Photo by Adrian Pelegrin 

The Bilbao Guggenheim museum-a building that opened 20 years ago this month, undeniably changed the course of world architecture, revitalized the city of Bilbao by firmly putting it on the tourism map and vaulted Frank Gehry to international and world-wide fame.

The most influential building of modern times started a global craze of constructing odd-shaped buildings across different cities and while many are designed well, none of them seem to hold a candle to the original. The “Bilbao effect” is a phenomenon where cultural investment and eye-catching architecture revitalize a drowning city’s tourism thus providing economic uplift.

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In the past, cities have been known to turn around their reputations by establishing culture, but never has it been done in a city with such poor status like Bilbao.

The biggest critique Gehry received upon the completion of the impressive museum was that its powerful aesthetic made it a horrible place to showcase art. According to critic, Hal Foster, “…he’s given his clients too much of what they want, a sublime space that overwhelms the viewer, a spectacular image that can circulate through the media and around the world as brand.”

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Gehry was aware of the criticism and had his own argument for why he decided to design such an extravagant building. Prior to designing, he felt like architects were to make neutral spaces for the art they would house; however, artists friends of his made it clear they wanted their pieces to live somewhere spectacular – which explains why the Guggenheim in Bilbao makes such a powerful statement.

Gehry is not fond of the idea of the “Bilbao effect” and blames the media for it. The design of the building relates to its surroundings and should not be easily imitated.  

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The museum’s director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte, has concerns like Gehry’s, that others will replicate the superficial aspects of the building, but do not understand the deeper connection the museum has to Bilbao and the successful regeneration of the city. In other words, imitation may not always be the sincerest form of flattery. 

Read more about the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Learn more about the Bilbao Effect

View some of Frank Gehry's most iconic work