Urban Crossroads #100
The Bilbao Effect

                                                              Bilbao, Spain, Guggenheim Museum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the world of architecture, the main event of 1997 would be the completion of the Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao, designed by famed Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The titanium-clad building with its intersecting free-flowing and highly-sculptural forms immediately became an architectural sensation, and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year from different parts of the world. More importantly, it has served to rejuvenate Bilbao, which had been an industrial city in decline, and has transformed it into a destination for cultural tourism. Gehry provided Bilbao with an “instant” monument that has attracted visitors with the same effectiveness as a well-known urban historical heritage building. Probably no other contemporary work of architecture has been the center of such widespread popular interest. What is even more remarkable is that the museum does not host a particularly unique art collection. Most come to visit the building and to view its architecture; they might view the works of art it houses as an afterthought.

The phenomenal success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has given credence to the belief that if a city is to reverse its decline or if it is to establish itself as a center for cultural tourism, this may be achieved by commissioning similarly sensational architectural icons. As a result, a number of projects - primarily museums and performance centers - in different parts of the world have been envisioned in the hope of repeating what has come to be known as the “Bilbao Effect.”

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao also contributed to another “effect,” which is the rise of celebrity architects. The building in fact has greatly contributed to making Gehry, who turned eighty this year, the most influential architect of our time. But he is not alone, and there is a significant number of architects these days who receive critical acclaim and also are admired by the wider public, almost in the same manner as fashion designers or - on a certain level - even movie stars. They are regularly featured in the media: in newspapers and magazines, and on television. The term “starchitect” has emerged to describe them (a term, by the way, that Frank Gehry dislikes, in the same way that he also dislikes the term “Bilbao Effect,” an issue to which I will return). For many of these architects, this celebrity status usually is confirmed by receiving the annual prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, established in 1979 by the Pritzker family, who founded the Hyatt hotels.

History has had its share of celebrated architects who were widely admired both within and outside the architectural community, particularly in the Western world since the fifteenth century and the advent of the Renaissance. What is taking place today, however, is far more wide reaching. Not only does the mass media and its global outreach allow information on the lives and works of these architects to be quickly disseminated at a scale not known before, but while each generation traditionally produced only a handful of such celebrated architects at most, today there are no less than two dozens of them (with numerous others not far behind) who are treated by the media with wide-eyed admiration and adulation. These architects continuously crisscross the world, meeting with current or prospective clients and following up on their numerous ongoing projects. Moreover, in this age of globalization, the main body of their work is rarely connected to a specific location, not even the city or country where they are based. Some of them even barely have any buildings in those cities or countries.

As with fashion designers or movie stars, hiring these starchitects, whether to design a building, or even to serve on an architectural jury or give a lecture, is a very expensive undertaking. Their fees are very high and their buildings are extremely expensive, often going considerably over budget by the time they are completed.

Still, clients all over the world who have the financial resources have been lining up to hire them. This has been the case for the past ten to twenty years, a period marked by tremendous affluence. Of course, whether this will continue - considering today’s financial uncertainties - depends on whether the economic conditions that await us will be better or worse than current ones. In any case, because of their celebrity status, these architects are more or less “preapproved,” and clients who would like to ensure that their choice of architect receives wide recognition will naturally gravitate towards them. There is considerable international cheerleading going on for these architects in the media, and any rigorous critical assessment of their work on the visual, social, economic, and wider cultural levels is more or less nonexistent. Engaging one of those well-known architects therefore is an expensive but otherwise easy solution. Their celebrity status legitimizes their selection, and the end-product they deliver, even if weak, will always achieve a level of acceptance, recognition, and fame.

In this sense, there are parallels between what is taking place in the worlds of architecture and fashion. Celebrity fashion designers are uncritically admired no matter how flabbergasted their designs may leave us. Each of these architects represents a “brand,” and there is a prevailing opinion that clients should consider themselves very fortunate to be able to obtain a piece of that brand.

As a result, these architects have been designing a vast variety of building types and even urban complexes all over the world. There is no shortage of their work in the affluent economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, which is where they are all based, but emerging economies also have been aggressively commissioning them, particularly China and the oil-rich Gulf. Even the non-oil-rich parts of the Middle East have not been immune to this fascination with them. For example, being the only Arab (and interestingly enough, the only woman) among this select group of architects, the Baghdad-born, London-based Zaha Hadid has been in particularly heavy demand, designing projects not only in the Gulf (primarily Abu Dhabi and Dubai), but also in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus, as well as in Istanbul. Amman also has couple of projects by another celebrity architect, the British Lord Norman Foster; and Beirut, which has been working hard on reasserting its position as the region’s cosmopolitan center, has projects by about half a dozen of this elite group of architects.

These celebrity architects definitely are talented and creative. Still, architecture is a highly subjective field. While it may be easy to differentiate the work of a good architect from a bad architect, it is very difficult to quantify the characteristics that make an exceptional architect. Moreover, what makes one architect occupy a place in today’s pantheon of the world’s elite architects depends more on the assessments of opinion makers - critics, journalists, academics …. - rather than on any quantifiable criteria. Again, the same applies to fashion designers or actors. With sports celebrities, in contrast, their scoring skills in athletic competitions at least provide a reasonably accurate quantitative assessment of their abilities.

It therefore is debatable whether such starchitects provide clients with the best value for their money. For many clients (whether individuals, organizations, corporations, or cities), a building by a starchitect allows them to be among the very few who own part of that architect’s brand. The problem is that even this aspiration for uniqueness and for standing out from the crowd is self defeating. While these starchitects usually had very few realized projects before they achieved their current levels of fame, they now are overwhelmed by commissions and therefore are not able to give many of their projects the individual attention they need and deserve. Moreover, each time one of these architects adds another building to their name, that architect’s brands is diluted, and the sense of uniqueness that their clients aim to achieve from commissioning a building by them and seeing that building completed is weakened.

To return to the Bilbao Effect, it has not materialized as many had hoped. Having one or more new buildings - no matter how spectacular they may be – transform a given city by reversing its decline or placing it on the world-cultural map simply is not a realistic aspiration. It takes much more than the construction of architectural icons to make a city successful. There is no magic solution, and it is a wide variety of factors that determine a city’s success. These include its scale, transportation networks, cultural and intellectual vibrancy, as well as its economic stability. Having one or more architectural icons in a city definitely is a plus, but it is only icing on the cake.

Interestingly enough, one does not have to go further than Frank Gehry, with whom the term Bilbao Effect is associated, for a confirmation of this position. As mentioned above, he dislikes the term “Bilbao Effect,” and instead emphasizes how the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was part of a comprehensive plan to transform the city that included upgrading its infrastructure, transportation networks, and public facilities, as well as implementing projects for environmental cleanup, economic development, and urban rejuvenation. Without these various interventions, the building on its own would have barely made a dent in the city’s fortunes.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 07, 2010