One of the distinctions between the US and Europe is the public emphasis on culture. This is not to say that American does not have culture; it does. We build museums and opera houses, and other "high cultural" institutions. The difference is that in the US you would rarely hear a public official refer to these as a "cultural" industry. As my colleague from Atlanta state, "We would call it tourism after its deliverables not its content."
In Bilbao, they talk about culture as an economic sector as well as providing social identity. The Geary-designed Bilbao Guggenheim museum is a case study in this approach. Over the past few days in Bilbao, all of the economic and public officials have discussed the museum and how it had transformed the city of Bilbao.
In the 1980s when it was first proposed by the Basque provencial and local governments to the Guggenheim Foundation, Bilbao was in the middle of a deep economic recession. The steel and shipping based industries were collasping and the area had not found a new economic engine for Bizkaia. Unemployment was as high as 20-25%.
At great risk at the time, the Bizkaia goverment agencies saw the museum as a means to create an international identity for the city of Bilbao, improve the cultural life of the city, and serve as a cornerstone to the redevelopment of the waterfront from industrial to service-based and residential space.
And it worked. The building was completed on time and on budget. It had to be completed within five years incase the government was voted out of office. In their feasibility studies, they estimated 300,000 visitors for the first year, they first opened with and continue to pull in 600,000. One of the goals was to help the inhabitants of Bilbao see this area as part of the city. Now it is one of the most expensive areas in town.
In addition to the Guggenheim, the city built a new Metro system, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
It has won prizes, but also when I talked to BAI, the Bizkaia Center of Innovation. It was the one example they provided of how civic design has positively impacted the lives of everyday people.
So can design transform a city? It seems the answer is yes. The Bizkaia government has commissioned for their other urban projects a performance space to be build by Zara Hadid on the waterfront. But again, the discourse is not tourism dollars and urban renewal, but rather recreating the cultural identity of the city of Bilbao and the Bizkaia area.
Like in Hamburg, Bizkaia is able to do this because of the relative autonomy it has in collecting taxes and distributing resources from the national government in Madrid. The "state" and the rail system owned the land. It was able to invest directly for the construction costs as well as provide sustaining resources. Is it an accident that the two most economically successful areas have this political and financial autonomy or to put it another way. Is a decentralized structur, that allows it to be more flexible and responsive to local needs, better for situations of economic change and growth?
But what is most interesting for me is that these areas place emphasis on culture as a sector for innovation and growth, which is why they have such strong design-orientations not just in their architecture but in information systems in airports and metro stations.