Sunday, 11 September 2016

Bilbao: Modern architecture

Abandoibarra from Mount Artxanda

It's late afternoon and we've just arrived in Bilbao after a two-bus journey from Biarritz. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque region and the 10th largest in Spain with 350, 000 inhabitants, 1 million in the greater metropolitan area. It has the feeling of a big city. We are staying at the Melia hotel in the Abandoibarra quarter, a former port and industrial area next to the Nervion river, which has experienced an ambitious - and highly successful - urban renewal programme. What better way to begin to get to know the city than to walk along the banks of the river past the Guggenheim Museum?

The hotel is itself a striking modern structure. Each of the nine box structures is a wall-to-ceiling bedroom window and inside there is a massive atrium nine or ten storeys high served by fast glass-sided lifts.

We walk down to the river and turn right and are soon struck by an art deco building on the other bank (in Ribera Botica Vieja) featuring a raging tiger on its roof (we thought it was a lion). It was added by the sculptor Joaquin Lucarini in 1942. The building itself dates from 194) and is popularly known as El Tigre.

On the right is the fantastic Iberdrola Tower. It is 165 meters high and was opened by King Juan Carlos I no less in 2012. Iberdrola is the Basque Electric company.

We pass under the Deustu bridge and looking across the Deustu Commercial University we are struck by an elegant columned structure to the left of more traditional university buildings. It seems to be inspired by the Maison Carré, the Roman temple in Nimes.

The main building of the Deustu University is next and it too has a new structure off to one side. This is also rather elegant and seems inspired by the cast iron architecture of the 19th century - a market hall perhaps. (It turns out that the University is a private one owned by the Jesuits.)

We are now on the Pedro Arrupe bridge and we get our first sight of the incredible Guggenheim museum. This view is effectively from behind and includes one end of the La Salve bridge - the red bit.

The museum is the work of the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry (we saw his Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris last year - there are some small family resemblances.) It was completed in 1997 and, like the Iberdrola Tower, was opened by King Juan Carlos I. It has been widely hailed as one of the greatest modern buildings.

I returned two days later to take a picture of the museum from across the river, looking at it squarely along one side. This view gives a stronger sense of the ship imagery that seems to me to dominate.

The great entrance along the side view also has something suggestive of the shape of a medieval castle surrounded by its moat  (say Ferrara) or maybe the porch of a great cathedral (say Albi).

You can also see, on the left, Maman (1999) the bronze, stainless steel, and marble sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois depicting a spider. It is allegedly  among the world's largest, measuring over 30 ft high and over 33 ft wide.

Passing under the massive La Salve bridge, we soon start to see the other great architectural icon of this area, Santiago Calatrava's Zubizuri (Basque for White bridge), which opened in 1997.

This was our first proper view: it looks handsome but not that special. There are stairs and walkways to reach the bridge proper and an additional walkway coming in from the right. This is a later addition and although convenient, looks rather awkward. Calatrava fought a legal battle with the Bilbao City Council over this alteration to his work and won damages, although the addition remained.

It is only as you begin to cross it that the asymetrical curving construction - and its full grandeur - become apparent. But even here there is controversy. The surface is covered by a sort of spongy rubber carpet and this covers up the original transparent glass bricks. They were found to be too slippery for the City's damp climate. It is still a great structure though.

We carried on along the river bank to reach the Arenal bridge across which lies the Casco Viejo (the Old Town). We stopped here for a drink and after a productive visit to the Tourist Office enjoyed a quick and smooth ride back to our hotel in one of the new Euskotran trams.

Conditions: clear skies, sunny and hot.

Distance: just over a mile.

Rating: Five stars.


We stumbled on this wonderful building, the Headquarters of the Department of Health of the Basque Government. It really belongs with those above. I suspect the interior is a regular office block, but the extraordinary facade made of reflecting glass projecting at various angles makes an extraordinary impact.

It is called Sede Osakidetza and is on a corner site in the centre of the City at Alameda de Recalde, 39.  It is the work of Coll-Barreu Arquitectos, completed in 2008. You can see a photo study here.

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