Bilbao: Revitalisation through Culture, Alfonso Martinez Cearra

Bilbao: Revitalisation through Culture

Alfonso Martinez Cearra

Bilbao, one of the most important industrial towns of Spain with its one million inhabitants is undergoing similar changes to most industrial towns in Europe

Bilbao needs to replace its declining traditional industries by contemporary economic activities and it intends to move towards the creation of an open, plural, integrated, modern, creative social and cultural city. The city united the public and private sectors to carry out a strategic revitalisation project and now Bilbao, the former industrial city, is an important commercial, financial and industrial centre. At the turn of the 20th century Bilbao is one of the most advanced cities in Europe.

Changing Perceptions

New infrastructure can make a cultural change. The introduction of the Metro in 1997 altered people's perception of the city. Moving around was chaotic above ground, but underground the metro was clean and cool. People put their identity into it. The Metro was the first big change in Bilbao. This project, in conjunction with two new infrastructure projects at either end of the city's waterfront, the Guggenheim Museum and the Euskalduna Conference Hall, have dramatically altered the whole city. The waterfront will be extended to other areas along the river to transform other industrial areas, but the cultural change is in place.

The effect of the Guggenheim on Bilbao has been amazing in many ways. For example, with the influx of tourists to a small formerly industrial, inward-looking city, children have been exposed to seeing people from all over the world - Asians, blacks etc., people they had never seen before. The Guggenheim is an extraordinary building. You can't tell people how to be a modern city, you have to integrate what is there. Gehry did this. The building integrates the city and while it is beautiful from the outside, from the inside it is even more stunning. The Guggenheim has become a symbol for Bilbao. 1.36 million people visited the museum in its first year and it generated 0.47% of the Basque Country's GDP.

Originally 95% of Bilbao's politicians were against the Guggenheim Museum arguing that with the money they could build a new factory, but now they have changed their minds. They agree that a new image is needed to revitalise the city, resorting to art and culture. In France the Mitterand era invested millions of francs in Paris. Paris is thus a key city to learn about image in the world.

It takes many different things to change society from its industrial past, so there needs to be close attention to detail. In many ways, investing £1000 is much more difficult than investing large amounts. The pocket money cost of Jeff Koons Puppy in front of the Guggenheim museum also attracted many people, particularly local people. If you want to change the city image it is a good idea to get the support of the people in the city. In fact this is the key.

What has been achieved through cultural investments in Bilbao is that the exterior diffusion of Metropolitan Bilbao's image is now associated with leisure and culture - not industry. Cultural infrastructures have an important role to play in cities. They contribute to higher levels of competence, creativity and security, not to mention social cohesion. They promote a better understanding between different cultures and different generations of the society. Likewise, they encourage the citizens to participate more actively in collective development, thereby bringing about a greater awareness of identity and benefiting or creating local traditions.

Bilbao Metropoli

The Association Bilbao Metropoli 30 has been the driving force in bringing radical change to Bilbao. It comprises 30 towns of greater Bilbao and includes representatives of the Basque government, the city authorities, the university and major companies. It oversees the launching and fulfilment of the metropolitan area's Revitalisation Project and develops activities of research, promotion and planning, which focus on culture and tourism as central anchors of development. These investments have enabled Bilbao to successfully promote itself to foreign countries as a city closely associated to leisure and culture. Key stakeholders are making the most of the economic opportunities arising from Bilbao's turnaround policies. The different public institutions and private companies designed a series of coordinated strategies in order to make optimum use of the social and economic returns created by the new infrastructures. These returns will subsequently help to promote a strong cultural industry within the metropolis, generating new job prospects and a higher quality of life.


Metropoli is not only acting as a developer but is undertaking a detailed analysis of international experiences in cultural infrastructures as elements of urban revitalisation to shape its policy objectives. Metropoli aims to maximise the social and economic profitability of its infrastructures while fostering the development of a strong cultural identity capable of generating employment. In Metropoli's view, KCA - Knowledge, Culture, Art - are the key ingredients for revitalisation. This means analysing all types of knowledge, forgetting the obsolete and trying to develop new knowledge. For instance Bilbao is keeping the Basque language as well as Spanish but is also introducing English.

Bilbao has turned around the normal relationships between knowledge, culture and art. Knowledge is important but what is the use of having knowledge without telling other people? Knowledge belongs to the individual, culture belongs to the group. Based on shared culture, groups of people can begin to create things - art out of culture. Art is universal. Conversely, Bilbao went straight away for Art. It was not a product of culture, but now Bilbao will make culture out of art and consequently knowledge will change. Culture is the new industrial revolution of the 21st century.

Bilbao also went immediately to businessmen - private business was another key factor in Bilbao's success. The real problem is finding the right project. Finance is plentiful for the right projects.

Metropoli is currently undertaking a study of the most advanced experiences as regards investment in cultural infrastructures as an element of urban revitalisation. This analysis will study the impact of specific cultural infrastructures on the development of cultural sectors in cities world-wide. By means of this cultural impact study on the development of cities, the Association Bilbao Metropoli 30 will be able to determine the scope of the expansion of cultural sectors as a new urban economic activity and its effect on the international image of the city. The final aim of Metropoli is to design strategies to maximise social and economic profitability of new infrastructures and generate a strong cultural industry in Metropolitan Bilbao. #

The effect of the Guggenheim on Bilbao has been amazing, Bilbao’s image is now associated with leisure and culture - not industry. They also encourage the citizens to participate more actively in collective development, there by bringing about a greater awareness of identity and benefiting or creating local traditions.