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The myth of the

Bilbao Effect If you build it, they will come

Atanas Dimitrov

Declaration 22 900 / AB 947 Master Thesis MArch/Pg Dip Advanced Architectural Design

“I hereby declare that this dissertation submission is my own work and has been composed by myself. It contains no unacknowledged text and has not been submitted in any previous context. All quotations have been distinguished by quotation marks and all sources of information, text, illustration, tables, images etc. have been specifically acknowledged. I accept that if having signed this Declaration my work should be found at Examination to show evidence of academic dishonesty the work will fail and I will be liable to face the University Senate Discipline Committee.�

Name: Atanas Dimitrov Student Registration No: 201553613 Signed: Date: 20.08.2017

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Abstract In late 20th century a new architectural expression, triggered by social, economic and political factors, started to define its value in cities. Often called Iconic architecture, a wave of sculptural buildings emerged in many regeneration initiatives aiming to achieve economic growth, highlight cities on the cultural map of the world and receive international recognition. The Iconic genre, realised mainly in cultural centres, challenged established rules and principles in the urban environment becoming a focal point of discussions in the architecture field due to its surreal provocation, ambiguous presence, communicative power and architectural shift. The building of new iconic landmarks today is often related to the influence of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and its performance in the Bilbao revitalisation plan as a branding landmark for the revival of the area. Developed in a context of new technological possibilities for the construction of complex geometries, the positive impact of Gehry’s museum on the city became a seductive goal for many second-tier European cities under regeneration. Their competitive ambitions to provoke with architecture in the following decades resulted in numerous sculptural interventions called ‘Bilbao Effect’ or ‘Guggenheim Effect’, usually embracing a negative meaning in architectural critique on the new design shift which they represent. Therefore, the blurred understanding of the phenomenon and the complex reasons for its origin in the end of 20th century provoked the ambition of this study to unravel the term ‘Bilbao Effect’, its history, influences and expose both its positive and negative connotations. Following the transformations of the iconic building in history and its realisation in modern times, the work explores the Bilbao Effect as a myth derived from a recent shift in architecture. Challenging the established hierarchy in contemporary urban environment, the new iconic landmark revises the tradition of the architectural monument, becoming a new pilgrimage attraction.

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1. The ‘Icon’ in Western culture


2. The significance of the iconic building


3. Success, failure and controversy


4. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao


5. Measuring iconic quality


6. The iconic building as a future monument




List of figures




Introduction Following the City of Culture thesis this work aims to widen the scope of understanding “culture as a catalyst for urban regeneration” and the ideas of exposing culture in the Blackhall Lab design project. Provoked by the curatorial work of Wilfried Wang and Matthias Sauerbruch on the 2013 ‘Culture:City’ exhibition and catalogue, this study focuses on the so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’, or ‘Guggenheim Effect’, and the development of a clear image of the reasons for its origin and following influence. The work aims to analyse the phenomenon from a ‘step-aside’ point of view rather than provocative critique often related to the building of new architectural icons. In the last decades of the 20th century and early 21st century a new wave of architecture has emerged driven by social and commercial factors. Surreal pieces of sculptural architecture started to appear in cities becoming a subject of increasing interest with the aim to achieve mass appeal, but at the same time unlocked a flow of polarised critique and mixed acceptance. The wave of new iconic landmarks challenged the conventional realisation of public buildings, especially culturally oriented centres, and their role in urban life by creating a contradictory statement for the significance of the architectural icon in contemporary context. Challenging the established hierarchy of urban typologies, some of the monumental landmark buildings succeeded to evoke economic growth both with positive impact and through receiving insult, thus, reaching wide publicity to transform their sculptural quality into celebrity architecture. Often labeled as ‘kitsch’, due to the diversion from accepted modernist principles, the phenomenon of the contemporary iconic building has its contribution to the progress of architecture despite being accompanied by the controversy of “packaging and image” in deviance with content (Curtis, 2011). In this regard, the success of the iconic building has managed to reveal the values and current state of society, embracing a symbiosis of the essence of contemporary art and architecture to extend the boundary for creative development. Despite being considered a new type of architecture (Jencks, 2005, p.7), the emergence of the modern iconic building has its precedents since ancient times. Throughout history the architectural icon has been an integral part in the development of cities and a means to declare power, wealth and importance. It has taken diverse forms and architectural typologies in response to cultural,

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historical and national context. However, common traits in the realisation of such structures define the long way for the development of what we call today an ‘icon’. The similarities in examples of historic icons will be examined in the scope of this work in order to outline the evolution of the iconic building until its recent realisation in the form of sculptural interventions often called the ‘Bilbao Effect’. The iconic landmark, which has taken the form of temples, fortresses, statues, towers, tombs and any other man-made structure symbolising an era, monarchy, political and national power, is today most commonly represented by the building of cultural centres. A common characteristic of iconic structures related to any architectural typology is the specific quality to communicate through their appearance outside the frame of their own time. The signifying power of landmarks to memorialise and give clues of events in society leading to their existence is today summarised in the modernised meaning of the word ‘icon’. These buildings bear an inherent capacity to provoke with mysterious influence on human senses, to semi-pronounce a message and semi-confuse about a meaning, and thus, stimulate a thrill and desire to explore. In the time of the modern architectural icon an unescapable focal point in the analysis of its development undoubtedly is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. With its alien appearance, sculptural envelope referring to its content and the positive role for the economic growth of Bilbao, the museum became a media sensation unlocking continuous critique and discussions on the impact of the architectural shift which the building represents. The wide publicity and omnipresence of the museum combined with its visual attractiveness and famous architect triggered international interest for tourism and cultural exploration of the city and surrounding area. The success of the Guggenheim Bilbao as branding for the renewal of the city, its positive impact on the local economy, employment and international recognition made the project a desired intervention in many smaller European cities under regeneration. The influence of Gehry’s museum in the following decades resulted in many peculiar architectural interventions, taking prime locations in cities and depicting the competitive ambition of different initiatives to attract tourism with the conception that “if you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams, 1989). However, the shallow understanding of the complex reasons leading to the realisation of the Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city rarely turned into positive urban impact elsewhere. In reality, the superficial aims to achieve quick results led to numerous complications in the construction of complex geometries, consequently resulting in cost inflation, controversy and even failure in

the realisation of some initial design goals. This phenomenon is widely publicised as the “Bilbao Effect” or “Guggenheim Effect”, usually encompassing a negative meaning, overshadowing the positive sides and achievements of Gehry’s project. Provoked by the contrasting critique which follows the construction of new sculptural buildings, this work focuses on the factors leading to the architectural shift of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao with the objective to achieve a clear understanding of the phenomenon by tracing both its positive and negative connotations. The work follows the historical transitions of the iconic building in order to reason the conception of the term ‘Bilbao Effect’ as a myth derived from a recent expression of architecture.

Figure 1 | View of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from Nervión river

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Methodology An important step in the initiation of this research is the understanding of the language used to describe and explain the Bilbao Effect. In literature and written pieces, related to the architecture of new cultural centres, the use of terms and definitions such as ‘icon’, ‘iconic’, ‘bold’, ‘culture’, ‘urban regeneration’ are more often used without or only a brief reference to their origins and etymological meanings. Therefore, this work aims to unravel and define the meanings which the word ‘icon’ embraces in contemporary context. The study will trace the origin of the word and review its application to both secular and religious events before it focuses on a historical analysis of its architectural sense. What do we understand as iconic architecture? What makes a building an icon? Is it a design contrasting to its context and other typological examples or a successful radical decision? How is the success or alternatively the failure of such architecture evaluated? What are the criteria for such evaluation and what aspects of impact do they cover - social, political, environmental, infrastructural and economic? These are issues which this work aims to explain by collaging different faces of iconic architecture in history and its manifestation during and after the modernist age. In order to reach a clear understanding of the term in architectural aspect, the work will develop a chronological analysis through selected examples of historic icons and extract key characteristics of the icon from existing literature on the topic. The study will trace the significance of the landmark building from ancient times to its present realisation in order to collate findings defining preconditions for its future purpose in society. Throughout the analysis, a continuous reference to the work of Charles Jencks on Iconic Buildings and Post-Modernism will be maintained in order to support extracted events surrounding the development of modern landmarks with previously developed arguments and details on the issue. A qualitative assessment of the architectural icon will be further supported with reference to Beatriz Plaza’s detailed study on the Bilbao regeneration initiatives and William J.R. Curtis critique of the Bilbao Effect from recent years. In order to achieve a wider information base and extract the main factors defining the significance of the contemporary iconic building, the work will analyse the history of modern icons through additional sources depicting the publicity of the sculptural style, the contrasting acceptance which its receives and its controversial image in the architecture field. Therefore, the work aims to achieve objective results for the criteria defining the success or alternatively failure of new landmarks.

Based on the knowledge foundation for the significance of iconic buildings in history, the work will focus on a detailed examination of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The study will explore the inspirations, conceptual goals, integration in the long-term renewal plans for Bilbao and the reasons for its impressive performance as a public intervention. Reference to the writing of Coosje van Bruggen and Charles Jencks on the museum will be made in order to reveal its relation to the preceding Sydney Opera House, the innovative techniques employed in the development of the sculptural museum and the efficient use of dedicated budget. The study will aim to illustrate the complex factors for the following influence of the project, the Bilbao Effect, and therefore clarify the consideration of the museum as one of the most successful iconic structures in recent history. In addition, the detailed analysis of Gehry’s project will provide a sufficient base to develop a pattern for the evaluation of iconic quality in parallel with the buildings explored earlier in the scope this work. The study of iconic landmarks will then move forward to a comparative analysis of modern icons and historical findings in order to outline the opportunities for the future development of the genre in architecture and its importance for society. The juxtaposition of medieval pilgrimage practices and the attitude of society to cultural centres today will be used as a main tool to define the notion of the new iconic structure as a future monument. To conclude with objective realisation of the initial goals to unravel the Bilbao Effect and define its possible future place in society, the work will summarise the findings and define issues for the further exploration of separate aspects having a direct or passive impact on the development of iconic buildings.

Issue - Bilbao Effect

Ancient Icons

Pilgrimage and medieval cathedrals

Modern Icons

Guggenheim 2017 Bilbao

Future monument

Knowledge base

Figure 2 | Logic of analysis

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The Myth of the Bilbao Effect  

Masters Thesis Department of Architecture University of Strathclyde 2017

The Myth of the Bilbao Effect  

Masters Thesis Department of Architecture University of Strathclyde 2017