Jonathan Meades

The Bilbao effect

Jonathan Meades suggests a moratorium on landmark architecture and garish shelters for art like Bilbao's Guggenheim

Twenty years ago I wrote of the otherwise slaveringly praised Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao:

I’m in a minority of, apparently, one. It strikes me as a consummate gimmick… a fantastically elaborate and rather wearisome joke. Has mankind spent all these centuries perfecting Euclidean geometry and orthogonal engineering in order to have it overthrown by massively expensive crazy cottages clad in titanium? Apparently mankind has.

So much for the building. What of the ‘Bilbao effect’, an epithet that I am accused of having coined (I can’t remember, but it’s inappropriate because there is, typically, no effect). Even before Frank Gehry’s earth-shattering masterpiece was finished, word was out and post-industrial cities on several continents were competing with each other for the favours of a handful of egomaniacal narcissists calling themselves architects to build them a landmark, a regenerative beacon, an iconically iconic icon, a photo-opportunistic sight-bite (that one definitely is mine).

The point of these distended three-dimensional logos was, of course, to ‘rebrand’ the place in question, to give it a visual identity other than that of wrecked warehouses, junky estates and swarf pyramids (which abound in Bilbao’s docks). They were spendthrift, mostly trashy monuments to thoughtless optimism. The profligate process sanctions the construction of an advertisement that is itself the product.

I made a telly film called On The Brandwagon, which ridiculed regeneration as the most bloated, most risibly corrupt of gravy trains, a racket. It goes without saying that no one heeded it, my first and last essay in didacticism.

On the contrary, excitable mayors, development agencies,the heirs of Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, enterprise zones and go-ahead partnering partnerships grew ever more hungry for flashy chunks of architectural bling. They hardly stopped to notice that a century and a half earlier Britain’s burgeoning cities had competed to equip themselves with a town hall grander than the next burgh’s and had usually ended up failing to emulate Cuthbert Brodrick’s sublime achievement in Leeds.

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