We use the term “Parachutist with earmuffs” colloquially to define a person that goes to a place without knowing it, then analyses that place solely by applying prejudice or a limited perception of reality.
We have read the article by Chris Michael in The Guardian several times and we have to say that we find it difficult to “agree” with anything of that was said.
The Guardian is one of the most respected newspapers that we read. Its journalistic level and its ability for critical judgement has encouraged us to include it among the newspapers of the world that speak of the Basques with good judgment. We have referenced this newspaper nearly 80 times to date and, frankly, we have never found an article of this nature.
We do not think this because of its conclusion that the Transformation of Bilbao is like a “big set” created to attract visitors, an idea that in and of itself, shows a lack of knowledge, judgment and respect, and reflects the lack of aptitude and attitude of this man as a journalist. We have come to this conclusion because of something much more basic: the lack of judgment that he showed in choosing the elements of analysis that led him to that conclusion.
The “Bilbao Effect”
First, a prior remark has to be made. The “Bilbao effect” is a concept that was invented by international journalists and not by Basque institutions, although the latter have repeated ad nauseam that, to understand what happened in Bilbao, one cannot look just at the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, as this was part of a much larger plan designed especially to make Metropolitan Bilbao a better city for its inhabitants.
These same institutions have reiterated that, for a change like the one that has taken place in Bilbao to occur, it is not sufficient to rely solely on a building but instead on global planning.
Bilbao has had the luck (and the vision) to develop a project that has become an international centre of attraction. And while this was sought, no one could have imagined that the results would have been the same, or even close, if the building had been inserted into the centre of a degraded city with no future.
So, when we read the article by Chris Michael, we started asking questions. Questions such as:
Does he know what the investment made by the Basques into the Transformation of Bilbao was?
As we have the impression that he has no idea, we want to give him a hint:
More than 7,000 million euros in the period of 1980-2015
In comparison to this amount, anyone (discerning) can understand that the 89 million USD it cost to build the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum is an insignificant amount.
The Transformation of Bilbao, entry into the EU and the death of Franco
It is not the first time that we have seen the suggestion that the Transformation of Bilbao is a result of the entry of the Kingdom of Spain into the European Union (EU). Or, what it is more, that it was designed and built with the aid obtained through various cohesion and convergence programs created to promote integration into the European structures.
We have to make a clarification that cannot be avoided. In 1986 the Kingdom of Spain did not enter the European Union, it entered the European Economic Community (EEC).
Certainly, the funds received over 25 years from the European institutions have helped the Basque economy to become a major economy within the European Union. We have not forgotten that in those 25 years, the Basque Country went from having an income of 88% of the average income of the EU-15, to have 132% of the average income (EU-27) in 2010 (fuente). It would be interesting to compare this growth with those of other Euroregions, and to see the coefficient of efficiency that European contributions have generated in those cases.
In any case, those funds have not been the cause of the economic recovery or the Transformation of Bilbao.
It is worth remembering that of the approximately 160,000 million in cohesion or structural funds received by the Kingdom of Spain during the period 1986-2013 (118,000 million in the period of 1986-2006 and 41.864 million in the period of 2007-2013) the Basque Country (CAPV) received 4,100 million. That is, the Basques in the Basque Country (CAPV) have received about 78 euros per person per year. This figure makes this region one of the least favoured in terms of the European funds received (by GDP, Income, Population, Unemployment…) and makes the Basques living in the autonomous community net contributors to the EU.
But all of these assessments do not take into consideration the most important, unique and obvious fact: up until 1980 there were no Basque institutions (due to their abolition by Franco). Forgetting that in the 80s the Basques had to face three crises at once is not avoiding to look at the only evident matter. It is avoiding seeing the only matter that requires no interpretation.
In the 80s the peninsular Basques recovered a (small) part of the sovereignty that was lost during the process that began during the nineteenth century. This happened as they were coming out of a dictatorship, during a social and political crisis, and coincided with the most important economic crisis that had plagued the Basques in over a century.
In this scenario it is not difficult to understand that the newly created institutions needed time to organize and create plans to guide the progress of the country in the future.
The entry into the European Economic Community and the implementation of the transformation of Bilbao was a mere coincidence. The Basque institutions had plenty of experience with what they could expect from their “European friends”. In this vein, it is worth it to check out the efforts made to end the fascist Franco regime after the Second World War.
The process of the modernization and recovery of the Basque Country was going to happen, with their help or without it.
Value judgments and other mistakes
There are things in the article that are puzzling in a special kind of way. We are referring to the “value judgments” in which the author gives validity to certain misstatements, which are full of intention.
“Expensive architects” No, Mr Michael. The Basque authorities did not resort to expensive architects, but instead to prestigious architects. This is just one example of their capacity of their vision.
When you are going to invest over 2,000 million euros in a subway, the logical approach is to choose a station design that meets certain quality, operational and design standards, so as to make them useful and attractive for many years. Sir Norman Foster offered all of these things in his project, and subway users and international experts alike have recognized this.
The Guggenheim or “the biggest fish“. NO again, Mr. Michael. It may have been the most media-attracting item, but it has not been the biggest fish by far. That investment represents just 1% of the investment made in the regeneration of metropolitan Bilbao.
While it is certainly the most brilliant example, it is not the most important. Maybe its shine “blinds” many journalists, but that is no excuse for someone who writes in The Guardian about the “History of cities in 50 buildings” to lose perspective.
The selection of the key elements of the transformation process of this Basque city that the article’s author has made demonstrates his profound ignorance of what has happened (and what happens) in Bilbao. This is proven by the fact that, in his list, he obviated at least two key actions. We refer to the cleansing of the River (30 years of work and more than 800 million invested) and the movement of the Port of Bilbao to Abra (650 million euros of investment).
Without those two actions it is evident that nothing would have been the same.
The people seem disproportionately well-off. A sentence that is as unfortunate as it is classist. The full sentence is:
The city centre is clean. There are lots of expensive retail shops. “El Fosterito”, the glass-tube metro entrances designed by Foster, are slick and futuristic. And the people seem disproportionately well-off.
There are no words to describe this paragraph, which is full of prejudices.
Does he think that it is bad that Bilbao is clean (the centre and the periphery)?
Expensive retail shops in the centre of Bilbao? Yes, and also inexpensive. Should we compare with central London, Paris, Madrid, Rome or Berlin? Could it be he believes that Bilbao has no place for stores that go beyond what he considers popular?
¿Slippery “Fosteritos”? He may need to check the soles of his shoes.
Has it done enough for ordinary residents? This is a question of culture and its approach to the popular classes (we suppose). It’s simple to explain, and two examples will work. A youth from Bilbao can attend a concert at the Symphony Orchestra of Bilbao by paying 2.5 euros, or for the whole season by paying 35 euros. The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum has over 15,000 Friends of the Museum (which are either individual -40 euros/year and 20 euros for students and retirees- or 70 euros/year for families). With these payments they have free access to the Museum throughout the year.
Finally, the epitome. People seem disproportionately well-off. Let’s admit it. Basque citizens who stroll through the city centre are actually “extras” hired by the municipality for tourists to feel at ease. But what did he expect? Basques in the Basque Country have a per capita income of over 29,000 euros.
The “economic crisis in Bilbao”
There is one thing that perplexes us: the fact that well-rounded and theoretically cosmopolitan individuals, who live in very populated cities with millions of inhabitants, where it takes more than an hour to travel from work to home, seemed to make a “micro” analysis of what is happening in Bilbao.
This is the case, as we explain, in this article.
A struggling city, decimated by the decline of its manufacturing base, had seemingly reinvented itself by – of all things – betting big on culture.
So, he had learned nothing. Bilbao was not decimated by the decline of its industry. The whole of Europe was decimated by the early 80’s. Some policymakers chose to give up, others to quit. Just ask the Welsh miners who came to Euskadi in order to learn how to rebuild their way of life. On the contrary, the institutions of the Basque Country (and the society they represented) decided to face all the challenges at the same time and in an integrated manner.
The Basque territory covers 7,000 km2 and its population slightly exceeds 2.1 million. The road from Bilbao to Vitoria, or to Donostia, barely takes an hour and, therefore, Bilbao cannot be analysed in isolation.
This applies to all its fields, but especially to the economic one. Bilbao has less than 350,000 inhabitants and is less than 42 km2. Nobody in his or her right mind would think that the future of Bilbao depends on being an industrial city. The Basque economy, and therefore Bilbao’s economy, is not decimated. There is an objective fact that shows this: the Basque Treasury Departments collect 12,000 million euros from a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, which reflects that the Basque Country is one of the leading EU Euroregions.
That’s because a Spatial Planning (and a planning of its functions) has been made in Bilbao. Bilbao does not need to have industry even though in the city’s surrounding area (the Left Side of the river and the Right Side, or Txoriherri) industry is working properly and with a high and increasing technological level.
The role of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the Basque cultural structure
The role given to the Guggenheim Bilbao by the Basque institutions, from the outset, is not that of being a “driving force” of the Basque culture. Its aim is twofold. One obvious goal is to incorporate it as an additional element of the territory’s cultural structure, while another, more important reason, is to become internationally renowned and thus help to reposition the global image of the Basque society.
The link between terrorism and violence that for many years was associated with the Basque Society was broken upon the inauguration of the museum (and even before).
The author seems to have not heard that the Guggenheim Bilbao operation was marketing-focused. It’s as simple as that. But this was no ordinary marketing operation; it was the best marketing operation that had been done in the world for many years. 100, 200, 300 million euros expended in advertising campaigns so as to show that the Basques are not a country of “savages terrorists” would have had an insignificant impact compared to the construction of the Museum.
The heads of the institutions of the Basque Country “saw” what many in Europe had not seen. They saw the opportunity that an agreement with the Guggenheim Foundation could entail for Bilbao and the Basques.
They made a big bet; economically small (in comparison to the total amount of what was taking place in the metropolitan Bilbao) but of a high risk with regards to its prestige and credibility. This bet was made without the support of the Spanish Government, the political parties of the opposition and the majority of the media. Even public opinion was against it.
Had it not been a complete success, nothing could have served to explain the validity of the project. Now, as the effectiveness of the project can no longer be discussed, some people are seeking faults to deny the obvious.
It is necessary to compare similar views, or the “anti-Bilbao effect” nonsense
In this article, Chris Michael reaches the highest levels of professionalism in contrasting some models, with opinions from “alternative Bilbao culture” groups and with those of the head of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Some criticize the Basque institutions’ cultural policy (forgiveness of subsidies); the other one puts his model as an example of how to make things right. It’s obvious. The “alternative” groups must be, by definition and by principle, dissatisfied with the policies of public bodies (otherwise, they would not be alternative). The Canadian responsible is in charge of an institutional body and, as is logical, is proud of their work. Of course he is!
But we are deeply affected by the fact that Chris Michael, while staying in Bilbao, did not bother to contact the institutionally responsible persons for cultural issues, nor did he ask about the budget devoted to culture, nor did he spent a single minute wondering about Bilbao’s cultural activity. And, if he did, he did not see it fit to write about or transmit it to his readers.
It is true that Bilbao’s downtown lacks many of the things that, according to the author, define a “city’s cultural life “: Local galleries, music, graffiti, skaters … (sic)”. But that does not mean they do not exist.
Even when talking about the institutional culture activities, cultural activity cannot be defined as scarce; it’s just the opposite. In the Basque Country (consisting of 2.1 million people, do not forget) you can enjoy: Two symphony orchestras supported by the public budget; an opera season; a major network of theatres; internationally renowned museums (apart from the Guggenheim); Jazz (3), Blues, Film, classical music, choral music, Rock festivals…
In short, there exists a wide cultural range designed for Basque citizens rather than for tourists (who, by the way, are very welcome)
Zorrozaurre, luxury homes
Sometimes this article borders on the ridiculous; we refer, in particular, to the author’s comments on the Zorrozaurre project, which would be hilarious even if it were not for the fact that it was published in The Guardian.
Hadid’s billion-pound redevelopment of Zorrozaurre will be a test for that middle ground in Bilbao. Will its 6,000 new houses, two new technology centres and park genuinely engage with local culture, or will it simply be a flashy area for rich Spaniards looking for a waterfront property?
Without going into the economic valuation of the budget (which is not accurate at all), it is remarkable how absurd the question, amongst other things, is because:
- 50% of the 5,473 homes will be social housing
- 25.6% of the of 838 781 m2 will be devoted to public spaces, and 13.9% to public facilities
A trip back in time. “20 years is nothing”
Even the details provided in the article are wrong. One of its pictures (a plane flying over Portugalete) immediately rang a bell. We recognized it instantly. It is one of the photographs that accompany the extraordinary story of Robert Laxalt (an American writer of Basque origin) published in National Geographic, in which he describes the land of his ancestors during Franco’s dictatorship.
The article originally showing this picture dated 1968, but The Guardian’s article dated it two decades later, with the following headline:
A plane over Bilbao in 1986, when the city was experiencing serious economic difficulties following the decline of its industry.
Needless to say, Bilbao (and especially its heavy industry) was in 1968 the “industrial pride of Franco’s dictatorship”. An industrial structure kept through protectionism without investments and modernization, at the time of this photo it was on the verge of falling (10-years later) into the XX century international economic crisis of the 70s. A crisis that was overcame thanks to the economic policies of the governments of the Basque people made for the Basque people and, above all, thanks to the strength of a society that does not know what failure means.
The Guardian. A newspaper and a friend of the Basque people
We cannot expect anyone to be right all the time: not The Guardian, nor ourselves, nor anyone. We must say that this newspaper is a faithful friend of the Basques. Not because they speak well of the Basque people (which they do), but because of their great criterion and independence; they do not depend on nor are they influenced by what other newspapers publish in Paris or Madrid about the Basque people.
For example there is the editorial published by The Guardian in 1937 after the bombing of Gernika, an event which they revisited this April 30th. The Guardian is among the persons and institutions to which, a few days ago, we gave our thanks for their commitment to Basques, since they supported the fostering that was aimed by the Basque government to move the children away from Franco’s savagery in 1937.
With respect to the author’s criticism and doubts regarding the public support for Basque local culture we have one thing to say: Certainly you can improve many things, including more support for different cultural groups, but it seems a bit miserable to hide the reality of a thing, only with the purpose of making said reality suit the previous thesis.
The Guardian – 4/2015 – Gran Bretaña
The Bilbao Effect: is ‘starchitecture’ all it’s cracked up to be? A history of cities in 50 buildings, day 27
Every struggling post-industrial city has the same idea: hire a star architect (like Frank Gehry) to design a branch of a famous museum (like the Guggenheim), and watch your city blossom with culture. After all, it worked for Bilbao … didn’t it?