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Science center features 'Bilbao effect'

Spanish sister city displays results of reconstruction

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Five years ago, the glistening, seductive architecture of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum put an old, industrial city on the international cultural tour map.

The Zubizuri footbridge, designed by internationally known designer Santiago Calatrava, crosses the curvaceous Nervion River in the heart of the city of Bilbao, Spain. The bridge has walls of translucent glass.

But today, there's much more to Bilbao, Spain, than the Goog, as a new three-month exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center reveals.

"Bilbao: The Transformation of a City" opens tomorrow as part of a two-day cultural, political and business exchange between Pittsburgh and Bilbao.

The coastal city in Spain's Basque Country is one of Pittsburgh's 10 sister cities. Linked since the 1960s, the two have much in common, including hilly, waterfront settings, industrial pasts and a desire to remake their riverfronts.

"We are trying to recover the river for the city again," said Javier Perez, spokesman for Bilbao's regional government, yesterday during a tour of the exhibit, which includes scale models, photographs and drawings.

About 50 delegates from Bilbao and the surrounding region of Biscaya are in town to brief Pittsburgh leaders on the city's transformation from an iron-and-steel town to one that's weaving strikingly modern buildings and transportation systems into the historic 19th-century fabric. Inaki Azkuna, mayor of Bilbao, and other political, business and cultural leaders will meet today with Mayor Tom Murphy and City Council before attending the exhibit's opening reception tonight.

Like Pittsburgh, Bilbao has learned that the arts can be a catalyst for economic development. It knows firsthand what a high-profile architect can do for a region, a phenomenon known around the world as "the Bilbao effect." Since the Guggenheim opened in 1997, more buildings designed by internationally known architects have been commissioned and completed.

Santiago Calatrava did the airport, with a terminal shaped like a white dove poised for takeoff, and also the Zubizuri footbridge that crosses the curvaceous Nervion River in the heart of the city. Norman Foster designed the subway system, its ultramodern stations and their curved, tubular entrances that resemble giant snail shells. Bilbao residents have given the entrances an affectionate, diminutive nickname, "Fosteritos."

More projects are in the works, including a mixed-use development planned by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki on one side of the Calatrava Bridge.

Cesar Pelli designed a master plan and office tower for Abandoibarra, a new city center built on a former industrial site. It will comprise offices, housing, gardens and a riverside park linking the Guggenheim and Euskalduna. American architect Robert Stern is designing a commercial and leisure center for the development.

Pelli will talk about the project at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow when he gives the keynote address at a half-day "Vision Summit", during which leaders from both cities will discuss the impact of politics, culture, business and technology on the economic infrastructure of a metropolis.

The conference, which is free and open to the public, will include two panel discussions, the first focusing on "Urban and Regional Regeneration" and the second on "International Business and Technology." It will be held in the science center's Rangos Omnimax Theater.

"The Pelli development will be the first example of the new recovery program along the river," said Perez, who spoke through an interpreter.

Like Pittsburgh, big steel no longer dominates the Bilbao riverfront. But it's not because big steel went away.

"We have built a compact, modernized steel industry," Perez said. It employs 300 people who now produce the same amount of steel 3,000 to 4,000 people once did, and on less land.

Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum is one of the anchors for an office, residential and parks development that will rise on a former shipbuilding site.

"We had to make a big investment to become competitive," but it meant about 3,500 people needed to be retrained for new jobs or find employment on their own, he said. Not everyone did, although the region's 28 percent unemployment rate now is down to 12 percent.

Becoming competitive also meant building new roads and transit systems. In addition to the 27.6-mile subway now being built -- with almost four miles completed and 17 more under construction -- Bilbao is building a light-rail system specifically for the historic city center.

"It was not built for cars," Perez said. "We are trying to make the city again belong to the people, not to the car."

After the city moved its shipbuilding industry from the river banks, Spanish architects Maria Dolores Palacios and Federico Soriano designed a new conference center and concert hall, built on the site of an historic shipyard not far from the Guggenheim. The design of the Euskalduna Jauregia is reminiscent of a ship and partially faced in a shipbuilding material, Cor-Ten steel.

Bilbao is a model of cooperative, regional planning, of which the exhibit itself is an example. Organized by the Provincial Council of Bizkaia, it showcases 13 major urban regeneration projects in Bilbao and the region.

The Carnegie Science Center wanted the exhibit, said science center spokesman Mark Trumbull, because "it connects well with the expansion plans that we have and our efforts to create a symbol for our city" with a building makeover designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

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