Veronica Simpson examines projects hoping to cash in on the ‘Bilbao Effect’

The Bilbao Effect is a phrase now used to justify ever more extraordinary buildings landing in some of the least likely places, from the jungles of Panama to the most impoverished parts of Northern France. We investigate extreme cultural regeneration.


Frank Gehry has much to answer for. Thanks to the dramatic impact of his swooping signature Guggenheim gallery on a struggling port in northern Spain, there now seems to be a widespread belief among local and national governments everywhere that all you need to do to revive a down-at-heel locality or put yourself on the world map is to helicopter in some starchitect-designed building and let the allure of architecture do the rest. Statement building = instant regeneration: the 'Bilbao Effect'.

But where Bilbao actually had a strong transport infrastructure before Gehry's Guggenheim landed there - not to mention plenty of decent hotels, shops and fine Basque restaurants to make a full weekend's city break there worth the while of any culture vulture - some of the latest arty icons to open have been so 'out where the buses don't run' you wonder how anyone gave them the green light.

Devoid of any adjacent attractions, and 3km from Dunkirk town, what was going through the minds of the commissioners of France's FRAC (standing for Fonds Régionaux d'Art Contemporain) art gallery in Dunkirk?

Are the good ferry-trippers to or from the UK really going to make a detour to see Andy Warhol at the FRAC when their usual priority pre-boarding is a Supermarket Sweep-style trolley-dash around the harbour's nearest purveyors of cheap booze? Or what justification for the new £121m Louvre art gallery in Lens? Are French folk just so much more keen on art that they are willing to travel to a one-horse former mining town just for the sake of experiencing SANAA's luminous building or the paintings inside?

Will the citizens of Beiruit be more likely to venture out to a new department store if it has been designed by Zaha Hadid? Or are they more likely to go and see a movie at Annabel Karim Kassar's 14-screen cinema building just because of its bold modernist shape and the rippling light-display across its fascia? After all, what value is a luminous light display when, during the recent revival of sectarian conflict, the city had to reintroduce curfews after dark?

The Souks project in Beirut aims at knitting together the city’s disparate core
The Souks project in Beirut aims at knitting together the city's disparate core

Similarly, what value to the people of Azerbaijan is Zaha Hadid's extraordinary Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku when, so far as I know, the only notable cultural event it has hosted is the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

Certainly Azerbaijan may have wished at various points last summer that it not been so bold in its commissioning. As Hadid was awarded the Design Museum's Design of the Year prize for this slinky and sinuous confection, the media erupted in outrage over the Azerbaijani government's alleged shoddy behaviour in the preparation and construction of its multi-billion-pound vanity project.

According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, more than 250 homes were cleared to make way for Hadid's building (some apparently while the occupants were still in situ). There were also reports of widespread human trafficking, with migrant labourers from Bosnia and Serbia being forced to work on Hadid's masterpiece under appalling conditions. Was the Eurovision Song Contest really worth it?

Around the time that the Heydar Aliyev Centre opened, The Economist (March 2012) declared in an editorial that 'the age of swanky new arts buildings [is drawing] to a close'.

How very wrong it was. Despite its state of deep austerity, since February 2013 France has opened the aforementioned Lens Louvre along with not one but three other new purpose-built FRACs: as well as Lacaton and Vassal's vast shed in Dunkirk, there is one in Marseille designed by Kengo Kuma, and another FRAC in Orleans by Jakob & MacFarlane. Last summer saw the opening and announcement, respectively, of two major cultural projects in unlikely places, designed by Frank Gehry - one in the jungles of Panama, and the other proposed for a sleepy town in southern France (see case study). And barely a month passes without some fanfare over another vastly expensive, starchitect-designed cultural building in China - surely, given the government's recent history of cultural and artistic oppression, these are the ultimate examples of 'cart before horse'; it might be wise to nurture a thriving national cultural scene before you construct the palaces to house its output.

The Souks project in Beirut aims at knitting together the city’s disparate core

And why is there such a strong tendency to fund glamorous, 'statement' arts venues or museums instead of sports and performance arenas, which could arguably be of more vital and lasting benefit to the local population as well as more sustainable financially? Why spend billions on culture instead of infrastructure upgrades or training schemes for new businesses, or even low-rent studios for start-ups and entrepreneurs? Cultural tourism seems to have become the civic holy grail - because art-loving visitors are generally affluent, and therefore likely to benefit local businesses through their peripheral spending. But, as the Economist article concluded: 'Art alone is not enough to revitalise an area... Culture is a form of entertainment: people must want and be able to go.'

There are plenty of failures for local governments to draw lessons from, especially in the UK. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield received £11m of Heritage Lottery Fund cash but closed due to low visitor numbers and high debts. Nearby Rotherham has struggled to attract sufficient visitor numbers to its £46m Wilkinson Eyre-designed, Stirling Prize-winning MAGNA centre, set within an enormous steelworking shed. Last summer it let out its halls for the Rotherham Music and Real Ale Festival.

But there are also notable successes. David Chipperfield's monumental yet modest art galleries for the economically blighted towns of Wakefield and Margate seem to have exceeded their remit. Margate's luminous Turner Contemporary attracted half a million visitors in its first year (and drew an alleged £13.5m to the local economy, including glowing press coverage - the ultimate form of civic 'advertising'). The Hepworth Wakefield hit the 100,000-visitor mark only five weeks after it opened. These are fairly modestly scaled, quietly appealing buildings that reflect and enhance the qualities of their immediate townscape. SANAA founder Kazuyo Sejima declared she, too, wanted her Louvre-Lens to 'blend in with the surroundings', and for her building to 'evolve together' with the area and its people. Despite Lens itself having almost nothing else to attract or entertain visitors, the allure of the building, together with the iconic cultural institution it represents, has generated strong visitor numbers - 300,000 in the first three months - to place it as the most popular museum in northern France, and among the top five in the country in 2013.

However, the local Chamber of Commerce (ICC Artois) last year launched a study into the impact of the Louvre-Lens Museum (not yet concluded), at the heart of which was praise for the impact of widespread media coverage and tourism it had generated, and the pride which it had given the Lensois. But the town is still suffering high unemployment, a lack of training and resources, with 'great economic insecurity, [and] low average annual net taxable income per household.' Art and tourism are good. But jobs for the locals - and taxable income for its infrastructure - are crucial. The ICC Artois rightly concluded that the museum will radically change the town's situation 'if and only if' local businesses can be stimulated to provide the Louvre's visitors with incentives to stay and explore the area.

The Souks project in Beirut aims at knitting together the city’s disparate core

The Louvre-Lens benefits from there being nothing of its quality and scale in the surrounding region - it's crucial for these landmark cultural regeneration projects to offer something that isn't easily available nearby. One of the many things going for the proposed new Russian cultural and leisure destination in St Petersburg's New Holland Island, is the inspired use of public space - an asset that the city has surprisingly little of.

Situated on a former military naval base which was off limits to all civilians for some 300 years, New York architecture practice and masterplanner WORKac has proposed a scheme that maximises public-gathering opportunities while weaving apartments, high-tech offices, galleries and retail into the island's existing industrial buildings. Developer Millhouse, via its appointed cultural consultant the Iris Foundation, has already proven that there is a strong potential audience with a successful series of summer arts festivals.

Says WORKac principal Dan Wood: 'The ambition was to create a space that not only took advantage of the enormous amount of developable buildings and land but also enriched St Petersburg's cultural life. New Holland Island will showcase ways in which this historic past can co-exist with the most exciting contemporary programmes: from new forms of urban living to contemporary art and offices for new technologies and start-ups. Similarly, in a city with a conspicuous lack of outdoor public space, the internal gardens and public spaces will provide great opportunities for relaxation and recreation.'

Certainly, the heady stimulants of hope and civic ambition are pure catnip to any opportunistic architect. You have to have something special to draw in the crowds. Beautiful buildings - created anew or transforming the derelict cathedrals of past industry - plus generous public spaces can be magnets for cultural pilgrims and transform the identities and fortunes of a place. But there also has to be some integrity and utility in the concept - an authentic raison d'etre.

The worst case scenario for these highprofile projects is that they become symbols of failed regeneration, empty gestures representing rampaging egos (Baku?) or civic profligacy. As Building Design magazine observed of the Dunkirk FRAC, that this stunning building has ended up on the outskirts of a town with only 70,000 residents (the size of Carlisle or Inverness) has 'more than a little to do with the fact that Dunkirk's veteran socialist also the founding president of the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calias. The realisation of his vision to establish this major institution in a small city with no previous history of contemporary art engagement represents one of the braver campaigns in France's crusade to disseminate culture across its regions.'

But the writer also concludes that the building 'Lacaton & Vassal has realised is imbued with such a spirit of generosity that it would be churlish to dismiss it as a white elephant so soon'. Sometimes a building can be good enough to generate faith in a place's future. And that faith, of course, is what provides the necessary traction to turn these civic dreams into reality.

Case Studies

Souks entertainment Center
Block V Beiruit

Lebanese developer Solidere had a strategic vision for its Souks Entertainment Center, in Beiruit, aiming to knit together disparate parts of the city's core, improving on what was there before the sectarian war of 1975-1990 turned it into a bomb site. A cast of stellar architects was enlisted for the wider complex: Zaha Hadid for a new department store (not yet completed); an elegant reinvention and extension of old apartment building as offices and retail from Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners; a retail, hospitality and office block by Spain's Rafael Moneo and a major new cinema and entertainment venue from France's Valode et Pistre together with Annabel Karim Kassar.

But it's Kassar's building that will be the beacon for the project - literally, thanks to a spectacular light installation all across the 1600 sq m facade. Kassar's own lighting design company, Cai Light, conceived a high-relief crystalline texture for the building to provide 'a luminous, coloured, moving texture' by embedding 4,863 prisms of LED light behind a golden metal screen that covers the upper floors.

The Souks project in Beirut aims at knitting together the city’s disparate core.

Programmed light sequences inspired by nature pulse across the fascia throughout the day, offering a variety of rhythms and moods to suit the season or event, creating a geometric 'bas-relief'.

The ground floor of the building is clad in limestone, echoing the nearby buildings of the French Mandate period. This level encloses 10 medium-sized cinemas while the exterior provides live animation via shops and restaurants. The upper storeys, outlined in a zigzag gold ribbon wrapped north to south, contain four large theatre/ performance spaces, grouped in pairs on either side. This leaves the central, translucent space clear for the main lobby, food court and ticketing booths.

Client: Solidere
Architect: Valode-et-Pistre and Annabel Karim Kassar
Lighting: Cai Light
Size: 25,000 sq m
Opened: Spring 2014


FRAC Nord Pas-de-Calais

AP2 (Atelier de Préfabrication no 2) was the most significant building still standing after the decommissioning of Dunkirk's 150 ha of docks. But when architecture practice Lacaton & Vassal won the competition to redesign it as the storage and exhibition space for the region's impressive contemporary art collection (FRAC, standing for Fonds Régionaux d'Art Contemporain), it chose to leave the 750m-long and 25m-wide original intact, adding a mirror image structure on to its bulk.

The Lacaton & Vassal redesigned AP2 building in Dunkirk, refigured for FRAC as an exhibition space and art store
The Lacaton & Vassal redesigned AP2 building in Dunkirk, refigured for FRAC as an exhibition space and art store

This 'twin' building is constructed with cheap and lightweight materials, leaving the refurbished Forties' building free for performances, temporary exhibitions and events. The new structure is essentially a concrete frame housed within a metal-framed, plastic-clad greenhouse, containing the archives at one end and gallery and administrative space at the other.

Facing north, the principal, glazed facade avoids sun exposure, while the roof contains a retractable canvas shade to protect visitors from mid-summer rays. Air-filled cushions in ETFE sheeting are used as insulation in the upper levels.

The Lacaton & Vassal redesigned AP2 building in Dunkirk, refigured for FRAC as an exhibition space and art store

The use of cheap, industrial or agricultural components enabled the architects to realise this new building, and a light refurbishment of the original, for €1m less than the proposed €13m budget.

Its rough-and-ready feel chime with other iconic contemporary art venues housed in industrial spaces - Tate Modern being the leading example - while the five-storey internal street replicates the Tate Turbine Hall's dramatic vistas from every level. (Unfortunately, also like Tate Modern, its scale is said to dwarf pretty much any work of art hung there).

The Lacaton & Vassal redesigned AP2 building in Dunkirk, refigured for FRAC as an exhibition space and art store

Despite being 3km from the main town centre, it is close to the beach, with plans for an elevated walkway that would link it to the beach as well as the port, and which is continued within the building by an internal 'street' extending all the way through it.

Client: Communauté Urbaine de Dunkerque
Architect: Lacaton & Vassal
Size: 11,129 sq m
Cost: €12m
Completed: 2014


New Holland island Cultural Centre
St Petersburg, Russia

New Holland Island was conceived by Peter the Great as an 8 ha naval yard, isolated from the rest of the city. It became Russia's first military port, and remained off limits to the general public for 300 years before being decommissioned in the Glasnost era. Developer Millhouse charged cultural consultant the Iris Foundation with helping it to transform this water-ringed site into a major new cultural destination, in a city with surprisingly few open-air gathering spaces.

New Holland island Cultural Centre,St Petersburg, Russia

New York-based WORKac has masterplanned the site for a public park, galleries and a major new museum, with high-quality residential, high-tech office space, and retail. WORKac's plan is to retain the handsome, brick, three-storey atelier buildings that used to store enormous lengths of timber, transforming them into classy residential apartments, with retail and hospitality on the ground floor and a public walkway running throughout the site at various levels so that all can enjoy the vistas provided on to the river and the city.

New Holland island Cultural Centre,St Petersburg, Russia

The project will have only one new-build structure - the proposed new museum, now scheduled to open at a later date. Preservation architect Jorge Otero Pailos was commissioned by WORKac to create an interpretation path around the site, with surprising details that address its fascinating history, including recreating of the fragrance of drying timbers that once would have permeated the buildings in the 18th century. The Iris Foundation has already been running public summer art festivals on the site to engage audiences and generate interest.

Despite the current froideur between Russia and the West, the existing building conversion and restoration will begin soon.

Client: Millhouse Developers
Architecture and Master-planning: WORKac
Cultural Consultant: Iris Foundation
Scheduled for completion: 2016


Luma arles arts Campus

Frank Gehry broke ground this spring on a bold new building within the ambitious 11 ha Luma Arles Arts Campus, in the sleepy French town that Van Gogh had made famous 100 years earlier, with the majority of his later paintings being inspired by the surrounding countryside and its people.

Luma arles arts Campus France

The brainchild of the heiress, art collector and philanthropist Maja Hoffman, the Luma Foundation was created in 2004 as a non-profit organisation to provide artists with opportunities to experiment in the production of new work and to collaborate with a multidisciplinary mix of disciplines, curators and audiences. Although the town is no longer on the route of any high-speed trains (they shoot past to Marseille), it utilises the derelict site of the French rail company SNCF's major repair yard, filled with semi-collapsed 'artisan' sheds.

Gehry's 2,300 sq m new building of stone, glass and steel will form the gateway into the complex. It will offer cafes, restaurants and exhibition space to visitors and artists as well as archives, workshop and seminar rooms.

Over its five-year gestation (dogged by planning problems over sight lines into the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site-protected Roman ruins) Gehry worked closely with Hoffman to evolve a building that channels the spirit of Van Gogh, his response to the light and the local terrain, in building form.

Luma arles arts Campus France

And its rippling aluminium panels do appear to evoke the intensity and brushwork of Van Gogh's 'starry night'. Its DNA, Gerhry says, is entirely, of the region. 'I wouldn't do this anywhere else.'

A landscaped public park (by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets) will be accessed via Gehry's building, filling the centre of the complex. Around its edges will be interconnecting studios and work spaces, created from the refurbished Ateliers by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf. Says Hoffman: 'An essential part of our vision is to open up our campus in ways that weave us into the artistic, intellectual, ecological, social and economic fabric of Arles. In doing so we are creating an environment that simultaneously welcomes both the focused and casual interaction among artists, thinkers and audiences to the benefit of each and all.'

Client: Luma Foundation (Maja Hoffman)
Architects: Frank Gehry, Annabelle Selldorf
Landscape: Bas Smets
Area: 11 ha
Cost: €110m
Scheduled completion: 2018

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