Art in the 90s: Starchitecture and the Bilbao Effect

 Paris  |  27 August 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Departing every fifteen minutes from outside the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a shuttle bus adorned with an advertisement for Frank Gehry’s latest art gallery. What is striking is that the image depicts the Fondation’s billowing sails not in the Bois de Boulogne but in some sort of celestial desert; the gallery has transcended its earthly surroundings and landed zeppelin-like in the future. Given that the destination of this shuttle bus is the Arc de Triomphe, the most symbolically French monument in the French capital, one cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate denial of location.

This is a frequent criticism levelled at Frank Gehry, the “starchitect” whose iconic status was sealed almost twenty years ago by his equally placeless Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Indeed in an essay for the Architectural Review in the year of the Guggenheim’s opening, the current editor Catherine Slessor noted, “The prominence and exposure of the site is curiously well suited to Gehry’s architecture, which generally works best on a tabula rasa.” Reversing conventional architectural logic, it seems that the location fits the building rather than the building the location.

But this is the ultimate irony and, perhaps, legacy of the “Bilbao Effect”— cities will try to put themselves on the map by shedding themselves of a sense of place. The “Bilbao Effect” refers to the trend that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s amongst cities to try and copy the success that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum had in turning around the economically stagnating city of Bilbao. City councillors across the world spent vast sums of money to follow a simple, but seemingly infallible recipe: one “starchitect” + one branch of a preferably branded arts institution (e.g. Guggenheim, Louvre) = international reputation and resultant tourism revenue.

The “Bilbao Effect” is perhaps about to enter its golden age. AEA Consulting, a New York-based company, which specialises in cultural institutions, estimated in 2013 that the next ten years would see $250 billion spent on the construction of new museums and galleries. Abu Dhabi is in the process of constructing its cultural Saadiyat Island, which will host another Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, an outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster and a Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid. Hong Kong is building a cultural district in West Kowloon, which will include the $642 million M+ Museum designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The winner of the competition to design Helsinki’s Guggenheim competition has just been won by the Parisian based firm Moreau Kusunoki. On a smaller, but by no means small scale, English cities such as Margate, Dundee and Wakefield have all eagerly constructed new museums with singular designs, and French cities such as Metz and Lens have respectively welcomed branches of the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre. The “Bilbao Effect” has become the 1990s’ most influential concept in urban design.

Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum

In the 1990s Bilbao’s city council developed a radical strategy to revive the ailing fortunes of the industrial Basque port. The traditionally blue-collar city would import the skills of various trailblazing, and importantly international, architecture firms, whose creations would pave the way for Bilbao to reinvent itself. Norman Foster + Partners were commissioned to design a metro; Santiago Calatrava designed a footbridge and the airport. But undoubtedly the jewel in the crown was the capture of the Guggenheim Museum. An exclusive competition to design the outpost was run between three architectural firms, with Gehry’s practice emerging victorious in 1991. The museum was completed on budget in 1997 and the architecture was universally applauded. Gehry was able to conjure undulating titanium reality out of the crumpled rolls of paper that he had originally submitted as a model for his vision. Even JG Ballard, the English writer with a famously equivocal relationship with contemporary architecture, wrote of it, “Gazing across the river at this metallisation of a dream, one has to take one’s hat off to Gehry and the civic leaders of Bilbao.”

Most importantly however for the on-looking cities, was the tangible financial success that the Guggenheim brought to Bilbao. The regional government raised $100 million in taxes from visitor spending in just the first three years after the Guggenheim’s opening; added to this was the €168 million benefit to local businesses in the five years after construction. Given that the Guggenheim cost only $89 million, the city of Bilbao quickly made good on its investment and still continues to do so. In the years since the erection of Gehry’s masterpiece, Bilbao has seen its annual number of visitors consistently exceed one million.

The “Starchitects”

In 2002, five years after the opening of the Guggenheim, Frank Gehry discussed his subsequent ascendance to superstardom in a TED Talks with the architect Richard Saul Wurman. Wurman enthused, “ Your building is an icon.” Like its religious counterpart at the other end of the Camino de Santiago, it seemed that the Guggenheim had become a cathedral and the subject of a unique architectural pilgrimage. But despite the divine singularity of his creation, Gehry announced that other cities were clamouring for their own Guggenheim: “Since Bilbao opened (…) I have been called with at least 100 opportunities —China, Brazil, other parts of Spain— to come in and do the Bilbao effect.”

Whilst Gehry refused to allow the building of the facsimile Guggenheims that were petitioned of him (and continue to be, most recently by the Polish city of Łódź), his example led to a frenzy of commissions for a group of “starchitects.”

Every city wanted its own starchitect-designed museum. Typically a competition would be held between an exclusive group of Pritzker prize-winning firms, who were encouraged to stamp their signature brand of architecture all over their submission. The typical dynamic of cooperation between the architect and his or her client was jettisoned; the architect was let off the lead and given free reign over his or her design. This particular feature of the “Bilbao Effect” has its precedence in Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou. Their museum had proved that wacky exoskeletons were not risks but indubitable money-spinners.

To take one obvious example of a “starchitect”, Daniel Libeskind certainly benefitted from the “Bilbao Effect.” His Jewish Museum in Berlin, a piercingly angular construction of unnerving shadows, was a close cousin of the Bilbao Guggenheim in terms of concept and similarly brought riches to the city in which it was located. Between the completion of the museum in 1999 and its opening in 2001, 350,000 people visited Libeskind’s building. What is remarkable about this figure is that the museum was completely empty during this period. It had nothing to exhibit except itself. One could view this period as the scientific control for the Bilbao experiment; it proved that it was in fact the building and not its function, which drew in the punters. Libeskind’s stock raised considerably and he went on to win competitions to design the new Imperial War Museum in Manchester (2002) and the extension to the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden (2011) to name a few projects. Libeskind was but one sharp example within the “starchitect” community, whose other prominent members included Rem Koolhaas, Philippe Starck, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano. They all benefitted greatly from the “Bilbao Effect.”

“We have to begin somewhere. We know we cannot create cuture overnight.”

We now find ourselves amidst the second wave of the “Bilbao Effect.” With the wind in the sails of Gehry’s structures, his commissions, and those of his starchitect counterparts, have grown larger and sailed away from European-American shores towards the richer pastures of the Middle-East, the Far East and Central Asia. The Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi will be twelve times the size of the one in New York. The “Bilbao Effect” is no longer about regenerating depressed regions but about securing the long-term survival of minerally wealthy, but culturally poor city states who are preparing for a time when the oil runs out. Abu Dhabi’s trio of new museums is a perfect example; “We have to begin somewhere. We know we cannot create culture overnight, so we are strategically building museums that in time will train our own people, so we can find our own voice,” explains Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, a cultural advisor charged with overseeing Abu Dhabi’s rise to international prominence ahead of similar competitors such as Doha in Qatar.

But Starchitecture has become the subject of increased criticism. Firstly, aspersions have been cast on the morality of architectural firms that work for repressive states. Zaha Hadid was roundly praised for the voluptuous architecture of her Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, but harshly criticised for not doing more to halt the forced evictions that cleared the way for the site on which it sits. Human rights groups have also drawn attention to the plight of ‘slave workers’ in many Gulf States.

Secondly, no longer can “starchitects” build without nodding, or at least pretending to nod, to the local culture. Whereas Paris is assured enough in its culture that it might be able to withstand the negation of its existence in relation to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, other cities are less secure. It is worth mentioning at this point that the week before the Bilbao Guggenheim opened, a policeman was killed foiling separatist ETA terrorists who were trying to bomb the building. To them it lacked Basque identity. Lesson learnt, Frank Gehry has therefore likened the motif of cones in his Abu Dhabi Guggenheim to the domes of a mosque. It feels tenuous to justify Gehry’s newest building as part of the local culture on this basis alone, no matter how ingenious the design of these cooling vents are. Perhaps realising this, Guggenheim curators in New York insist that their outpost on the Persian Gulf be called “transnational” rather than global, because it connotes a dialogue between cultures rather than a Western monologue.

Thirdly there seems to be a degree of exasperation, certainly in the Western world, with the “Bilbao Effect.” A satirical documentary entitled The Competition, which followed Dominique Perrault, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster as they pitched to win the commission for the new National Art Museum in Andorra, shed some light on the process involved in designing ‘transnational’ museums. In a memorable scene, Jean Nouvel sweeps into his firm’s office to cast an eye over the designs being worked upon by his team before deciding that the proposed building does not have enough holes in it (“Putain, fais des trous!”). The documentary was billed as a comedy.

There is little doubt however that Bilbao was a watershed moment in urban design. Its influence as a concept grew throughout the 2000s and has exploded in the 2010s. A panoply of steroidal galleries, museums and concert halls are set to grace the international cities of the world. Whilst the Fondation Louis Vuitton and Paris can afford to take the Bilbao gamble, assured as they are in their own cultural standing, for Abu Dhabi the venture is less failsafe, especially given how many other cities and museums are now vying for international attention.

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