by Chris Bertram on February 17, 2004

There’s been light blogging from me over the past few days as I’ve been in “Bilbao”: , biggest city in the Basque country and home to Frank Gehry’s wonderful “Guggenheim Museum”: The Guggenheim is really the main reason to visit the city and is a visual and technological marvel. The computer-generated curves link sufaces of stone, glass and most memorably titanium scales which shimmer over the bank of the Nervion river. Gehry isn’t the only architect in town, though, with Norman Foster represented by “the new Metro”: which runs all the way out to the sea. Building the Guggenheim cost around US$100 million of public money but the effect has been to regenerate a decaying industrial city and put it back on the map as a tourist destination. Good to see a practical demonstration of the power of compulsory taxation and state-sponsored public works projects!



Matthew 02.17.04 at 1:40 pm

It’s just a shame (at least as of February 2003) there’s nothing in it worth seeing!


Doug Muir 02.17.04 at 2:00 pm

And not a word about Solomon Guggenheim, capitalist and philanthropist. Whose idea the whole thing was, and whose foundation provided much of the cash and all of the push.


Doug M.


Chris Bertram 02.17.04 at 2:13 pm

Since Solomon Guggenheim died in 1949 when Bilbao was still under the Francoist dictatorship, a personal mention of him might have been thought a bit silly, Doug. Anyway, you obviously can’t take a gentle dig at our usual breed of market-good/state-bad commenters without reacting!


Atrios 02.17.04 at 2:52 pm

Was there last summer. Nice place. (museum and city)


J. Ellenberg 02.17.04 at 3:14 pm

If you’ve got time, drive up to the coast; Bakio has a pretty beach and Bermeo is a picturesque fishing village which is a good place to have lunch.


Mark 02.17.04 at 3:21 pm

If you like this combination of publicly funded architecture and art, you might be interested in the extension to the Denver Art Museum, currently under construction, which uses the same titanium as is used in the Guggenheim.


Ophelia Benson 02.17.04 at 3:57 pm

Funny. I haven’t been to Bilbao but I love the look of the museum from pictures. But Gehry built the Discover Music Project here in Seattle a few years after he did the Guggenheim – and I think it’s a hideous pile of junk. I mean literally – from a distance that’s what it looks like. Not the beautiful glittering gleaming set of shapes that the Guggenheim looks like in pictures, but just an ill-assorted pile of scrap. I hate it. I wish I didn’t, but I do. It’s not very beautiful close up, either.



JRoth 02.17.04 at 4:18 pm

No need to sigh, ophelia. When the only principle underlying the design is, “Thats a nicely crumpled bit of cardboard – scan it!” the results will necessarily vary widely from application to application.

Unless, of course, you were sighing on behalf of the city of Seattle, now burdened with a rather prominent scrapyard in its center. That would be justified.


Walt Pohl 02.17.04 at 4:58 pm

It’s “Experience Music Project”. The reason it looks so different from the Bilbao is that it’s supposed to look “psychedelic”, in tribute to Jimi Hendrix. I actually kinda like it, though it’s not nearly as beautiful as the Bilbao. I’m alone in this, however — everyone else in Seattle hates it.


Ophelia Benson 02.17.04 at 5:04 pm

Oops, sorry, Experience, of course.

I suppose I was sighing for Seattle and the scrap heap – and even more a sigh of wishing the EMP were more like the Guggenheim.

I would like it if I could, but…

Those big slabs of red or blue transparent plastic stacked on top of each other – that you can see from all over the city – eccch.

I do quite like the shiny metal part. But that’s only one part.


Doug Muir 02.17.04 at 6:11 pm

Irony — yours or mine — translates poorly into this medium.

The Guggenheims of NY and Bilbao are indeed impressive achievements. But even the Googs — which are done very carefully, with years or decades of planning in advance, and in partnership with local governments — don’t always get it right; Guggenheim Soho didn’t last out its first decade. (Though I did pick up some nice prints when it folded in 2002.)

As for my reaction, it’s to /your/ “big tax funded projects good” point, Chris, not to the “usual breed”. Whatever they may be. The breed on normblog is somewhat different from the one at instapundit; and over on, they think I’m a bleeding heart liberal and, yes, a socialist.

But… if you really want to go there, I’ll see you the Bilbao Goog and raise you the Centre Pompidou.

Doug M.


Josh 02.17.04 at 6:21 pm

And what’s wrong with the Centre Pompidou?


clew 02.17.04 at 7:33 pm

I’ve been able to like the EMP—as a landscape-lump—since I heard the description “the Space Needle dropped her dress.” I’m not so fond of it as a building, but it’s next to goofy/boring ’60s architecture already; it’s an extension of the City Themepark instead of a wart on the City Beautiful.


David Adams 02.17.04 at 7:38 pm

Good to see a practical demonstration of the power of compulsory taxation and state-sponsored public works projects!

Unfortunately, for every Guggenheim Bilbao there are 50 or 100 such public projects that don’t live up to their hype–even in terms of keeping themselves going, much less adding real juice to the local economy. Bilbao took a huge risk. It paid off for them, but this isn’t exactly a repeatable event.


Anthony 02.17.04 at 10:25 pm

Compare this to some of the UK failures:

Arts Council England finally achieved the public recognition it deserves yesterday. According to the Public Accounts Committee, it is utterly useless. This will surprise no one who has observed its activities over the past 25 years.

So it’s no accident that the Public Accounts Committee attacked it so strongly for favouring ventures whose projected attendance figures were ridiculously optimistic. Business plans are always partial works of fiction but the versions accepted by the council could be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Who on earth was going to travel to Sheffield to pay eight quid to enter a pop museum? Other Arts Council England projects, such as Walsall Art Gallery and the Baltic in Gateshead, those that were fanfared as triumphs of the new millennium, mainly because huge sums were made available for classy pre-opening marketing campaigns, are now in serious trouble. The punters have realised that what they get is not what they want to see.


David Sucher 02.18.04 at 12:08 am

One thing which seems to be missing from this discussion is any reference to anything beyond personal preference.

I am somewhat amused and also appalled that judging such massive bits of reality — buildings are rather large you know and bulk large in our perception of the world — is done with such aimless whimsy: I like. I don’t like.

But why? do you like/don’t like? That’s the trick.

Do folks really think that that are no standards by which to judge? That it is “all a matter of taste”?


Mark 02.18.04 at 1:01 am


I guess the first question would be – does the building fulfill internally the function for which it was designed (e.g. Does it work as an art gallery, office etc). If that holds true, then surely the external is a matter of aesthetics, especially if the building is a modern design inside an area of traditional buildings (Pompidou,Louvre and Les Halles are obvious examples). And why should the design not challenge us in a like/dislike manner? There is, after all, little else, although it might well be argued that working inside an ‘interesting’ building is psychologically uplifting.


clew 02.18.04 at 4:15 am

I see the EMP far more often as part of a long-distance view than I pass it on foot. (I do like going through it on the monorail; it’s a fitting gate to the whimsical, impractical amusements at Seattle Center.)

If it were downtown, I’d judge it by very different standards, because downtown has foot flow and (a few) architectural standards to work into.

Actually, extending the park idea, I experience the EMP in Renaissance terms as a grotto.


Ophelia Benson 02.18.04 at 3:35 pm


Well aesthetic judgments are notoriously difficult to ground. I do think I have grounds for mine, can give reasons, etc, but other people are always at liberty simply to have different criteria. We can argue and try to persuade, but that’s all. At least as far as I know.


bill carone 02.18.04 at 4:41 pm

“I do think I have grounds for [my esthetic jedgments], can give reasons, etc, but other people are always at liberty simply to have different criteria.”

Well, they are at liberty, in that we won’t throw them in jail, but aesthetics goes further than just subjective judgments.

We recognize this when we talk about goodness. You can say e.g. “This is good for you, even though you don’t think it is.”

You can’t do the same directly for beauty. You can’t say e.g. “You really do enjoy the EMP, even though you don’t think you do.”

However, there is such a thing as objectivity in aesthetics; it isn’t just “I like this, you like that.”

For example, I have terrible taste in wine. This means that my subjective criteria differ from the criteria established by experts in the field of wine.

So we can say “This is an admirable wine, even though you don’t like it.” and can even say “This is an admirable cheese, even though I can’t stand it.”


Doug Muir 02.19.04 at 9:39 am

And what’s wrong with the Centre Pompidou?

Putting aesthetics altogether aside, it is now, and always has been, a massive money hole.

It had enormous cost overruns in construction. Just how enormous remains literally a state secret — several of the people involved are still prominent in French politics — but there’s general agreement that the official price tag of about 200 million 1975 US dollars is low. Very low.

Despite getting three to five times more visitors than the original projections, it has run at a loss continously for nearly thirty years. Completed in 1977, it had to undergo a $120 million dollar renovation in 1997-99 just to keep its doors open.

Putting infrastructure, including escalators, on the outside of a building may or may not be a good aesthetic choice. As a practical matter, though, it has been an unrelenting maintenance nightmare.

(That’s not the least of the Center’s structural and financial problems, but it is the one that still has me scratching my head. In the original version, the escalators weren’t even covered. The architects coated the metal stairs with a special acrylic, and assumed that would solve the problem. It didn’t. Among other things, it turned out that the acrylic disintegrated under prolonged exposure to sunlight.)

Doug M.


Doug Muir 02.19.04 at 9:54 am

It’s probably cheating to bring in an example from the Communist world. Still, for sheer waste and stupidity it’s hard to beat the Palace of the People in Bucharest.

This 3,000 room, multibillion dollar monstrosity consumed something like a quarter of the entire country’s budget for five years. Half of the center of the city was destroyed to make room for it and its appurtentant streets and buildings.

Aside from the fact that it was made of crap materials and is now falling apart, the building has certain… inherent problems. For instance, it was originally supposed to house almost the entire Romanian government, with a total workforce of about 4,500 people entering and leaving every day.

However, the Ceausescus didn’t build a metro station under it, and the nearest metro is a couple of kilometers away. Nor did they provide parking, except for a tiny parking lot (~100 places) for the Party leaders’ limousines.

The other 4,400 people were supposed to take a bus to a special bus stop, go through a security checkpoint, then walk 800 meters across an open lawn to the Palace’s back door.

(There was also supposed to be a museum of socialist achievement inside. About this, least said, better.)

The Palace was completed in early 1989, but hardly anyone had moved in when Ceausescu fell. Today it’s operating at about 10% occupancy, a number which is unlikely to rise. Most of the building is locked and empty, and always will be.

(The Romanians originally wanted to blow the damn thing up, but found they couldn’t afford to. Putting aside the cost of the explosives, removing the wreckage would take months and cost tens of millions. Maybe someday.)

Doug M.


David Sucher 02.19.04 at 3:11 pm

There are criteria for whether a building works well as a piece of the urban fabric and they are not “aesthetic.” The Centre Pompidou is a perfect example of a building which very much fails as a piece of urbanism i.e. I am thinking of it’s “Bus barn” side…a totally dead piece of city.

How the buildings looks as a piece of eye-candy is (or should be) really a somewhat minor concern. But the so-called “aesthetics” seem to trump more real issues.

That’s why there is virtually nothing of intelligence written on the Gehry in LA….people simply don’t know how to assess a building.


Mark 02.19.04 at 9:47 pm

Don’t forget that the reason Pompidou needed a major refit in 1997 was because it is such a popular building, (26,000 visitors/day against an initial design estimate of 5000). To me, its success implies that it must be a well designed building.


Doug Muir 02.25.04 at 8:37 am

Returning to this thread a bit late; long weekend visiting friends in the former Yugoslavia.

Mark: the visitor “overload” has nothing to do with it being a well designed building. Penn Central Station is one of the worst designed train terminals in the world. Yet by 2000 it was processing about three times as much traffic as they thought it would.

The Centre Pompidou attracts a lot of visitors because (1) tourism to Paris in general has more than tripled since it was built, and (2)it has a lot of very nice attractions that are surprisingly cheap, because they’re subsidized by the French state.

When I was last in Paris, you could get into the National Museum of Art for about $2.50… probably the lowest admission price for a comparable museum in the world. (The Met in NYC does not have an official admission price; in theory you can walk in for free. But it asks for a “recommended donation” of $10, and well over 90% of visitors pay it.) You can also go to a world-class theater performance there for about $25 — less than half the cost of a Broadway show. (If you can get tickets, of course; they sell out fast.)

Now, it’s entirely possible to argue that the State can, and even should, subsidize these sorts of cultural activities. I’d hate to live in a world where only middle class folks could visit museums.

But that’s separate from whether the Center is a “well designed building”. By pretty much any objective criteria, it isn’t.

Doug M.

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