Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Bilbao thoughts

David Sucher draws my attention to this slide show from Slate, which illustrates that the late 1990s period of architecture as a spectacle is over, and that architects are now building more modest buildings that fit into the surrounding environment without trying to dominate it.

David comments that the slideshow draws attention in passing "to a question ---'Is there a city beyond the Bilbao Museum?' --- that I have never heard voiced much less answered:". In particular, it says the following

After Frank Gehry's stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened to universal acclaim in 1997, midsized cities around the world raced to build their own architectural tourist attractions. The thinking was simple: As long as a new building is enough of a spectacle, visitors will show up in droves. There are plenty of subtleties in Gehry's design—mostly in terms of how carefully it relates to the streets and city surrounding it—but nobody flew to Bilbao for a lesson in contextualism. They went to be amazed.

Well, I went to Bilbao in June, and I did so for a variety of reasons. While I wouldn't say I went there for a lesson in contextualism, this reason wasn't entirely absent from my mind either. I didn't write on this subject specifically at the time, but I did touch on it in a few places. (See here or here or here). However, before I get on to Bilbao I want to digress to discuss another recent architectural trend, or perhaps it would be better to describe it as an engineering trend, that is relevant.

Essentially, 100 or 50 or even 30 years ago many of the workplaces in our cities were industrial, or at least provided jobs involving heavy labour. Cities contained factories. Cities contained their own infrastructure. Cities were built around ports. Cities contained power stations. Cities contained oil refineries. Over the last 50 years, these types of workplaces and facilities have moved out of cities, at least in the developed world. Some of them have moved to the poor world. Some of them have moved out of actual cities and into more remote places, due to their scale being too large for them to fit into the cities themselves, and due to the fact that these sorts of industries require far fewer workers than they used to. (One of the most dramatic instances of this is the shift to container shipping, which I now remember I promised to write a post about). Yes, this is partly the shift from manufacturing to services that economists talk about, but perhaps more important is the change in the nature of what manufacturing remains. Also important was the invention of the personal computer, which dramatically changed the nature of services jobs, and indeed manufacturing jobs as well when I come to think of it.

This has left large empty areas of cities with former industrial uses. The general trend seems to be that such areas become rundown and derelict for a while, and then when there is an economic boom they get redeveloped in to houses, and sometimes opposites. Virtually every city that once was a port seems to have had a "docklands project" in the last ten years, in which new housing has been built near the water. Some of this is new housing stock, and other parts of it consists of changed uses for existing buildings. The simplest example of this is conversions of warehouses into apartments, but it can be much more than this, up to and including power stations being converted into modern art museums. (Prior to industrialisation, people in cities generally wanted to live near the river. However, industrialisation polluted the river and richer people moved away from the river. Now that the industry is gone, they are moving back again, reversing a 200 year trend).

And of course, the same thing happens to industrial sites that are not near water, and we get marvellous things like shopping centres being built at the bottom of disused quarries. Even when the buildings are new, the structure of a section of a city built in a former industrial area is different to one not. Industry changes the physical geography of the land, driving railway cuttings through hills, creating flat areas next to shear cliffs, making new and straighter watercourses, digging quarries, and similar. (For people who know it, the Pyrmont area of Sydney is going through my mind).

However, wherever it happens, we are getting an interesting architectural effect. Industrial buildings tend to be large, monolithic, brown, bulky, and not subtle. (This does not necessarily make them ugly). This is partly because of their utilitarian function,and partly because of when they were built. When they are now converted to some other use, more attention is paid to design (and computers exist to help with it), and the conversion is done with newer, stronger and thinner materials, that are often innately or pained white or silver. The effect can often be almost one of spider webs having been left on the old structures. The spider webs are often but by no means always the transport infrastructure.

As I said, this effect is present in parts of many cities, but it is most dramatic in places where the city was principally industrial in the first place. Manchester got a makeover before the Commonwealth Games last year, and I think it is now a fascinating looking city. Brown warehouses and industrial ruins, with one or two white, very modern buildings (for isntance the new Imperial War museum), some cute, spindly bridges over the river, one or two new shopping centres.

And, another such city is Bilbao, which was once both a port and the centre of steelmaking. Most people would not call Bilbao an especially pretty city. However, as I drew attention to when I wrote about its metro system on Transport Blog, it is in a very distinctive location, which is in a single river valley on the North of the Pyrenees, with steep hills rising to both sides. The whole metropolis is about 20 km long. The centre of the city is in a location where the river goes around a curve. Due to the curve, the river valley has a fairly flat bowl shaped section at this point, and there is a flat area inside the curve where the city centre is situated. Downstream from is area is the former heavy industrial and port area (now being regenerated, although many of the new residential developments are in fact some way up the sides of the valley - buildings in such locations being more viable with modern building technology, and the views being better that way) and downstream further from that you eventually reach the mouth of the river and valley. On the left bank of the river (and moving round the corner to face the Atlantic, you find Portugalte, which appears to have been a former working class maritime area, and on the right bank going around the corner to face the Atlantic, you find Getxo, one a fishing town, and then a beach side / leisure area, with promemades and the like, and at one point a location of stately mansions lived in by rich people who wanted to be out of Bilbao itself. (Now I'm guessing it is full of commuters). This is the kind of place that you find on the seaside outskirts of many cities - the type of place where people might have gone for a day or weekend away before the days of cheap longer distance travel. For some reason I always seek these places and their run-down 1920s beachside architecture wherever I go. But I digress.

In any event, Bilbao has in recent years been going through the phase of "building modern spider-web like facilities on the top of a run down industrial base" phase in recent years. There is a new, modern metro system (with stations designed by Foster & Partners). There are new roads and motorways, with modern less bulk intersections than you would have seen a few years back. There is Santiago Calatrava's footbridge across the Nervion.

(Photograph ripped off from here, where there are some other nice ones as well).

There is a new tram system following the curve of the river through the main city, as well as a relatively new medium distance (but remarkably light rail in the circumstances) train system connecting Bilbao to the rest of the Basque country. (This is a Basque nationalist thing - the Spanish national rail system was more concerned with getting people to and from Madrid). There is also a new airport, with a terminal designed also by Calatrava. I don't care for this so much. I think his arches and curves work better with bridges.

(This is in a parallel valley. The city is clearly starting to expand into adjacent valleys as there are now tunnels under the ridges, or which you can see a little in the foreground. Previously the physical geography was simply too rugged for this to happen much. My apologies for the blurriness of the photo. It was taken from the top of the ridge on the other side of the valley with a 210mm lens on a cloudy day with a handheld camera)

And of course there is the Guggenheim museum. As the Slate piece mentioned, this is actually extremely well integrated into the city, and is designed in such a way that its pathways and doors are aligned with the streets and paths of the city itself. Plus it is positioned so that you often catch interesting glimpses of it as you walk down Bilbao's streets.

However, there is one aspect of it which is sufficiently seldom commented on that I was unaware of it before visiting Bilbao, and this picture illustrates it.

There was and is a very major bridge, the Puente de la Salve running across the river at the bridge's location. This is a somewhat brutal, massive structure. It looks quite unusual, being a cable stayed bridge from a more industrial age of bridge-building than most, more recent, cable stayed bridges. Cable stayed bridges are built today due to the fact that with modern materials they are often cheaper than other types of bridge. However, there is another important fact about them, which is that they can be made highly asymmetric. For many other types of bridge, one side must be pretty much the mirror image of the other. For cable stayed bridges the two designs of the two sides can be close to unrelated. And, in Bilbao this was likely important, as the major road going over the bridge comes out of the steep hills on one side of the river, carries heavy traffic (including heavy vehicles) across the river and then essentially becomes one of Bilbao's main thoroughfares. The bridge was built in the late 1960s, and it fits quite well into an industrial city. I quite like it. (If you built a bridge there today to the same specifications, it might be prettier (it could be a modern cable stayed bridge - similar in shape but thinner and a different colour) or it might not (the cheapest solution would likely be something fairly ghastly made from prestressed concrete). But the 1960s bridge is what we have.

And I, personally, happen to think that the integration of the bridge into the design of the museum is the best thing about the design of the Guggenheim.

The museum goes underneath the bridge, and it has has a tower that rises up over the bridge on the other side. (Clever things are done with the internal space created inside the museum by this, but I am less interested in this than the external aspects). A walkway and a set of steps goes under the bridge, and up onto the walkway on the opposite side of the bridge to the bulk of the museum, and this provides good vantage points of the bridge, museum, and river.

I previously described modern residential and leisure based developments on top of an industrial base as being like spiders webs attached to larger structures. The Guggenheim is slightly more complicated than this. If you look at the city this way, then it is perhaps the spider, or at least a large bug of some sort from which the webs emanate. And this idea works far better with the lumbering industrial bridge next to it. The museum is a much better building with the bridge than it would be without it.

And yet, when I read about the Guggenheim prior to actually going to see it, this point was seemingly missed entirely. The bridge was clearly not architecture but engineering, and was either presented as an obstacle to the design of the building or as a blemish. (The Bilbao guidebook I took with me said the following

Gehry had to contend with the ugly bulk of the Puente de la Salve running through the middle of his site, yet managed to incorporate the bridge fluidly into his plans

Now that's actually a compliment to Gehry, but it still implies that the bridge was on obstacle, rather than being something interesting to work with. The implication is clearly that an empty site would have been better, and I personally do not think that at all.

Most photographs I have seen of the Bilbao Guggenheim tend to photograph the building in such a way that the bridge is not visible, as it showing it would take away from the perfection of the building or something. The image of the museum from the slide show that started me on this post is an example. (It is actually taken from the bridge in question).

This is a shame, because as David constantly insists (correctly) the total environment is much more interesting than a single building.

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