The Guggenheim Effect and the Roles of Star Architecture

The Guggenheim Effect and the Roles of Star Architecture in Contemporary Cities 1


The realization of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is probably one of the most recurrently narrated success stories regarding the role of contemporary architecture in promoting urban regeneration, economic development and city branding. It is referred to as a model for regeneration by many scholars and, more importantly, it is a ubiquitous narrative among urban decision makers worldwide. Despite the fact that these sorts of branded projects have been changing the landscape in several cities, attention to the decision-making mechanisms and the rationalities implied in such processes is today limited or misinterpreted. In the following paper I present observations about projects for localizing Guggenheim Museum facilities in global and medium-size cities, as well as a set of urban development processes involving spectacular and branded architecture in Abu Dhabi, Paris and New York. The conclusions of the paper are two-fold: referring on the one hand to the international scholarly debate, and on the other to more urgent questions for urban policy makers in contemporary cities. Representing branded and aesthetically striking pieces of architecture as a determinant factor in regeneration does not respond to actual urban processes (in terms of actors’ motivations, public relevance and desirability of effects), but, nonetheless, it has been the means for spreading beliefs and behaviors among decision makers and provided certain actors with seemingly favorable conditions. However, policymakers can critically reinterpret these projects as the exploration of new cultural places, involving a broader set of actors and interests and fostering a more sustainable evolution of urban landscapes.

The rhetoric of the Guggenheim effect

The evaluations of the project for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and its impact on urban regeneration and economic development in the city are countless. However, most of them seem to be affected by severe inconsistencies, depending on the viewpoint of the commentators (Ponzini 2010). Architects and critics proposed a simple bottom line:
The rust belt city […] needed a postcard image comparable to the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House to symbolize its emergence as a player on the chessboard of a united Europe and globalized economy. It needed a monument. One building and $110 million later, Bilbao is now a contender as a world-class city, and many of the world’s second- and third-tier cities have called Mr. Gehry’s office, hoping for a comparable Cinderella transformation!” (Givannini, 2001, 1)While still director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens put forward an estimation of the first three years of activity of the museum: 1.385 million visitors and a 220 million dollar impact over the local economy (Krens, 2000). Similarly, another architecture critic suggested an increase in economic activities that are complementary to the cultural supply of about 70 million dollars (Jencks, 2005). In the exhibition dedicated to another Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, an extensive evaluation of the effects of the Bilbao project in the 1998-2006 period was presented, revealing an attendance of 9.2 million visitors, inducing a direct expenditure of 2.16 billion dollars, a GDP contribution of over 2 billion dollars, and tax revenue for the Basque Government of 342 million dollars. Following this evaluation, the museum generated 4355 jobs per year and a return on investment higher than 12%.2Along similar lines, the international urban research debate proposed more modest figures, especially regarding the medium term effects (Plaza, 2000; Evans, 2003). After a surprising start in terms of visitors, a contraction down to 760,000 was witnessed in 2001, and then returning to almost one million per year (Plaza, 2006). The return on investment is 10,9%, making a net present value unrealistic until 2015 (Plaza, 2006). Despite the fact that the museum project was promoted in terms of urban competitiveness, the actual economic effect prevalently touches the tourism-related sectors (Vicario and Martinez Monje, 2003). Furthermore, the jobs induced are not over one thousand units (Plaza, 2008), considered that impact in collateral activities is difficult to assess.These messages putting the iconic building at center stage and associating it with the auric image of this star architect were interpreted by key actors in global, large and medium size cities around the world – whether part of advanced tertiary markets or willing to rescue a post-industrial declining situation – as a way to start the engines of the urban growth machine and entertainment machine. These expectations could be partially motivated by banalizing linear and apparently causal representations, such as the above-mentioned ones. They are a vehicle for the idea that project formats and their impacts can be transferred from one place to another without referring to macroeconomic factors, infrastructure and accessibility, physical and environmental conditions, institutional setting, or political and social problems that can arise in the urban realm (Gonzalez, 2006).

The process of waterfront redevelopment in Bilbao was driven by a public-private agency, Bilbao Ria 2000, which was financed by the Basque government, the City and the Province, the port authority, two railway companies and the city of Barakaldo, with the mission of promoting investments for derelict areas and urban infrastructures. Bilbao Ria 2000 is financially sustained also thanks to redevelopment operations (that can be summarized as follows: land assembly by its shareholders, land-use rezoning by the public authorities and the subsequent design, accessibility improvement, development and sales) inducing high returns to be potentially reinvested in other operations of public interest as defined by shareholders in given target areas. This organization made the necessary legal, political and economic resources converge to enable large-scale developments that changed the face of Bilbao. In the same period massive public investments were carried out by the same network of actors, including national and supranational authorities, for developing the infrastructural system (a new subway and light rail system, a new airport and other infrastructure at a cost of over 4 billion Euros since the mid-1990s) as well as for economic conversion and social cohesion (Ploeger, 2007).

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The realization of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is probably one of the most recurrently narrated success stories regarding the role of contemporary architecture in promoting urban regeneration, economic development and city branding. More and more the aesthetics and media visibility of the pieces of architecture are not for their own sake, but rather are interpreted as immaterial competitive factors. Spectacular architectural and urban projects have been intended as global banners for footloose investment, for localizing multinational headquarters and attracting international art-and-entertainment tourism. During the last fifteen years it has been referred to by many scholars as a model for regeneration and, more importantly, it is still today an ubiquitous narrative among urban decision makers. If one contextualizes the realization of the museum in the broader process of the transformation of the city, explicating different public and private investments, the functioning of real estate mechanisms, and the perverse impacts of some development projects (Ploeger 2007; Mulaert et al 2002; Koolhaas 2007), one could note the inconsistencies between the narration and actual processes of urban regeneration and local development. Finally, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation admitted that the realization of the museum in Bilbao was in fact a process that is much more complex than usual representations, which depend on contingent events, and that it would not be possible to draw general lessons from it (Krens, 2000).

When the Guggenheim Effect does not affect

Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation until 2008, claimed that after the Bilbao experience he received about sixty proposals for participation in urban development projects around the world.3 Among these contacts, one in particular seemed promising. Due to the local economic and political conditions, Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, purchased a Guggenheim package deal, including a Gehry-designed museum that adopted an aesthetic similar to the Bilbao masterpiece to be located in what will be the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island (literally the “Island of Happiness”). However, a number of hypotheses and experimentations in this delocalization season faced failures, which lead to reconsideration of the Bilbao story. Rem Koolhaas designed the Las Vegas Guggenheim Hermitage for the Venetian Casino, completed in 2002, but a few months after its inauguration the museum closed. One probably point out that the high concurrency in entertainment and the pace of attraction substitutions in Las Vegas had an influence, but there is no doubt about this negative experimentation. In New York a 950-million-dollar intervention was planned in around 2000 for a new Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum on the East River, including a library and educational facilities, a theater and other public spaces. The plan slowed down, probably affected by adverse conditions following 9/11, and it was finally cancelled. In Rio de Janeiro, Thomas Krens developed a preliminary scheme for the Brazilian Guggenheim Museum to be located in a partially underwater facility designed by Jean Nouvel. The project was brought to a halt following harsh criticism, citing the already existing local Museum of Modern Art, designed by Affonso Eduardo Reidy, and dramatic and unsolved economic and social problems. The city of Taichung in Taiwan envisioned a new Guggenheim Museum designed by Zaha Hadid, but local conditions, notably the absence of a major international airport, pushed the local government to cancel the project (Sudjic, 2005).A preliminary hypothesis for a new museum also took form in Guadalajara in Mexico. After a feasibility study, the Mexican studio Enrique Norten/Ten Arquitectos was chosen over international teams such as Jean Nouvel or Asymptote to develop the concept (Klingman, 2007). This project, too, was cancelled. In 2008 Zaha Hadid won an invited competition for the design of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum for Vilnius, Lithuania, due to open in 2011, but again the project collapsed. After years of expansion promoted by the director Thomas Krens (notably the opening of smaller museums in Soho, New York, in 1992 and in Berlin in 1997, and enhancing Peggy Guggenheim’s activities in Venice), which was assimilated to global franchising (McNeill, 2000), the Guggenheim is now contending with less favorable conditions and in 2008 nominated Richard Armstrong as a more sober director, focusing more on the management of existing museums than promoting further delocalization projects.

The image and attractiveness of Abu Dhabi, a city with the highest pro-capita income in the world despite dramatic dual social conditions, have been leveraging important urban and architectural projects for specialized service functions, luxury tourism and high culture. The local institutional framework and the planning system and the oligarchic network of key actors have promoted a number of branded projects; e.g. Central Market by Foster + Partners, and the Yas Hotel by Asymptote. The Saadiyat Island megaproject – which includes the Cultural District with its global cultural institutions, such as the New Louvre Museum by Jean Nouvel, the Performing Arts Center by Zaha Hadid, the Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando, the Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster + Partners and, of course, the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry – shows that cultural institutions and star architects have limited influence over spatial organization, the modes and conditions of urban growth or the localization of other complementary functions, following massive capitalization and economic diversification imperatives (Ponzini, 2011).

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Within the global economy Paris is competitive in the services and cultural markets. Consequently, it has been able to leverage an excellent urban and architectural environment, to which important elements were added during the long period of the Grand Travaux, such as the Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The project for the Biblioteque Nationale de France by Dominique Perrault shows how the elite in national cultural politics sparked urban transformations and regeneration processes. Today, at the national level, the use of so-called archistars and urbanistars in Le Grand Paris consultation by President Sarkozy seems to be determined by media visibility rather than being directly related to actual urban development processes. At the local level, key urban policy actors use the same public figures to legitimize choices regarding a different urban quality and impact.

New York City has historically been a prominent center of modern architectural innovation, although the large majority of the recent housing and office stock is quite generic. In recent times choices have been assumed by the city of New York in decision-making process that were far from being rational (e.g. the Ground Zero saga, including the projects for the 9/11 Memorial designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, and the Performing Arts Center designed by Frank Gehry). Among the most significant changes in recent years, a new and consistent presence of internationally renowned architects can be mentioned. So-called starchitects started to appear in almost every sector of development. As in the past, corporations retain the services of important architectural firms to promote their image and as CEOs often say: “to make a statement in the skyline of Manhattan”; e.g. the New York Times Building by Renzo Piano, the Hearst Corporation HQ by Foster + Partners, and the InterActiveCorp HQ by Frank Gehry. The attention to architectural design for office spaces seems a rational strategy for corporations in order to attract and retain better human capital and to enhance creative productivity. At the same time, also private developers, who typically prefer highly reliable firms in order to avoid the risk of over-budget or over-time processes, started to hire the star architects for both office and residential buildings, assuming that higher fees for design corresponded to higher returns. The new trend of signature condominiums can be observed in the projects of the Blue Tower by Bernard Tschumi, 40 Bond Street by Herzog & de Meuron and the Perry Street Towers by Richard Meier. Also, the prominence of such figures is sometimes interpreted as a catalyst for consensus building, as a potential positive impulse for the decision-making process as well as a key in encountering lower institutional opposition, as in the case of the Morgan Library and Museum by Renzo Piano. Non-profit cultural institutions make use of important architects both to stress their status and to innovate their image and identity, but also because fundraising is more likely to succeed if branded by a famous architect, as in the case of the New Museum by Sanaa. Within the pluralist context of New York City, spectacular architecture and cultural facilities have been used by actors with different material, political and symbolic goals.

In the observed contexts and projects mentioned above, both public and private operators knew that the ability to legitimize a project, making its economic reliability stronger and bypassing more or less discretionary veto points, was crucial, and sometimes one specific architect’s reputation could help in pushing the project through. Both politicians and those making the important decisions levered the aura of the star architect in order to obtain visibility and to build consensus. In this sense the role the star architect is important in terms of communicative processes of legitimization, fundraising, advertising and the like. It can be limited to the symbolic dimension, but in many cases it was part of the production or regeneration of entire sections of contemporary cities. However, it also showed limited autonomy in terms of concrete urban innovation.

Framing branded museums in their urban landscapes

One notable aspect in the transnational comparison of cases is the apparent homogeneity of architectural outcomes within the context of radically different cultural, aesthetic, urban, political, economic, social and institutional features. Furthermore, the homogeneity is not due merely to the generic process of globalization, but to the production and circulation of specific narratives regarding the urban impact of spectacular architecture and their connection to common financial and political mechanisms. In the variety of territories I have considered, the processes leading to similar architectural results differed and related in very different manners to various local and global fluxes. However, within this variety of contexts and development processes, one can find common problems and paradoxes influencing urban transformation.
Even if one believes that global economic and tourist fluxes depend on the localization of one spectacular cultural facility, it is crucial to note that the creation of more or less homologous functions or pieces of design in different cities will reduce the attractiveness of a given place (Plaza 2000). Furthermore, the multiplication of similarly aesthetically striking artifacts all over the world has had, and will continue to have, the paradoxical effect of internationally homogenizing the urban landscape, while individual cities have expected to distinguish themselves by hiring a star architect and creating a spectacular and unique place. In addition, investing in expensive facilities may distract funding or increase future costs of cultural management, weakening the urban context and the complementary economic, social and cultural activities upon which the life and success of the museum itself will stand (Ponzini 2009). In many cases the presence of signature architects and the location of special functions have justified variations in the planning procedures (e.g. land-use regulations, height limitations) and the concentration of enormous public investments that have provided conditions for real-estate appreciation to take place. But this has not necessarily been linked to long-term effects and positive social impact in the urban environment.The idea that a more or less standard format of a cultural institution could travel the world paying limited attention to the context (e.g. existing cultural institutions and artistic traditions, particular economic and social activities, and the functions and uses of the urban environment) can in fact lead to the serious problems and even failure as in the cases mentioned above. Furthermore, a self-referential or technocratic approach in democratic countries can potentially encounter conflicts with the local community or at least lower local synergies with complementary activities and projects.

At a time when the current financial crisis may induce cuts in spectacularization costs in some contexts, it might be wise to critically reinterpret these tendencies, without falling into the easy condemnation of this or that type of architect, urban planner, developer, policymaker or style. Aesthetically striking interventions have been part of the built environment well before the postmodern age, and they will certainly survive in many contexts. However, the discussion regarding the creation of exceptional pieces of architecture in the context of urban transformation should at least pay more attention to the material, political and symbolic interests promoting it, their stated and vested goals, and their modes of action. This is one potential way for contextualizing a project and making the requirements, expectations and choices regarding a new museum, explicit. In my view, the interpretations of outstanding and meaningful architectural interventions could be better discussed not in terms of the definition of isolated aesthetic spaces, the accomplishment of a given order, or as the necessary product of global competition and contemporary real-estate markets, but rather as the exploration of possible transformations in the urban landscape and of its different material and immaterial uses (Palermo, 2008; Palermo and Ponzini, 2010).

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A city facing the question of creating a new museum with an international reach and visibility should publicly discuss not only “where” and “when” to build, but also “if”, “how” and “what” to promote: a museum alone, a redevelopment scheme or an infrastructural project that includes a museum, a more articulated cultural place, a new node in the local system of cultural amenities or something else. Of course this discussion will require involving multiple stakeholders and disciplines (not only architecture and urban planning, but also economics, art, management, cultural studies and others). This will allow the local society to think about the contextualization of the new museum in the urban structure and to develop its relationships with complementary activities in several sectors (e.g. the arts, research, tourism, real estate, retail outlets) and complementary urban policies preventing potential side effects (e.g. gentrification, and the expulsion of functions, population or users). In addition, the social actors that are interested in capturing the positive urban and economic effects of the location of a new museum can help in sustaining cultural activities over time (e.g. by investing part of the economic value they expect to capture before, during and after the creation of the museum, and by investing in the urban areas that will be affected by the change). In this sense, architects will be part of a broader planning process, and they will be required to consider contextual conditions and explore the potential evolution of a more complex urban landscape, rather than designing one spectacular building that lands indifferently in one city or another.
The tasks of proposing new spatial solutions for hosting a museum and of converging urban and cultural policies for multiple interests, populations and social meanings are evidently difficult, but they can lead to an incremental composition of specific urban landscapes, articulating notable artifacts and ordinary urban fabrics, as well as infrastructures and open spaces and their social meanings with respect to the many forms of contemporary living (Ponzini and Nastasi, 2011).

One additional thought: it is impossible to give a meaningful evaluation of the hypothesis of creating a new Guggenheim in a city without thoroughly knowing that city, and based only on international evidence. I will leave this issue to other scholars or practitioners. At the same time, I believe that avoiding simplistic and distorted narratives, systematically studying and publicly discussing the planning, design and the actual architectural and urban projects to be integrated into the urban landscape of one specific city are crucial for the success and positive impact of a new cultural place.


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Davide Ponzini

PhD Assistant Professor of Urban Planning - Ricercatore, Department of Architecture and Planning, Politecnico di Milano Via Bonardi 3, 20133 Milano, Italy Tel +39 02 23995427, Fax +39 02 23992610 Email

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