Sunday, June 3, 2007

Bilbao blows me away

I arrived in Bilbao with the sole purpose of visiting Frank Gehry’s creation – the Guggenhiem Museum - not realizing how much more there was to see. My, was I surprised!

Fundacion Metropoli has organized a meeting with BilbaoRia 2000, the organization spearheading the redevelopment of Bilbao. The meeting with Juan Alayo, Director of Planning and Development, was a rich learning experience about an extremely creative redevelopment strategy for the city.

BilbaoRia 2000 was created in 1992 as a public non-profit development entity for the region in which local, regional and central government have holdings. The company was formed to oversee the recovery of formerly industrial areas located in strategic locations of the city, at a time when there was no effective mechanisms in place for government to do it on their own.

This organization is unique because it acts as a broker – cleaning the land and selling off rights for development to private entities, two things it does really well. It creates a planning framework for the developers in order to create a cohesive development, setting design and planning standards. Second, it puts the resources it harnesses from selling the development rights back into public infrastructure projects such as Bilbao’s high-speed trains, the riverfront development, school construction, new parks and greenways.

The Mayor chairs the board of BilbaoRia 2000, and the Secretary of State for Infrastructure and Development is its Deputy Chair. Juan gestured around the conference room we were in to indicate that we were in the room where all the development decisions for Basque county get made! Since 1992, BilbaoRia 2000 has been facilitators of more than 600 million euros of real estate transactions.

After the meeting, my visit to the Guggenheim museum and the Abandobarra redevelopment area highlighted the successes of BilbaoRia 2000 since 1992. I walked to the museum from the BilbaoRia offices, and came upon this shimmering, fish-like building walking along the river (Gehry speaks about childhood memories of playing with live carp as an inspiration for the project.) The museum is actually titanium coated and getting closer to the building reveals that the metal plates are used like shingles. The intent of this building was to create a landmark for Bilbao, which it accomplishes very successfully. What is striking is its dynamic relationship to the river and the rest of the riverfront development. It’s hard to believe that the museum was opened just 10 years ago. Access was a priority for this cultural icon, and one approaches the building via tram, across Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful Zubizuri Footbridge, or by walking along the Rio Nervión itself. I spent most of the time looking at the riverfront development accomplishments that are a part of the Guggenheim Museum complex. The development includes a commercial center, new housing, office space, and the second anchor – the Opera House, a complete architectural contrast. All this is linked together with graceful pedestrian bridges, playgrounds, park areas and playful fountains. There is real sophistication with which the riverfront is designed - a complex yet accessible system of pedestrians, bikers, tramways, and yes – cars. It all comes together beautifully. Grassy tram tracks soften the sounds of the passing tramcars. Bikers and joggers zip by. The pedestrian bridges, built at considerable expense, link the new development with old Bilbaoand the local university.

The front of Guggenheim museum has a nice Pennsylvania connection. Gracing the main entrance is a giant floral puppy by Jeff Koons, an artist from York, PA. This giant puppy was installed as part of the opening celebrations as a temporary piece. The citizens loved it so much they asked for it to remain. So every spring this puppy gets decked out in its floral best.I happened to be there when plants had been installed and the scaffolding was coming down. The workers there were happy to be complimented on their fine work. One of them said: "The puppy is the reason why everyone comes to Bilbao." Pointing to the museum behind, he continued, "That’s just its kennel!"

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