Design and Destruction – Bilbao, Spain

Design and Destruction
Bilbao, Spain

Times must be good for architects, technology is now of the standard that even a few squiggles, probably sketched on a napkin during a drunken night out, can now be transformed into dramatic sculptures of steel and glass. The Guggenheim in Bilbao seems to be such an example.

I get my first glance of the building as the airport bus heads downhill toward the city centre. It is an impressive building; its shimmering surfaces twisting and waving like a recently coiffured hairdo. It must take a genius or a madman to design such a creation, but most certainly a genius to build it.

I’d come to Bilbao for a chance to practice my floundering Spanish skills, but without the attraction of the Guggenheim, however, I would probably have chosen a different destination. Once a gray, uninteresting, industrial metropolis, Bilbao’s image still suffers from its past life, but now, to my surprise, it is quite a picturesque city.

The centre nestles neatly in a mountain basin, surrounded by a ring of snow sprinkled peaks and is split in two by a metal gray river. Small cafes squeeze into every available crevice, while the spires of cathedrals pierce the skyline. Building sites, however, are everywhere.

Bilbao is a city that has had to reinvent itself in order to survive. The Guggenheim, therefore, is much more than an art gallery, it is a symbol of the regeneration of Bilbao, and the region’s dream of becoming the cultural centre point of Spain.



An important part of that culture is its identity as a Basque city. Graffiti on a park bench by the river points out that ‘this is not Spain.’ The Basque country is different in many respects from the rest of Spain. It has its own language, Euskara, its own sports, cuisine, history, police force, education system and local government.

On the Monday night after I arrive, a small group of Euskadi’s march around the central Plaza Moyua waving the regional flag. The general elections are less than a week away and they see this as a chance to gain yet more independence from Spain.

I spend my days sampling the local tapas, shopping in Casco Viejo; the old town of Bilbao, with its maze of passageways and alleys. I visit various museums and struggle on with my limited Spanish. The way of life here is markedly different from Britain. The pace is more relaxed, cafes are more abundant than bars, and the brightly coloured clothes are evidence that the sun rarely hides behind a cover of cloud. It’s not until Thursday morning, however, that I get a true view of the Spanish way of life.

At first I think it’s just an accident, the newscasters are talking too fast for me to understand. The more I watch, however, the clearer it becomes that it was a bomb. I hear ETA mentioned more than once, but it doesn’t make sense.

ETA were formed in the Fascist era of Franco, when the Basque language was banned, their culture suppressed. Now the Basque country is as close as it will get to being independent, but rather than focus on what is great about the region it appears there are some who are intent on dragging the country back into its violent past. I can’t understand how anyone believes murder will help their cause. That evening it’s clear the Basque people share my confusion.

Around 8000 people gather around Plaza Moyua again, this time however there is no marching, there are no flags; instead a large banner states ‘ETA no.’ The people stand together silently, lost for words that Basque country could be responsible for such an atrocity. The style of protest seems restrained and polite compared to the anti-war marches of Britain. People just can’t understand why Madrid was chosen as a target. They stand together for support, too shocked to be angry yet.

A couple of days later, however, when it is revealed the government were too quick to blame ETA, the Spanish people do show their anger, and protest in the most powerful and effective way imaginable, by voting out the present government.

My memories of this week in Bilbao will not be the grand designs of architects but the twisted, burnt designs of terrorists intent on causing chaos and confusion. But it is also clear that although our cultures may be different, the Spanish are no different from the British, or the majority of the world, in their hatred of violence and lies.