Words Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright
On a recent trip to Spain, editor Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright thought it prudent not to miss out on a city stop in its world-renowned design centre, Bilbao – a fellow contender in the fight for World Design Capital 2014.
On arriving at the somewhat pokey airport in Bilbao, you are not instantly transported into the design world that some people make it out to be. But the weather is great, and the food and wine are renowned, so if the design side is somewhat less impressive, a stopover is still worthwhile.
As you exit the airport, the sheer scale of the city emerges. As the tenth largest city in Spain, Bilbao undoubtedly has delusions of grandeur. The highways have six lanes, the bridges are gargantuan … it’s as if they’re waiting for a population explosion.
Once a medieval metropolis, Bilbao was later developed as an industrial city, its activity limited almost exclusively to the iron and steel industry, and shipbuilding. The city’s economic activity then underwent a necessary and imperative change following the industrial crisis of 1975, leading to an exponential transformation and notably altering the look and feel of the city, creating the conditions necessary for innovation and excellence.
The urban regeneration of Bilbao was not, however, conceived as mere decorative improvement. Slowly, authorities set about metamorphosing Bilbao into a cross-cultural city of business and tourism. Today, it is quite usual to see a crowd of tourists by the riverbank near the Guggenheim Museum, on a boat motoring past the Euskalduna Conference Centre or walking past the Basque Health Service building designed by architect Juan Coll-Barreu, or the new Miribilla Sports Centre.
As we approach the centre of town, a more deliberate design element becomes apparent. On every bridge, every walkway, every pavement. A case in point is the attractive tree grates, born of an initiative to resolve the union between the pavement and the tree while subtly introducing art into the city. The initiative paid homage to various artists and is a modern take on their work. From fauvist painter Henri Matisse to Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and Vassily Kandinsky, every effort is made to beautify practical solutions.
But it is the Guggenheim Museum – the symbol of modern Bilbao – that truly brings this design philosophy into the spotlight.
Known for his use of unorthodox materials and inventive forms, and his sensitivity to the urban environment, California-based architect Frank Gehry is the visionary behind this astounding project, initiated in 1991. Gehry’s design included features that embrace both the identity of the Guggenheim Museum (the building’s glass atrium refers to the famous rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim, for example) and its home in the Basque Country, with its largest gallery dramatically traversed by Bilbao’s Puente de La Salve, a vehicular bridge serving as one of the main gateways to the city.
Almost from the moment it opened its doors in 1997, Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with its distinctive titanium curves and soaring glass atrium, was hailed as one of the most important buildings of the 20th century. Gehry’s use of cutting-edge computer-aided design technology enabled him to translate poetic forms into reality. The resulting architecture is sculptural and expressionistic, with spaces unlike any other for the presentation of art.
As part of the city’s design strategy, many other initiatives on urban regeneration soon followed. The Alhóndiga, a wine warehouse built in 1909, was completely redesigned in 2010, by French designer Philippe Starck, into a multi-purpose venue that consists of a cinema multiplex, a fitness centre, a library and a restaurant, among other spaces.
Within the Abandoibarra area, we find the Euskalduna Conference Centre. Built on the same spot as the original shipyard, this is an emblematic building in its own right. Architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios were inspired to conceive the project as reminiscent of a ship’s hull: one side ‘leaning out’ towards the river, imitating a ship built of corten iron and allowing a thin layer of rust to form; the other side facing the city, with glass, aluminium and stone offering a somewhat less aggressive appearance. Inside, however, one finds the jewel of the Euskalduna – the auditorium. Seating 2000 people, it was designed by the Catalonian specialist in architectural acoustics, Higini Arau.
Although initial investment for the Euskalduna Conference Centre was in excess of 80-million euros, accounts currently show a surplus, and it is no surprise. Recognition for this superb architectural statement has come in the form of prestigious awards both nationally and internationally: the Enric Miralles Award in 2001; the Apex Award for World’s Best Congress Centre in 2003; and, in 2004, the award for Best Conference Centre in Spain, from the Spanish Federation of Professional Conference Organisers.
Furthermore, the Euskalduna has been extended to include a public square. Connected to the main building, this space allows for conferences and parallel events, as well as large-scale banquets of up to 1500 guests held simultaneously. Covered by a glass and steel roof, the ‘glints and reflections will give the visitor the impression of diving into the river’. Or so says the architect.
Simple, elegant, ecological and sustainable. This is how Argentine architect César Pelli defines his latest project, ‘The Tower’ – yet another new architectural icon in Bilbao. More accurately called the Iberdrola Tower, this imposing skyscraper – it is 165 metres high, with 41 storeys – is the headquarters of the Iberdrola electric company of Basque origin. Iberdrola’s strategic decision to move one of their headquarters to Bilbao has been a major one for the city and the local economy, following the company’s plan to locate their work places in the emblematic buildings of growing cities.
Looking ahead, the much-anticipated urban regeneration of Zorrotzaurre, the peninsula of the River of Bilbao, will see the construction of an island on which tall, modern commercial buildings (about 25% of the total land use) stand proud within a predominantly residential node. In a nod to this city’s rich maritime history, the old factories currently occupying this space will continue to play a role in its renewal.
The decision to convert the peninsula into an island is motivated by the urgent need to reduce the danger of flooding. Hydraulic studies recommend widening the Deusto Canal to 75 metres, and raising the flood height of the future island to approximately five metres.
In addition to housing, the master plan calls for three swing bridges (the navigability of the river must, of course, be safeguarded) connecting the island to Deusto, San Ignacio and Zorrotza. Still more bridges may be required in future, as top priority is being given to public transportation in Bilbao, particularly by extending the tramway and expanding the network of pedestrian and cycle paths.
Not only is the Zorrotzaurre peninsula project a major urban renewal undertaking, it is also a reflection of the innovative spirit displayed in Bilbao’s ongoing expansion. Whether you’re into architecture, art, design or simply beautiful cities, a visit to Bilbao is not to be missed.
In addition to a love of design, it is said that the people of Bilbao cherish two passions: food and friendship, both of which are nurtured simultaneously. There is little need for social arrangements, as friends meet spontaneously having a pintxo (the local tapas equivalent, pronounced 'peen-cho') in the bar they regularly go to. For the visitor, Bilbao offers an excellent opportunity to savour the pintxo culture in seven different areas:
THE OLD QUARTER
METRO STOP: CASCO VIEJO
The Old Quarter is full of religious and civil buildings of character, but there are also plenty of bars to relieve hunger and quench one’s thirst whilst sightseeing, allowing both tradition and modernity to exist side-by-side.
METRO STOP: ABANDO / MOYÚA
Parallel to the city’s main shopping street (Gran Vía), Calle Ledesma is a pedestrian area well frequented at lunchtime and in the evenings by executives working nearby.
METRO STOP: MOYÚA
Perpendicular to Gran Vía, this small pedestrian street is one of the hubs of the pintxo routes. Visitors are invited to try the classic bite-size delicacies (ham and omelette) as well as the more innovative pintxos (authentic miniature haute cuisine).
METRO STOP: MOYÚA / INDAUTXU / SAN MAMÉS
Said to be the pedestrian street with the highest concentration of bars in Spain, the Calle Poza is a popular meeting point every day of the year, but is jam-packed with football fans on match days – ending, as it does, at the San Mamés football stadium.
METRO STOP: MOYÚA
The area around the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao successfully combines attractions for tourists with the tradition of Bilbao. Its central streets offer excellent pintxo bars in which to savour the bite-sized snack.
METRO STOP: DEUSTO
The residential neighbourhood of Deusto is separated from the city centre by the river. The 'tomateros', as its inhabitants are known (having once produced tomatoes of local renown), have a long tradition of pintxos, so it is common to cross the river to savour them. It has an extremely diverse and bustling atmosphere.
METRO STOP: INDAUTXU
This street, which acts as a bridge between the different areas of the city, is home to some of the bars with the best selection of pintxos in the city. Those with traditional names converge with more innovative establishments, and there is an atmosphere at all hours, mainly that of the cuadrilla (group of friends)
THE RIOJA WINE REGION
Located less than an hour's drive south of Bilbao, the beautiful Rioja wine region is a pleasure to visit, with prehistoric ruins, manor houses, emblazoned buildings and ancient walled towns fulfilling one's cultural needs, and superb wines and regional cuisine satisfying those of the palate. Many wineries are open to the public, with some by arrangement only. Try a classic winery, such as Bodegas Muga or more contemporary destinations, such as Marques de Murrieta, Artadi Winery Ramon Bilbao and Remirez de Ganuza. Wine tours are available from Bilbao. For more info, visit winetourismspain.com or thewinecolours.com.
Txakoli wine is produced mainly in the Basque Country, making it a must for wine lovers visiting Bilbao. Its history is associated with the Basque farmers, although in recent years there has been a major evolution in its development, with wineries working to obtain the best possible taste and aroma. This has placed Txakoli among the best white wines made in Spain. This slightly sparkling, very dry white wine has a high acidity and low alcohol content, and is perfectly paired with vinegary and garlicky pintxos.
Source: Winestyle Magazine