Invincible City: The “Miracle” of Bilbao and Lessons for Post-Industrial Cities

Posted on the twentieth anniversary of the Guggenheim Bilbao opening!. 
Thumbnail photo credit: Paolo Margari, Flickr Commons

Bilbao was not an ending, nor a beginning, but it was something. An inflection point in the way that we looked at cities, planning, and especially architecture. The names of New York, Rio, or Paris all call upon a vision of that city’s ethos. You can picture the skyscrapers of midtown and feel the hustle and bustle of the Times Square crowds. You can witness the favelas climbing the hillsides, and daydream of yourself splayed on the Copacabana beach. Or else you can imagine strolling underneath the Haussmannian facades and falling in love along the banks of the Seine. These images and sensations spring readily to mind, all without even having been to these cities, so vivid is their place in the collective imagination. For many, the city of Bilbao, Spain also holds a place in that imagination. Even those who cannot conjure an image of the city (and there is only one image that most people know), have likely had their cities influenced by its reach. For civic leaders and urban visionaries around the world, Bilbao means one thing: hope.

The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. It is arguably the second most internationally famous example of contemporary architecture, behind only the Sydney Opera House. Its remarkable sculpted forms, clad in titanium, were unlike anything the architecture world had seen. When the museum opened in 1997, it was an immediate sensation, singlehandedly putting the name of Bilbao on tourist tongues and maps. Almost four million people visited the museum in its first three years of operation. Bilbao benefitted from the spotlight. Other buildings from a parade of famous architects followed, including a state-of-the-art new airport designed by Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava.

The transformation of the city has been total. Just two decades ago, those who knew anything about Bilbao knew it as a polluted, grim, post-industrial backwater, haunted by the spectre of Basque separatist terrorism. Now, it is an internationally renowned center of art, design, food, wine, and technology. This remarkable success has spawned a horde of imitators, as declining industrial cities around the world saw in Bilbao’s example a blueprint for their own resurrection. The result has been a flood of investment in marquee cultural institutions and increasing demand for the work of “starchitects.” Yet few cities have found much success at all in attempting to replicate “the Bilbao effect”. In more than one occasion, the results have been disastrous. It has been suggested that what occurred was in fact “the Bilbao Anomaly”.[i]

What’s curious in all the discussion of the issues that have emerged from the experience of Bilbao is how little Bilbao is actually mentioned. In constant retellings, the story becomes simple. City hits hard times. City gambles on an iconic building. City strikes it rich and prospers. In reality of course, the story of the real Bilbao, not the one of myth, is much more nuanced and instructive. While the superstar impact of the Guggenheim cannot be ignored, it did not exist in isolation. Gehry did not land his spaceship in an unsuspecting cornfield, but rather on a prepared landing pad, in a city whose remaking was already well underway. The modern history of the Basque capital is one that illustrates the exact opposite lesson that has often been taken from it. The transformation of Bilbao is a triumph, not of a lightning strike of genius, but of careful, purposeful, and comprehensive planning from organizations large and small, that continues to create positive change to this day.


Bilbao was an unusual candidate to achieve international fame. The city’s history begins, as far as anyone can tell, in 1300 when Don Diego López V de Haro, granted the city the right to trade as a Villa.[ii] For centuries, the town existed as a prominent port on the Atlantic side of the Iberian Peninsula. The city is nestled in the valley of the Nervión River, which is navigable for eight miles inland, providing the perfect opportunity for a river port protected from the Bay of Biscay. The city was built along the original port, but the steep hills that constrain the river’s narrow valley forced the city to expand in a linear fashion over time. As a result, modern Bilbao looks like beads along a string, with city districts strung together along the river. The city subsisted on mercantile trade for centuries, and gained notoriety from its perseverance. After surviving three sieges in the Carlist wars of the early 1800’s, Bilbao was christened the “Invincible City” by Isabella I.[iii]

It was the 1856 invention of Bessemer steel that put Bilbao on the global map. The surrounding hills were extraordinarily rich in iron, and within a short time, the city had become one of the boomtowns of the steel age. Bilbao’s ties grew especially close with Britain, to whom it exported enormous quantities of ore over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[iv] The city still retains English ties in odd places. The sport of football was brought to the city in the boom years by the English, and the club they founded is named Athletic Bilbao and not Atlético.[v] With rapid industrialization came rapid population increases and rapid deterioration of the environment. Workers from all over Spain traveled to Bilbao at this time and the city became much more cosmopolitan and significantly less Basque. Meanwhile, the forested hills in the region were plundered and the refuse of industry was dumped unthinkingly into the river.

Because the river was used heavily as a port, no pedestrian bridges were built to cross the Nervión because they would restrict boat movement. As a result, the city turned its back on the river and the opposing banks became hopelessly segregated. The city’s factories, shipyards, and port facilities were built on the river’s left bank. Consequently, the left bank also bore the poorest, most crowded, and most diverse neighborhoods. In contrast, the right bank of the river became the enclave of the city’s wealthy, predominantly Basque upper class, and the major institutions of the city were also built there.[vi] Perhaps inevitably, Bilbao became a political cauldron, with capital and labor locked in constant combat. The famous communist orator and politician Dolores Ibárruri found her voice amidst the misery of industrial Bilbao.[vii] Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the river, the Basque capitalists who owned the mines and factories accumulated tremendous wealth, and invested heavily in their own region. In 1929, a quarter of Spain’s banking resources were controlled by the Basques, who made up just three percent of the population. The city of Bilbao boasted even greater advantages in industrial investments, for example, sixty eight percent of the nation’s investments in steel factories were invested along the Nervión.[viii]

The Irish novelist Kate O’Brien, who worked as a governess in the city when she was young, wrote lyrically of the bleakness of the city she found. “Bilbao, by some ineradicable characteristic of landscape and sky,” she wrote, “can never be caught looking Dionysaic, or even merry. Her sober face is unrelenting, almost a judgement.”[ix]

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Bilbao was many things to many people. A hotbed of radical and reactionary politics; a source of great wealth and tremendous poverty; an international hub, and the principle city of the Basque people. The Spanish Civil War intruded upon and exploited these contradictions. The Basques half-heartedly sided with the Republicans, and were swiftly cut off from Madrid by the Nationalist armies of Francisco Franco in 1937. Bilbao’s defense was entrusted to a series of fixed fortifications termed “the Iron Ring”, but these proved useless in the face of the air power of Franco’s German allies. The battle for Bilbao became famous when the nearby Basque town of Gernika was savagely bombed, an event that was immortalized for history in a painting by Pablo Picasso. Reflecting perhaps the Basques’ reluctance to fight in the first place, the retreating defenders destroyed Bilbao’s bridges, but left much of the city, including its industrial facilities, almost completely intact.[x]

After the war, Bilbao was able to pick up much as it left off. While international trade slowed, the city was successful doing business within the country. However Spanish fascism left an ugly mark on the city’s local culture. Basque political leaders were imprisoned or executed, its political autonomy was stripped, and the Basque language was repressed. Under Franco, the city’s industry was overprotected and its spirit was smothered. When Spain returned to democracy and market liberalism after Franco’s depth, the outdated economy of Bilbao stood no chance in the global economy.[xi]

This was the position that Bilbao found itself in at the later stages of the twentieth century. The city’s once-might industry had collapsed completely and the city’s population of economic migrants from the rest of Spain left in a flood. Bilbao’s population shrunk by 16% from 1980 to 1995. Those who stayed fought a desperate battle for their jobs, while the city’s companies fought an often equally desperate battle for survival. The number of workers employed in manufacturing industries was nearly halved from 1975 to 1995. Youth unemployment crested over 50% in the 1980’s, incomes plunged, and many workers were forced into early retirement.[xii]

Paddy Woodworth, an Irish journalist dispatched to Bilbao as Franco lay dying in 1975, found a city choking on its own pollution and convulsed by economic turmoil. “People sometimes keeled over and died in the street, asphyxiated by the atmospheric contamination,” he wrote. “The war between greed and misery was played out on the streets of the city, with tear gas and burning barricades further enriching the atmospheric mix. Bilbao smelled of struggle, or of wealth, depending on which side you took in that battle, and both smells were bracing.”[xiii]


The removal of the Spanish dictatorship and the restoration of democracy may have precipitated the demise of Bilbao’s industry, but the fall was always coming. In the broad brush of history, Bilbao was just one of many cities, from Cleveland to Liverpool, to be gutted by de-industrialization. But there were crucial differences, and these differences were the seeds from which the city’s contemporary growth has emerged.

One critical boon to the city was the restoration of regional autonomy by the Spanish democracy. Under Franco, Basque separatism and identity were beaten down. Under democracy, they re-emerged. The Basque National Party (PNV) returned to power, and the entire Basque Country was granted special powers that allowed it to collect taxes for itself and pay only a certain percentage (just 12% in 2000) to the central government in Madrid. As the urban geographer Jörg Plöger puts it, Bilbao’s “local decision-makers gained the power to design tailored policies at the right time.”[xiv]

By the 1980’s the scale of the crisis in Bilbao was abundantly clear, and local and regional governments understood that dramatic and concerted action was necessary. There is a fascinating irony to this consensus. The PNV was founded by a Bilbao native, Sabino Arana, who hated the city and idealized the authentically and exclusively Basque character of rural life. The city was the stronghold of the Spanish socialist party (PSOE), whose liberalizing policies ultimately destroyed the traditional working class left bank. Yet in its hour of need, it was the PNV who led the all-hands-on-deck intervention to save the city that did not often vote for them, whose ethos they were created to oppose.[xv]

In 1989 the Basque government commissioned the creation of a “Strategic Plan for the Revitalization of Metropolitan Bilbao”[xvi], and the plan was completed in 1992. The plan contained eight initiatives.[xvii]

1.      Investment in human resources

2.      Service metropolis in a modern industrial region

3.      Mobility and accessibility

4.      Environmental regeneration

5.      Urban regeneration

6.      Cultural centrality

7.      Coordinated management by the public administration and private sector

8.      Social action

The overarching goal towards which these operations pointed was a complete restructuring of the metropolitan economy from an industrial base towards services, especially financial. In parallel, the overall Basque government, based in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Bilbao is often wrongly assumed to be the Basque capital), developed the Directrices de Ordenación Territorial (DOT) to serve as central planning concepts for the Basque region. The DOT aimed to capitalize on the Basque region’s position between Paris and Madrid, near the neck where the Iberian Peninsula protrudes from mainland Europe. Planners envisioned a regional pivot with Bilbao as Spain’s major Atlantic port and the entire region as a critical conduit between the Atlantic and Mediterranen arcs of Europe.[xviii]

Remarkable in breadth, the Basque plans were backed up by the region’s muscular fiscal and political autonomy. In contrast to de-industrializing regions around the world, the Basque region enjoyed unsurpassed agency to carry their plans out.

Metropolitan Bilbao was ground zero for the economic catastrophe, and it would be the centerpiece of the recovery. Backed by capital from the national, regional, and local government, planners began to implement sweeping changes in accordance with the goals of the metropolitan plan.

1.      Investment in human resources: Among the government’s first moves were to develop a regime of smaller interventions and social programs that would later run alongside the major, headline-making, projects. In 1983, parts of the city were badly damaged in a flood. When the waters receded, the dire quality of much of Bilbao’s low-income housing was laid bare. The city created an agency called Surbisa, whose aim was to help with the immediate flood recovery and in the long term to improve the quality of living conditions in Bilbao’s most impoverished neighborhoods.[xix] Another agency, Lan Ekintza (“Action for Employment”) was created in the late 1990’s with the aim of retraining workers whose skills were a poor match for the modern economy, and facilitating the start of new businesses. This agency has reportedly helped over 2,000 workers and 100 businesses each year since its inception. The city of Bilbao has also begun a system of subsidy for low to middle- class owner-occupied housing and has built some affordable housing developments as well.[xx]

Later projects have continued to expand on this aim. The “URBAN Programme”, funded in part by the European Union has worked to both transform the physical characteristics of specific areas, and create lasting social infrastructure. An intervention in the district of Barakaldo involves a redesign of the public square with a business development center that (according to its specific plan) “provides assessment, guidance, and backing for viable business initiatives with a view towards encouraging self-employment in the area”.[xxi]

2.      Service metropolis in a modern industrial region: The Basque planners also took aim at the structural liabilities that were holding back Bilbao’s economy. Another one of the government’s early initiatives was the creation of a “technology park” near the airport at Zamudio, in an effort to attract more modern informational and technological businesses. In 2007, the park employed 6,000 people in 350 businesses.[xxii]

3.      Mobility and accessibility: Turning to the cityscape, the government quickly identified the need for robust investments in transportation infrastructure. The city commissioned the British architect Norman Foster to design a new metro system for the city, which opened in 1995 and was expanded in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2009. Characterized by its distinctive entrances (Woodworth: “big glass carapaces”) the system currently consists of two lines, one on each bank of the river, and a tram that runs through the old city and new waterfront.  Three more lines are planned, and high speed rail connection to the rest of Spain has just been completed. Bus services and regional rail systems were also streamlined and enhanced.[xxiii]

4.      Environmental regeneration: The seaport was evicted from the center city and a larger, state-of-the-art facility was built in the Nervión estuary (Abra). The new harbor is Spain’s most important shipping port, and among the largest on the Atlantic.[xxiv] With the remaining industrial uses removed, the city began a painstaking clean-up of the Nervión, with the aim of making the river habitable for life by 2004.[xxv] At the same time, the Basque region’s primary water utility completely rebuilt the city’s water sanitation system. This single project was the most expensive in the entire program.[xxvi]

5.      Urban regeneration: It had been a long time since anyone had been struck by the beauty of Bilbao, but there turned out to be a lot to love underneath the city’s grimy surface. “When Bilbao’s face was thoroughly washed,” wrote Paddy Woodworth, “it turned out to have surprisingly attractive features. Dull, indistinguishable blocks of buildings on the river front [sic] revealed unexpected individuality, and even elegance, when a century’s grime was sandblasted off of them.”[xxvii]

Bilbao’s urban form and provincial history proved to be advantages in this respect. Hemmed in by the steep hills, the bilbaínos had built up, but had no cause later in time to bulldoze the older city neighborhoods. The city is characterized by dense multi-story apartment blocks in a classic southern European style that hold a lot of charm to the modern eye.

Meanwhile, the city has huge areas that are available for future transformation from industrial uses to residential uses. In 1990, 45% of Bilbao’s land was consumed by residential uses. An incredible 44% was consumed by industrial uses (or post-industrial non-uses).[xxviii] For this purpose, eight local, regional, and national government agencies contributed to Bilbao Ria 2000, a development corporation that would undertake large projects in key areas. The most famous area targeted by Bilbao Ria 2000 is the Abandoibarra, which has become the city’s new cultural hub. The agency also redeveloped the Ametzola district with apartments and a new park, and worked to cover over train tracks and auto roads that ran through the city center in a tunneling project called the Variante Sur.[xxix]

6.      Cultural centrality: The Guggenheim Museum is the most obvious example of Bilbao’s cultural re-imagining, but additional buildings have followed. The Euskalduna Jauregia, a concert hall and conference center by the architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios sits near to the Guggenheim. Works by Santiago Calatrava and César Pelli have further reinforced Bilbao’s central presence in the world of contemporary architecture.[xxx]

There is some debate with regard to Bilbao’s identity as a principally Basque city. The Guggenheim has famously struggled at times to incorporate Basque artists and sculptors, or even works about Basque topics. The PNV was criticized roundly during the museum’s early years for selling out Basque Nationalism[xxxi] to a museum designed by a Canadian-American, where the most famous pieces of artwork are by an American (Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time”) and a Frenchwoman (Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman”) An early effort to bring Picasso’s Guernica to the museum was quashed, due to concerns about the painting’s condition.[xxxii] At least the first language on each placard is in Euskera.[xxxiii]

7.      Coordinated management by the public administration and private sector: One of the more remarkable features of the Bilbao story is the extent to which different levels of representative government collaborated with each other. National, regional, local, and neighborhood organizations all played a part in numerous parts of the revitalization effort, from funding to implementation.

Organizations like Bilbao Ria 2000 got the ball rolling on development projects, such as early investments in the Abandoibarra area. But recent work has been in collaboration with private developers, which is an indication of the redevelopment’s success. Bilbao’s history has been profoundly influenced by the accumulation of capital, and this is true today as well.

At the ground level, the work of organizations like Bilbao Ria has had to be closely attuned to the opinions of locals at every step of the way, especially when executing complex projects with lots of external effects, such as the Variante Sur tunnel project.

8.      Social action: The final goal of the strategic plan may be the most nebulous. But in a city that has long been divided along geographic, language, and class lines, it was important to the planners to build a city that was more unified physically than ever before.

Among the most striking architectural achievements of Bilbao’s redevelopment have been several bridges linking the opposing banks of the river. Through above-ground infrastructure like these bridges and below-ground infrastructure like the metro, all of Bilbao is now accessible to everyone—a stark contrast from when the city was deeply divided between river banks. The river itself is a new unifying force. Because of its polluted past, the city was mostly built with its back to the Nervión. Now, the city has turned its face to the river, and its banks have become a new common link for the city.


For all this hagiography about the work of Bilbao’s planners, how have these actions impacted the real, breathing, Bilbao? For all of the glossy reprints and itemized accomplishments, what can be said about the state of this modern city? 

While problems remain in contemporary Bilbao, there is strong evidence that the city has recovered from the disaster of de-industrialization. The economy has successfully pivoted from a manufacturing economy to one based on services. In 1975, 46% of Bilbao’s workers were employed in industry. In 2005, that proportion had fallen to just 22%. In that same period, the percentage of workers employed in service professions jumped from 42% to 68%.[xxxiv]

Unemployment has also fallen in Bilbao. During the period from 1995 to 2005, the unemployment rate dropped from 22% to 10.6%. There are caveats to this number, however. Researchers have found that a plurality of new jobs created in the city are insecure, and lack certain provisions of social safety.[xxxv] The problem of new jobs not measuring up to old expectations is not a new one for Bilbao or other post-industrial cities, but that does not diminish its importance. More work clearly needs to be done in these areas.

Finally as a measure of health, Bilbao’s population has staunched the massive losses of the 1980’s and 90’s. While population is still decreasing slightly, this is due to greater suburbanization and not population loss in the region. Bilbao’s 2015 population measured at 346,574, a decline of slightly more than 2% from 2000. However, the population of the province of Bizkaia (which is a reasonable proxy for Bilbao’s metropolitan region) has grown by 1% during the same period, and now measures 1,151,905 people.[xxxvi] Overall, the area’s human movement has stabilized.


The greatest unknown factor in the revitalization of Bilbao is the one that cannot be left unaccounted for—the “Guggenheim Effect”. As the public face of the rejuvenation of Bilbao, it seems critical to determine the extent to which the landmark museum has contributed to the city. After all, Bilbao’s government paid for its construction almost in full. The building cost $100 million, the landscaping cost $20 million, the art cost $50 million, and the museum cost $7 million to run annually. It has been guessed that the museum cost each Basque $100 each.[xxxvii]

Despite this tremendous giveaway, the city planners felt strongly that a bold gamble was needed in order to overhaul Bilbao’s image. Half measures would not do in the city’s bid to grab the world’s attention. The Guggenheim Foundation, which was nearly broke at the time, had been turned down by multiple cities and hadn’t considered Bilbao in the slightest when the city came forward.[xxxviii] And yet by leaning against each other, these two crippled organizations found they could walk straight.

A rigorous 2006 analysis by Beatriz Plaza of the University of the Basque Country found that “although the initial investment in the GMB [sic] logically raised heated discussions, there is now ample proof of positive economic returns that have surpassed early cautious expectations.”[xxxix] The museum’s initial investment was recovered in less than a decade (possibly a record, notes Plaza), although year-by-year the museum’s own revenues are not always enough to cover operating costs.[xl] However, the effects of the museum have helped make Bilbao an international destination. Tourism to Bilbao dropped 8.6% between 1976 and 1980, increased an average of 3% each year from 1981 to 1997, when the museum was completed, and increased 6% annually after that.[xli] Before the museum’s completion, the weekend occupation of hotel rooms in the city hovered around 20%. Today, visitors report that hotel rooms are desperately in demand, and new hotels are being constructed.[xlii]

At the very end of Kate O’Brien’s book of reminiscences of Spain, published as Bilbao’s lines of defense were crumbling to fascist armies, O’Brien takes the reader back to “the first Spanish town I ever knew”, where she worked in 1923 and first started to write.

“I was impatient to cross the Ebro,” she writes of the end of a long trip, “to be in Vizcaya and in a town I love, where no tourist ever goes—Bilbao.”

Things have changed.


Beyond the flights, the hotels, the meals, and the admissions, what is this worth to a city? What is it worth to be the subject of New York Times travel profiles? To carve out an increasingly robust section of the Lonely Planet Guidebook? To be hurriedly added to Microsoft Word’s spell checker?[xliii]

It’s impossible to quantify. By any current standard, Bilbao made a profoundly unwise decision by spending so much money to lure a foreign museum and a big ticket architect. They best they could’ve reasonably hoped for was a revival of civic spirit. Anecdotally, the Guggenheim has achieved exactly that. Paddy Woodworth quotes a Bilbaíno who also happens to be a former ETA member—‘“Every time I turn a corner and see that building,” he admits ruefully, “it lifts my heart.”‘,[xliv]

But they were lucky in two big respects: they did it first, and they did it best. Since the Guggenheim, post-industrial cities worldwide have attempted to mimic its success. Gehry, Calatrava, Jean Nouvel, Daniel Libeskind, and other famous architects have been enlisted to expand museums, theaters, libraries, and everything in between, in what can only be understood as a fishing expedition for the next Guggenheim. It has yet to emerge.

Here’s one idea why. The story told of Bilbao is woefully incomplete. Ascribing Bilbao’s remarkable recovery from the depths of de-industrial despair to the Guggenheim Museum’s construction is to miss virtually the entire picture. Attempting to re-create Bilbao’s complete success with a landmark starchitect building is like throwing a cherry in a bowl and calling it a sundae.

The success of Bilbao must be understood in context. The city’s crisis was total. The population was plunging, the standard of living was falling, the physical environment was in tatters and shared resources were non-existent. The political system was in a state of flux across the country, and the status of autonomous Basque Country was deeply uncertain.

To address these problems, the governments responsible for Bilbao worked in close partnership. They identified the unique tools at their disposal and made full use of them. They understood that both growth and development were necessary, and that steps must be taken to promote both, and not one without the other. They recognized the urgency of repairing a century’s worth of environmental damage, and they created a plan to do that. They determined the woeful quality of Bilbao’s public infrastructure, and developed a scheme to invest and rebuild. They carefully involved the public, and engaged in robust debate and stakeholder participation to build common consensus. And yes, they got lucky. Buildings like the Guggenheim are exceptional, and subject to a sort of superstar phenomenon for buildings. The best building in the world is exponentially more interesting than the tenth best. There is no substitute for the time Phillip Johnson breaks down into tears in your city and compares your newest building to the Chartres Cathedral.[xlv]


The problem with the world stage is that once you’re there, people expect you to perform. In that sense, Bilbao may be out of its depth. A city of several hundred thousand cannot hope to compete against the cultural might of Paris or New York. Bilbao has a Guggenheim? New York has the Guggenheim. So does Dubai now, and it’s also designed by Gehry. Helsinki will have the next Guggenheim franchise, although few people seem to love the winning design of that outpost. Maybe there’s nothing quite like the original, but you can’t help feeling that Bilbao’s premier attraction is cheapened slightly by the competition.

That’s probably okay, Bilbao is back on its feet. It is one of the banking capitals of Spain, thanks to the headquarters of BBVA, Spain’s second largest financial institution. Unemployment is down, population is steady, the port is growing and infrastructure investments continue. For tourists, the city is now internationally known for its culinary scene and its charming old city fabric remains an attraction. The nearby beach town of San Sebastián remains a popular draw, and with Bilbao positioned as the heart of transport in the Basque region, it will undoubtedly waylay some portion of travelers.


“If you mentioned the [pollution] to a group of bilbaínos,” remembers Paddy Woodworth of the city of 1975, “they would affect astonishment at the misconceptions entertained by foreigners. They would then inhale deeply and swear there was nowhere healthier to live on the planet. In Bilbao muck was brass, and it was indecorous to point out that much stinks.”

If there’s a unifying feature to Bilbao’s cityscape throughout history, it’s the mud. It rains constantly in Bilbao.

“I remember the mud indeed,” wrote Kate O’Brien, pointedly enough. “I remember the rain of the winter.”[liv]

Bilbao was a tough city. It was hard to love. It was a city that did not want to be loved. It’s precipitous demise in the later decades of the twentieth century was completely in character. A fitting end for a city of mud and iron to go down in the din of pitched battle, a haze of soot and a choking cough.

But Bilbao broke character instead. Bilbao came clawing back out of the sewer, shrugging off the weight of the past and embracing an improbable new future as a city of titanium and glass.

Hiking and biking trails now crisscross the hills where mines once gouged the earth. Tourists make plans to visit instead of plans to avoid. The grim spectre of Basque terrorism has faded as a 2011 ceasefire has held.

Bilbao is a transformed city in every aspect. It’s a surprising transformation, but one that is thoroughly deserved through hard work.The city’s story is a triumph of planning for the modern age. It is a triumph of the resilience and the creativity of a city and a people.

In this sense, at least, the story of Bilbao is fitting. In overcoming the crisis of de-industrialization, the city re-earned the title bestowed upon it over a century prior—the invincible city.



[i] Rybczynski, Witold. "When Buildings Try Too Hard." The Wall Street Journal 22 Nov. 2008, Architecture sec. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

[ii] Marshall, Richard. "Remaking the image of the city." Waterfronts in Post Industrial Cities. Marshall, Richard. London: Spon, 2001. 53-73. Print. Page 55. (Fittingly this anthology has the Bilbao Guggenheim on its cover)

[iii] O'Brien, Kate. Farewell Spain. Kingswood: William Heinemann, 1937. Print. Page 202.

[iv] Woodworth, Paddy. The Basque Country a Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Page 107.

[v] Woodworth, 125.

[vi] Vegarda, Alfonso. "New Millennium Bilbao." Waterfronts in Post Industrial Cities. Marshall, Richard. London: Spon, 2001. 53-73. Print. Page 90.

[vii] Woodworth, 127.

[viii] Woodworth 108.

[ix] O’Brien 203.

[x] Davis, Paul K. Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.Pages 297-301.

[xi] Plöger, Jörg. "Bilbao City Report." Center for Analysis of Social : Weak Market Cities Programme CASEreport 43 (2007). Print. Pages 8-10.

[xii] Plöger 11-12.

[xiii] Woodworth 105-106.

[xiv] Plöger 15.

[xv] Woodworth 111, 115.

[xvi] Marshall 63.

[xvii] "Strategic Plan for the Revitalization of Metropolitan Bilbao." Bilbao Metropoli-30. Web: 1 Nov. 2015.

[xviii] Vegara 86-87.

[xix] Plöger 24.

[xx] Plöger 25.

[xxi] Bilbao Ria 2000. Bilbao: Bilbao Ria, 1999. Print. Pages 18-19

[xxii] Plöger 21.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Marhsall 62.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Plöger 22.

[xxvii] Woodworth 116-117.

[xxviii] Kasanko, Marjo, José I. Barredo, Carlo Lavalle, Niall Mccormick, Luca Demicheli, Valentina Sagris, and Arne Brezger. "Are European Cities Becoming Dispersed?" Landscape and Urban Planning: 111-30. Print. Page 119.

[xxix] Bilbao Ria 2000 8-9, 12-17.

[xxx] Woodworth 117-119.

[xxxi] Woodworth 113.

[xxxii] "`Guernica' to Stay in Madrid." The Washington Post 15 May 1997. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[xxxiii] Woodworth 114.

[xxxiv] Plöger 27.

[xxxv] Plöger 28.

[xxxvi] Instituto Nacional de Estadística. Regional Statistics Report. Censo 2011.Web: 1 Nov. 2015

[xxxvii] Woodsworth 114.

[xxxviii] Woodsworth 114-115

[xxxix] Plaza, Beatriz. "The Return on Investment of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research: 452-67. Print. Page 464.

[xl] Plaza 463.

[xli] Plaza 454

[xlii] Vegara 91.

[xliii] Lee, Denny. "Bilbao, 10 Years Later." The New York Times 23 Sept. 2007, Travel sec. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

[xliv] Woodworth 117.

[xlv] Tyrnauer, M. (2010, August 1). Architecture in the Age of Gehry. Vanity Fair.

[xlvi] Burgen, Stephen. "Spain Youth Unemployment Reaches Record 56.1%." The Guardian 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[xlvii] “The youth unemployment rate in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country reached 29.7 % in 2013” Basque Youth Observatory. Web.

[xlviii] Szita, Jane. “The Bilbao Effect.” Dwell. 26 May 2009. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.

[xlix] Plöger 35.

[l] Woodworth 122-123.

[li] Woodworth 123.

[lii] Woodworth 122

[liii] Lee.

[liv] O’Brien 210.