Despite the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao and numerous suitors, a decade later there is only one other likely branch

When the Guggenheim Bilbao opened ten years ago, it was the cornerstone of a regeneration strategy that commissioned famous and fashionable architects – “starchitects” – to build the foundations of a post-industrial future on the carcass of an industrial past. The strategy was bold in conception and focused in execution, backed by a strong national or regional (depending on perspective) Basque sensibility and significant EU structural funds. Alongside Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad icon – perhaps the only post-war building to challenge Sydney Opera House in emotional resonance and immediacy of recognition – have been designs by Cesar Pelli (riverfront renewal), Santiago Calatrava (airport and footbridge), Norman Foster (railway station), Ricardo Legorreta (a Sheraton hotel), Robert Stern (a mall) and Federico Soriano (a conference and concert hall). Zaha Hadid has subsequently been commissioned to redesign the Zorrozaurre peninsula, the nearby sprawling port area.

The strategy has been successful. In an age of heavily subsidised European air travel, this small city has, definitively, diversified beyond heavy industry and port-related commerce into a tourist destination and a focal point for the region’s service industries. The Guggenheim’s visitor numbers hit 1.3m in 1998, dipped a little subsequently and predictably, but climbed back up, passing the million mark in 2006 for the first time since 1999. Over half of the visitors are from outside Spain. For purposes of comparison, Bilbao’s population is only 350,000.

The capitals of the two other Basque Provinces (Vitoria in Alava, San Sebastian in Guipúzcoa) have followed this diversification strategy, with monographic museums of Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, contemporary art museums and performing arts centres. The fly in the regenerative ointment is ETA, the separatist movement, which last year revoked its 2003 “permanent ceasefire”. But the Basque country is culturally vital and economically stable. Setting aside the usual self-congratulatory economic impact studies and giddy urban renewal rhetoric promulgated by vested interests, the story is immensely and genuinely positive.

The partnership between the Basque government and the Guggenheim has had its high and low points but it has endured. The Basques were predictably miffed by the Guggenheim’s desire to build a bigger Gehry building in downtown Manhattan and, now, in Abu Dhabi. It pulls the rug from under the Unique Selling Proposition that Bilbao represents, replacing it with “This museum is coming soon to a town near you…” The tension between the programmatic dictates of Fifth Avenue and local market are also occasionally in evidence in the anaemic character and depth of local outreach, and the extent to which acquisitions and programming reflect Basque as opposed to international cultural trends and strengths.

But the political, social and economic benefits justify the initial investment of $100m. These were once described by Joseba Arregi, the visionary Basque Minister for Culture responsible for shepherding the plans through cabinet, as costing as less than a kilometre of new highway, a comparison his cabinet colleagues found compelling. And, critically, the Basque government provides ongoing support for annual operating costs and acquisitions, without which the museum would be another floundering vanity project. “Bilbao” has become shorthand for the reincarnation of a rundown industrial city or district into a vibrant tourist destination, the poster child of the “instrumental” rationale for capital investment in iconic architecture.

The Guggenheim Museum has, with Bilbao under its belt and on its calling card, been scouring the world for a context in which to repeat the exercise, fulfilling the rhetoric of the global franchise that has become de facto its manifesto. For fees in excess of $1m a pop, the museum has, with the consultants McKinsey & Company, undertaken multiple feasibility studies in Central and South America, South East Asia, China and Europe. The income has been a welcome source of support of the museum’s historically weak balance sheet. However, the extraordinarily ambitious 300,000 sq. ft. proposition announced for Abu Dhabi earlier this year is the first in a decade to appear to have secured a client’s support and therefore moved from feasibility study to at least press release.

The Bilbao effect – big-name architect, envelope-straining building, and high-profile cultural partner – does not seem easily replicable. I would suggest you need at least the following five ingredients in the mix:

  • The Guggenheim is the jewel in the Basque crown – but there is a crown. The Guggenheim Bilbao is part of a much wider investment strategy that extends well beyond culture into transport, accommodation, retail and other infrastructure;
  • The investment strategy embraces not only capital but ongoing revenue support, with no fantasies about an early or eventual “break-even” period. Ten years on, the government is still solidly providing significant revenue support. Withdrawal of operating support would put the strategy in a tail-spin;
  • There are museum-goers within a reasonable “catchment” area, given transport costs. Contemporary Western art is generally enjoyed by a Western, highly educated, usually affluent population. A change in transport costs would vitiate the strategy, as would an attempt to replicate the strategy without access to this market;
  • There is a “first mover” advantage in Bilbao that is difficult to replicate. Each time another piece of highly visible, highly expressive architecture goes up anywhere – facilitated by advances in building technology, structural engineering, new materials, available funding, or sheer design flair – the overall “wow” factor of any one such icon is diminished. The museum boom has a bit of the aroma of crack cocaine – bigger and bigger hits are required to command attention;
  • The Basque country has a strong and unified political culture and, in a Europe in which regional identity increasingly trumps national identity, a regional symbol can – and in this case does – play a transcendent role. It is no coincidence that the Basque country has, in Mondragón, the world’s largest and most successful workers’ co-operative.

These multiple conditions for success are not easily met. They are unmet in most, if all not all, of the Guggenheim’s subsequent candidate sites for its franchise. Maybe the fees are sufficient to dull the pain caused by the sad fizzling out of so many feasibility exercises. But if the Guggenheim is genuinely seeking a lasting international franchise, and to build on Bilbao, then a more nuanced understanding of its own singular success may be required.