The Basque city of Bilbao was a pioneer in Europe in the use of showcase cultural buildings as a trigger for urban regeneration. Just a generation ago the city’s waterfront was an industrial port. Today, in addition to the Guggenheim itself, its architectural landmarks include bridges by Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Buren, and an apartment block by Arata Isozaki.
But as with Japan, where the technique was invented [landmark structures were called ‘antenna buildings’ during their bubble economy of the 1980s] the global crisis finds Bilbao asking: now what do we do?

As things stand, the region is still committed to a new “thrust for modernization.” Bilbao’s strategy, shaped with input from Global Business Network, is to become a “city for innovation and knowledge”. There is talk of re-branding Bilbao as Euskal Hiria, a ‘poly-centered global city’ that would encompass the Donostia-San Sebastian, Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz as single geographical-economic entity.
Positioned as a hub linking the north of Europe to the South, the idea is that Euskal Hiria would attract an army of highly-paid lawyers, financial and marketing consultants, and iPad-toting creative professionals of all kinds. These knowledge workers, the strategy implies, would snap up the expensive apartments that now lie empty along Bilbao’s waterfront.
For all this to happen, Euskal Hiria would need a symbolic edifice to represent this Basque Global City to the world in the way that the Guggenheim does for Bilbao.
The scenario confronts two obstacles.
The first is that buildings conceived as icons, spectacles, or tourism destinations have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns. Bilbao’s Guggenheim is now one among hundreds of me-too cultural buildings around the world. As their number has grown, their capacity to attract attention, or differentiate their host city, has declined. Spoiled consumer-travelers are liable to lunch in the café, buy the t-shirt, and move on. That’s not a great return on all the time, work and money needed to bring these totemic edifices about.
The second objection to the Euskal Hiria strategy, and Guggenheim 2 as its emblem, is that they would stand for the high entropy economic model that caused the global crisis in the first place – and that is now dying.
If the iconic cultural building as a catalyst of development has run its course, and the Real Estate Industrial Complex is gone forever, is there an alternative?
A conference in Bilbao last week, oganized by Fernando Golvano and Xabier Laka, challenged speakers to propose new models of development based on more artful and sustainable uses of the region’s social, landscape and natural assets
My contribution was to say that a bioregion – more than a high-entropy ‘knowledge hub’ preoccupied with abstraction – could be the ideal basis on which to re-imagine the future development of the Basque Country. At the scale of the city-region, a bioregional approach re-imagines the man-made world as being one element among a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food, production, and information.
The beauty of this approach is that it engages with the next economy, not the dying one we have now. Its core value is stewardship, not perpetual growth. It focuses on service and social innovation, not on the outputs of extractive industries. Being unique to its place, it fosters infinite diversity.
The idea of a bioregion also changes the ways we think about the cities we have now. It triggers people to seek practical ways to re-connect with the soils, trees, animals, landscapes, energy systems, water, and energy sources on which all life depends. It re-imagines the urban landscape itself an ecology with the potential to support us.
A bioregion is literally and etymologically a “life-place” – a unique region, in the words of American writer Robert Thayer, that is “definable by natural (rather than political) boundaries with a geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological character capable of supporting unique human and nonhuman living communities”.
A growing worldwide movement is looking at the idea of development through this fresh lens. Sensible to the value of natural and social ecologies, groups and communities are searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist – so-called net present assets – rather than thinking first about extracting raw materials to make new iconic buildings from scratch.
One idea already floated in the Basque region is to locate a Guggenheim-type facility in the Biosphere Reserve of Urdaibai.
This spectacular salt marsh and coastal landscape on the Bay of Biscay coast covers an area of 220 km2 and contains only 45.000 inhabitants.
My response, at the conference, was that a ‘pure’ piece of nature, such as Urdaibai, is not the ideal starting point for a new regional narrative. It would reinforce a myth that sustainable development involves returning to pure and unsullied nature. A better priority, I proposed, is to focus on ways to restore and enhance the flows and ecologies of city and countryside.
A number of artists in the Basque region, it turns out, are already exploring this approach. In a variety of ways, they are engaging citizens in new kinds of conversations and encounters whose outcome is transform the territory – but indirectly.
Maider Lopez for example, invited citizens to create a traffic jam on the sides of mount aralar where normally traffic is light. More than 400 people in 160 cars responded to the invitation. For five hours of a mid-September day participants clogged up the winding roads of the the Aralar Mountains in a variety of artful ways.
Lopez, who describes her work as ‘a poetic approach to community engagement in daily life’, told us her traffic jam was to get people thinking about the automobile’s impact on the landscape – only to do so without telling what to think or do about it.
Another artist, Ricardo Anton, presented a project about trash. His approach was to use subtle signs and signals – such as framing dumping site blackspots with CSI-like striped tape.
Anton explained that these kinds of projects ‘create new spaces for encounters in an ever changing territory of relationships’. They are a variety of what he called ‘micro-politics’ that in his experience are more effective than telling citizens what to do, or how to behave.
Saioa Olmo Alonso described an enchanting project in the abandoned Bizkaia Theme Park that closed in 1990.
Seventeen years after closing its doors, the original Ghost Train, Octopus and Crazy Worm were gradually being overgrown. Alonso invited groups of citizens to imagine new possibilities for an area once dedicated to fun and entertainment. These light-touch encounters create what Alonso calls ‘micro-utopias’…whose positive energy complements the formal planned features of a town’s development.
In Bilbao I also caught up with Asier Perez, from Funky Projects. Asier had wowed a Doors of Perception event in 2004 with his presentation about cactus ice cream as a communication tool – so I was keen to get an update.
Combining artful interventions and service innovation, Funky Projects’ portfolio now includes service design for Telefonica and Pepsico, as well as many projects for government and third sector on social innovation and the development of new kinds of tourism services. Funky projects are developing strategies for the Gorbeialdea region – Euskadi’s ‘green heart’ – where local authorities developed the idea of being a shepherd for a day or listening to animals sounds by night.
The work of these artists and designers anticipates a new approach to regional development. With the bioregion as their canvas, they are helping different kinds of groups and communities imagine new uses for the places and contexts that surround them.
They are not alone. A new kind of economy – a restorative economy – is emerging in a million grassroots projects and experiments all over the world. The better-known examples have names like Post-Carbon Cities, or Transition Towns. The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number includes dam removers, wetland restorers and rainwater rescuers. The movement is visible wherever people are growing food in cities, or turning school backyards into edible gardens. Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums.
Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing – alternatives are being innovated. What they have in common is that they are creating value without destroying natural and human assets. The keyword here is social innovation – and the creation of social goods – because this movement is about groups of people innovating together, not lone inventors.
Listening to the artists’ stories in Bilbao, however, I reflected that it would be hard work to sell these kinds of project to policymakers and development professionals. In their world, ideas are the easy part. What’s hard is getting disparate actors to collaborate.
In that respect, iconic building projects can be an effective way to focus and galvanise the energies of disparate stakeholders.
But if shiny new cultural buildings are a thing of the past, could a new kind of icon take their place?
Someone suggested that perhaps Urdaibai should be host to something like the Eden Project:
The drawback with this idea is that Cornwall already has the original Eden Project – so why copy the same, only 10 years later?
At this point, as if by fate, Xabier Laka, one of the organizers, mentioned the Lemoniz Nuclear Power Plant.
Construction of this huge facility was nearly complete when, 28 years ago, Spain’s nuclear power expansion program was abruptly cancelled following a change of government. The Lemoniz plant was never commissioned. Since then, several propositions have been made to reconvert the place for other uses – but none has taken off.
Bingo! I thought. This could be the perfect next icon for the Basque Country. I could see the headline: “Lemoniz: from Nuclear Energy to Social Energy”.
It could become a year-round showcase and hub for the multitude of projects that are out there in the territory, only invisibly so: productive urban gardens; low energy food storage; communal composting solutions; re-discovery of hidden rivers; neighbourhood energy dashboards; de-motorised courier services; software tools to help people share resources.
Now all I need is to persuade the nice Mr Galán, who owns the Lemoniz site that, now his Iberdrola Tower is more-or-less complete, this should be his next sustainable innovation project.