful abstract painting and sculptures by the likes of Eduardo Chillida. Even though it is overshadowed by the Guggenheim, the Fine Arts Museum has benefited from the influx of art lovers. A program with the Guggenheim admits museumgoers for an extra half euro. To accommodate new visitors, the museum was expanded in 2001 with an airy addition by Basque architect Luis Maria Uriarte.

Indeed, the people of Bilbao are fond of claiming that every modern architect worth his protractor either has or wants a building in Bilbao. (The city tourist office offers contemporary architecture walking tours.) Sir Norman Foster designed the subway system - Bilbainos call the glass hoods over the entries “fosteritos.’’ Calatrava has both his bridge from 1997 and the Sondica Airport of 2000. Argentine architect César Pelli, best known for the twin towers of Kuala Lumpur, has his brand new Iberdrola Tower on the riverfront.

Even French designer Philippe Starck, better known for furniture and interior design, made his public debut as an architect by remaking the AlhóndigaBilbao. Opened in 1909 as a wine storage facility, the building was devastated by fire 10 years later. The brick, iron, and concrete Modernist shell waited decades for a new life. It was even rejected by Gehry as the site for the Guggenheim. But in May 2010, the AlhóndigaBilbao reopened as a cultural and sporting center (its motto is “sound mind in a sound body’’) for the people of Bilbao. The subterranean levels contain an exhibition gallery and a concert hall.

At ground level - which Starck kept intentionally dark to encourage romantic trysts - a forest of columns decorated in different whimsical motifs holds up brick and glass cubes containing a multimedia public library and a state-of-the-art gym. A rooftop swimming pool has a glass floor so swimmers are visible in silhouette from ground level. This being Spain, there also are cafes, restaurants, and bars. In fact, it’s tempting to check out a novel from the bookshelves, head to the roof, order a drink, and stretch out by the pool to read.

Call it the Guggenheim effect: These days, Bilbainos expect no less.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, coauthors of “Frommer’s Day by Day Spain,’’ can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
Bilbao Turismo
Abandoibarra Etorbidea 2 (adjacent to Guggenheim Bilbao)
Contemporary architecture walking tours of 90 minutes Sat-Sun noon, $6.35.
Guggenheim Bilbao
Abandoibarra Etorbidea 2
Adults $18.25 ($19 with combined admission to Fine Arts Museum), seniors and students $10.50, under age 12 free.
Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology
Calzadas de Mallona 2
(Plaza Miguel de Unamuno)
Adults $4.20, seniors and students $2.10, under 12 free.
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
Museo Plaza 2
Adults $8.45, seniors and students $6.35, combined admission $19.
Plaza Arriquibar 4
$8.15 per day each for gym or pool.
Where to stay
Gran Hotel Domine
Calle Alameda de Mazarredo 61
Super-comfortable yet minimalist in design. Doubles from $114, including breakfast.
Hesperia Bilbao
Campo Volantín 28
Chic design hotel has a playful patchwork of colored windows facing the Guggenheim. Doubles from $102, with breakfast.
Where to eat
Palacio Euskalduna,
Avenida Abandoibarra 4
Spectacular views, contemporary Basque dishes of inventive chef Fernando Canales. Most main dishes $34-$36.
Bar Zuga
Plaza Nueva 4
Multiple winner of annual city contests for most creative pintxos. Three with wine about $21.
Bar Hola
Upscale bar-cafeteria on ground level of AlhóndigaBilbao. Pintxos all day, augmented by $18 daily menu at noon, Mon-Fri.