Visiting Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Spain

A trip to deliver a lecture leads to cultural opportunities.

I am back in San Sebastian, a seaside town in the Basque country of northern Spain, for a brief visit to lecture to an adult education week, apparently an old Spanish tradition organized by universities in a number of cities. (Careful blog readers will note this is my third trip to Spain this year, especially amazing given that I had never visited Spain before this year – my academic research on organizational change is obviously in demand in this crisis-ridden country.)
 
My lecture done, I took a bus about an hour today to go to the biggest city of the Basque country, Bilbao, home of the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the branch of New York’s Guggenheim opened in 1997 and the iconic work of the architect Frank Gehry. The museum is often presented as the most significant example ever of culture being used to turn a city around – making backwater Bilbao an instant hit on the tourist and economic development circuit.
 
In a number of ways, what I saw was not exactly what I had expected. Accounts I had read depicted Bilbao as a sort of Spanish Newark, a declining industrial city totally lacking in esthetic appeal till the museum came and transformed an awful area along the river into something completely different. I am sure the city has improved a lot since the museum came. But, for example, the area on the other side of the narrow Bilbao River from the museum has a number of quite attractive older buildings (I would guess late nineteenth century), which may well have been in poor shape before – I don’t know – but that were not the kind of warehouses or factory shells I imagined from the accounts to exist in the area near the museum.

The old town, the old heart of the city, also has nice architecture and ambiance, which again I am sure looks much nicer today than in 1997, but which certainly even then would have had potential. I guess my point is that a project such as this can help turn around a place with potential due to a nice architectural stock or other advantages, but not every place can assume that a project, no matter how wonderful, can rescue them.
 
The building itself is actually tamer than I had imagined – curvy, but, as the audio guide noted, very much designed to remind the viewer of a boat, consistent with Bilbao’s strong maritime past.  The curves, and the coloring of the facade (pretty much all a brownish-gold titanium), are far less bold than the other Frank Gehry building I know well, the student center at MIT in Cambridge.
 
Speaking of rescue, I have seen more crisis signs here than in Barcelona. Very large numbers of stores are advertising sales with discounts as much as half off, sometimes on everything in the store. I’ve seen a few stores with going out of business sales. A tapas place strongly recommended in my guidebook has closed.
 
One thing I frankly don’t understand is why more Spaniards are not withdrawing their savings from Spanish banks and sending them to Germany, which I believe they are completely free to do under the EU single market. If Spain were to leave the euro, I am assuming that people’s euro deposits would be converted into devalued pesetas, and they should be able to avoid this by putting money in banks in Germany. It is my impression, though, that this so far has been happening only to a very limited extent. I did see a sign in the window of a large Deutsche Bank branch near my hotel urging people to “trust your savings to the largest bank in Germany,” but I don’t think that putting one’s funds in a Spanish branch of a German bank would save people from conversion of their euros into peseta if Spain leaves the euro.
Any readers have any insight on this?

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