University of Nevada, Reno

Basque Center

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      Lesson 1
      Lesson 2
      Lesson 3
Course Syllabi


Online Course C460 · Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

Lesson one
Postindustrial Bilbao
Old city in a global world

Required Reading
Eduardo J. Glass, “Historical Background” (Chapter 1, Bilbao’s Modern Business Elite, Univ. of Nevada Press, Reno, 1997.)
Frederick Buell, “The Three Worlds” (Chapter 1, National Culture and the New Global System, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.)

Learning Goals
1.  Situate Bilbao geographically and historically.
2.  Introduce the global view of economic and cultural history
3.  Raise initial questions as to the dilemmas, complexities, challenges, and opportunities presented by a globalized world to traditional cultures and postindustrial economies.
4.  Recognize the necessities of urban and economic renewal within this newly globalized world.

First it was the “Medieval Villa” (founded the year 1300 by Don Diego López de Haro), then it was the “Commercial Villa” (after the establishment of its Consulate in 1511), then, since the second half of the last century, it was the proud regional “industrial city” we all know. But a new millenium is dawning, and now, since the middle ’90s, a new “postindustrial Bilbao” is being reborn from the ashes of its industrial ruins.

A massive infrastructural transformation and urban regeneration process is under way to turn Bilbao into a service-oriented and culturally attractive city. The flagship of the entire redevelopment, Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim-Bilbao Museoa, has made international news, but the goal is to effect the postindustrial reinvention of the city. As it undergoes the painful yet exhilarating metamorphosis from industrial ruination to architectural rebirth, Bilbao presents singular opportunities for tourism-based industries, as well as unique challenges for students of Basque society and culture.

Miguel de Unamuno wrote of his Bilbao, nursed by the Nervion River …

You are, Nervión, the history of the Villa,
you her past and her future, you are
memory always turning into hope
and on your firm riverbed
a fleeing flow.

The foundational charter granted the medieval Villa exclusive jurisdictional rights to the Nervión trade. The river has been Bilbao’s history, wealth, and metaphor. Bilbao was the natural port for exports and a wide window on the world.

Bilbao was doubly blessed with a seaport and vast mineral wealth. Never has this been as clear as during the last 150 years of industrial boom, during which the River’s left bank held Spain’s largest iron and steel industries.

A wasteland of industrial ruins is almost all that is left now of that fabled industrial period, but the ongoing massive redevelopment is testament that the generous, dark River is still very much alive. As Bilbao emerges from the mantle of debris accumulated during the last tide of history, the city of 360,000 people has never been as remote from, and yet as close to that small town of 18,000 souls that she was only 150 years ago. Seventy-five thousand people have abandoned the city during the last two decades of decline, but Bilbao is far from having given up her tradition of international business. Her capacity for high-stakes risk-taking remains undiminished. And don’t forget the metaphor about which Bertolt Brecht wrote, “How beautiful, how beautiful, how beautiful is the moon of Bilbao, the most beautiful city of the continent.” Hers is also the aesthetics of the “tough city” that has seduced artists such as Richard Serra and Frank Gehry. This seduction is perhaps Bilbao’s greatest asset at this moment; it is the true arena in which, by architectural spectacle and the sheer will to challenge all odds, she is transforming herself in ways almost unimaginable a few years ago.

Just look what is happening in Abando-ibarra, right across from the University of Deusto, a grand titanium-skinned white whale has run aground there. Or is it a pirate’s old galleon suddenly resurfaced? It is Gehry’s masterpiece. It is the now undisputed emblem of a reinvigorated city unwilling to fade away with the demise of its blast furnaces. The Altos Hornos de Vizcaya, famed industrial engine, and fiery symbol of the region’s economy until just yesterday. The volcano of the left bank is now mostly extinguished but the sunset’s yellow colors are captured and reflected on the titanium scales of Gehry’s pallid cetacean. “A miracle!” proclaimed The New York Times, in contemplation of the radiant building. The real miracle, of course, is the resolve of the Bilbainos to not tolerate the extinction of their city’s proverbial fire and flourish.

Ashen debris, white smoke, black water, red slag - a generous supply of dirt of all colors and elements was Bilbao’s emblem. Her distinctive aesthetic force consisted in turning ugliness into a badge of honor, a thing of beauty for those willing to contemplate with eyes uncontaminated by pastoral nostalgia. But now the smoking chimneys are gone, even dirt is in shorter supply, and the tourists have started to come. The decades of heavy industrial exploitation had turned the Nervión into a black meandering sewer upon which the Bilbainos had long since learned to turn their backs. No longer do they need to avert their eyes from the prodigious River, the very soul of their history and identity. On the contrary, Bilbao is going to transform its riverfront into the real center of the new city. An ambitious $1.5 billion urban renewal plan is being implemented, focusing upon the expansion of the port and airport, creation of a subway, and planning for a transport hub. A new development on the riverfront, called Abandoibarra, will include the spectacular Guggenheim Museum as well as a conference and concert hall, Euskalduna.

Two of these major projects are emblematic of the new Bilbao: Foster’s sleek costly subway, which, besides its practical advantages, symbolizes the city’s new modernity; and Gehry’s voluptuous and optimistic Guggenheim Museum. The museum has over-shadowed all other projects by drawing the international attention that Bilbao desperately desires.

This is as great an historical transformation as one could expect from Bilbao’s fin de millennium. It signals the city’s willingness to unburden herself from all the sins of the industrial revolution and the ensuing environmental degradation with the hegemony of mining and iron industries dismantled, the sky free from the drifting clouds pumped into it by the now sorely missed smoking chimneys, it is not longer taboo to look at the river.

The Nervion was first bridged long before the Villa was founded in 1300. That bridge of San Antón was the first Promethean attempt to arch worlds apart: land and shore, river and sea, interior and exterior, past and future, left and right. It is only through a tradition of bridging the seemingly impossible - with suspension bridges floating in air and drawbridges opening up their mandibles to the sky in a big yawn as the surreptitious cargo files by, structures that were always tenuous and temporary rites of passage, always complicated works are arrogant engineering - that Bilbao has sustained the fiction of a synthesis of warring elements, a historical linkage between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the Villa and its hinterland, of the rural and urban economies, of aristocratic and proletarian lives, of Basque and European interest.

After Deusto there were no bridges. Fifteen kilometers on right and left riverbanks from the city to the sea were uncompromised by any link, with the single exception of the suspension bridge in Portugalete. But times are changing and the river has been criss-crossed by several new bridges (Rontegi, Euskalduna, Zubizuri) and others are in the planning stages. The secret, as everyone knows, it that the one bridge that will really matter must connect Bilbao with entities that are far more virtual (so-called Global Culture) and far more concrete (Wall Street) that anything achieved so far. The Basque president’s visit to Wall Street to deliver a $20 million check for the Guggenheim Museum franchise is a statement that leaves few doubts in this regard.

Bridging the interior’s “tierra llana” with the port-centered, open Villa was not a small feat (although this, too, dressed up in nativism and provincialism, still continues to be a source of friction). Now, however, the only measure of success is the bridging of transatlantic distances - New York at one end and Bilbao at the other - facilitating traffic in modern art and museum franchises. The Romanesque arches of the San Antón bridge, medieval symbol of a proud Bilbao, are now complemented by the postindustrial city establishing herself as the key port and fundamental artistic point de repère of the so-called “Atlantic Arch” stretching between Santiago de Compostela and Bourdeaux. Welcome to the newly imagined global postmodern space of late capitalism.

But there is a lot of bridging to be done at home as well between the two riverbanks, two languages, and two millennia. Issues of violence, nationality, class, gender, and language continue to polarize Bilbao society endemically. She appears uneasily perched between a mythology of the past, which successfully deployed an ethnographic identity of pre-modern Basque enigmatic uniqueness, and a mythology of the future which looks to global markets and the delirious glamour of New York for the inspiration of a new post-ethnic identity.

The discourse of urban regeneration works particularly well in fostering a sense of new direction. It embraces economic as well as environmental, cultural, social, and symbolic components. Leisure activities and so-called “cultural industries” become most relevant in regenerating urban centers. The distinction between “art,” “communication,” “culture,” and “entertainment” disappears. Urban regeneration by leisure and cultural industries has been attempted with uneven results in various European and American cities. Not only yuppy tourists, the discourse reassures, but also Bilbao’s unemployed, youth, migrant, and marginal people will benefit from such cultural industries. The argument is that emblematic architecture is the condition for the economic renewal that will bring jobs and prestige back to the city.

In the beginning was architecture - arché or foundation. In classical aesthetic theory architecture is the first art. Salvation by architecture is the cornerstone of the new regenerationist ideology in Bilbao. Due to its dependence on public funds, architecture tends to be used ideologically more than the other arts. Bilbao provides perhaps the grandest example of architecture as ideology and spectacle. The ideological use of architecture consists in the uncontested assumption that public power must invest massively in emblematic buildings conceived by star architects. “Emblems,” that is, of ideas of progress, culture, class, equality, and peace.

This is the time to visit and study Bilbao. Gehry’s masterpiece is an architectural triumph among the postindustrial ruins of the Nervión. If architecture provides cause for celebration, this is it. It has been likened to a whale, a ship, an artichoke, a mermaid, a waterfall, a flower, a fish, Marilyn Monroe, and a chopped-up Chinese paper dragon. It has been hailed by the critics as the building of the late 20th century.

This is also the time to realize the potential rewards or turning Bilbao into a privileged topic of research and writing. Ruination and rebirth, the end of times and the beginning of times are historical processes deserving urban and cultural studies. Some of the obvious discourses deserving attention are:

  1.  The ruined postindustrial city turned into the postmodern model of an architecturally imprinted city.
  2.  Urban planning and regeneration
  3.  Architecture
  4.  Museum culture
  5.  Globalization
  6.  Post-industrialism
  7.  Migration
  8.  International art markets
  9.  Cultural industries
10.  Anthropology
11. History.

Written Lesson for Submission
Please write a two to three page essay on one of the topics below or choose another relevant topic. Again, the essay should creatively engage with the facts and ideas presented in the written materials and should not consist of merely repeating the information offered by the instructor and the readings.

1. Describe some of the basic dilemmas faced by traditional cultures when confronted with the new wave of globalization.
2. What is your view of the tensions between “universal civilization” and “national cultures?”
3. Is Bilbao’s pre-modern history a closed economic unit or cultural independent configuration in any sense? Or is it, rather, a global construction?
4. To the degree that Bilbao has been at the forefront of Basque commerce, industry and urban life, what are the implications of such global reach for “Basque culture” in general?


Copyright © 2000 the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. All rights reserved. Updated 13 June 2000. E-mail: