The Bilbao Effect
1997. A revolutionary building is unveiled, the first seed of a new phenomenon in urban development. The immediate worldwide impact of the opening of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, with its asymmetrical design, managed to regenerate the whole city in a matter of years. This is the Bilbao effect. The museum transformed the city into a visitor-friendly metropolis of glass and steel, intelligently developed and open to the estuary, a joy for cultural tourists, with sheep grazing on the surrounding hills. The effect is contagious: the wow factor of the Guggenheim and Abandoibarra, the flagship district of the new Bilbao, affects us in the same way on every visit. It energizes and renews us. Since the Guggenheim moored on the riverside, the smells of Bilbao are no longer those of heavy industry, but of earth and rain. Six years ago, it was awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, the Nobel Prize for cities, and is constantly receiving awards for its exemplary regeneration plan. Nobody hesitates when asked if they like Bilbao, and neither do we. A peaceful, civilized city, where buildings by big names try to outdo each other, aesthetically in which public transport means the metro system designed by Norman Foster or the streetcars, where taking a stroll means walking amongst sculptures by Koons, Bourgeois, Dalí and Chillida, with an Old Town full of history, where appreciating fine food is a ritual learned from childhood. We also love the Bilbao that conserves its past, that harmonizes classical structures with the radically new, and values the city as it was before the museum, in the days when it earned its affectionate nickname, el botxo – ‘the hole’ in the Basque language. A city in which berets are worn jutting out and pulled down to one side – Bilbao-style, the traditional way – the city of pintxos and txikitos, of strolling through Las Siete Calles, where signs are written in Basque Letters. Both are Pedro Garcia’s Bilbao.
The Now And Then
They call it La Bombonera — “the chocolate box” — because of its Modernista façade, dominated by a horseshoe arch that draws on oriental influences, adorned with fantastical animals, stylized plant forms and mythological motifs. The Teatro Campos Elíseos was built in 1902 by architects Alfredo Acebal, from Bilbao and frenchman Jean Baptiste Darroquy. It was faithfully restored to its original Art Nouveau glory during a complete refurbishment in 2010, which also brings radical contrasts into play with the glass surfaces of the extension. It is a contemporary approach that foregrounds the decorative expressiveness of a building officially recognized as part of Spain’s cultural heritage. Bilbao: a place where past and present always go hand in hand.
A colossal tower of glass with curving walls, whose triangular floor plan gradually tapers as it rises, so that its edges – hypothetically – converge at an altitude of 1000 meters. When he designed the Iberdrola Tower, César Pelli, the architect of the Petrona Towers, the great symbol of Malaysia, gave Bilbao the biggest virtual skyscraper in the world – and also the tallest structure in the Basque Country. A sustainable, intelligent building that put a spectacular finishing touch to the regeneration of an extensive riverside site, previously been closed off to the city and full of docks, shipyards and container yards. Today, Abandoibarra is the area that best defines the new Bilbao, and is the location of notable buildings including Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Moneo’s University of Deusto Library, Siza’s Auditorium of the University of the Basque Country and Pelli’s Iberdrola Tower. A transparent skyscraper that changes its appearance like a mirror, every time you see Bilbao’s skies reflected in it..
Each link weighing 400 kg, these magnificent chains could secure a gigantic supertanker or anchor an oil platform. Now they take pride of place outside the Bilbao Maritime Museum, a testimony to the importance of shipbuilding, maritime transport and the iron and steel industries to pre-Guggenheim Bilbao. These are the Vicinay Chains, and their final resting place is on the site where the great Euskalduna shipyard once stood. There, by the river, alongside the towering crane known as Carola, the docks and the boats, they keep Bilbao’s maritime past alive.
It was worn by Faye Dunaway, as the iconic bank robber in Bonnie & Clyde and, before her, by Ingrid Bergman, in the most provocative photo of 1948, the poster for her war romance Arch of Triumph. Coco Chanel wore one several times, always in a different style. It was sported by Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz great who was one of the original hipsters of the 1940s. The list of famous names who have worn a beret seems to go on forever. These are images that endure in the collective memory: photographs of Julie Christie and Diane Keaton, Pablo Picasso and Louise Bourgeois, Jack Kerouac and Pablo Neruda. Personalities as diverse as Lauren Bacall and Che Guevara.
The beret is a simple, unisex accessory, so universal and adaptable that it has been described — among many other adjectives — as working-class, bohemian, intellectual, chic, beatnik or revolutionary, depending on who was wearing it, how and when. A plain, flat hat made of wool, originally worn by Pyrenean shepherds in the French Basque country. After the outbreak of the First Carlist War, in 1833, it spread all over the Iberian peninsula. Since then it has been recognized as the national headgear of the Basque provinces. Known as the txapela — ‘hat’ in the Basque language — it is a mark of identity that also has strong associations with their neighbors in France, where it is an iconic element of French culture.
The beret or txapela surged in popularity, and was adopted by all socials classes, when it began to be produced industrially in the mid nineteenth century. Of the Spanish factories that opened in the Basque towns of Tolosa, Balmaseda and Azkoitia, manufacturing berets in sufficient quantities to supply the entire country, only one – the second oldest in Europe – is still working. Boinas Elósegui is a family business, founded in Tolosa in 1858 by Antonio Elósegui, when he returned to Spain after making his fortune in the New World. It is the only company in Spain that can still produce a superior quality beret using artisanal methods.
As you learn about the manufacturing process, the first surprise is to discover that the beret is woven from woolen yarn. The raw material comes from Spanish Merino sheep or is imported from Australia: the only wool that can produce a yarn 40 micrometers in diameter. With the same English machinery that was used over 100 years ago, they weave the crown of the beret; each loom producing a different size and style, from civilian berets with the “tail” on top to military ones without. When the woolen cloth is joined together to make a round shape– a painstaking artisanal process – the result is an enormous bonnet, soft and baggy, with a small central hole that is closed with a knot and finished off with the txertena, the small stalk that crowns the Basque beret.
This oversized white cap is then felted in fulling machines, hundred-year-old wooden drums that spin and beat it, while steaming it at the same time. The fiber shrinks and becomes so dense that light can no longer been seen through it. This is what gives an artisanal beret its unparalleled quality. When it has been dyed, molded and dried in an oven, a blade is used to trim excess wool. At this point, the “naked” beret — a more flexible and adaptable version — is ready to be worn, although there is a final phase of finishing during which different types of lining can be sewn in, depending on the quality, and a sweatband added.
They say that in the Basque country, especially in Bilbao, berets are worn wide and flat, jutting out and pulled down to the right, but without covering the ear. They also say that the further south you go in Spain, as in France, the smaller they prefer their berets to be. “Straight, pulled down, Bilbao-style, Parisian-style… the secret is in the diameter and the flair with which it is worn,” Josu Aguirre, Head of Administration at Boinas Elósegui tells us “because the beret itself is always the same.”
Written in stone
When you first make your way into Las Siete Calles – literally “the seven streets,” as the people of Bilbao refer to the city’s historic quarter – one of details that stands out is the peculiar lettering used on many business and restaurant signs. They are stark, basic characters, composed of asymmetrical strokes and sometimes accompanied by ornamental elements. It looks like a specifically designed typeface, but in fact it’s a combination of ancient characters with some common features, combined with modern fonts inspired by them. They are known as Basque Letters or Euskara, perhaps the most striking of the Basque country’s visual marks of identity.
If one thing defines the region, with its tiny population and compact size, it is the wide range of social realities that nevertheless, come together in a single, nuanced collective identity. An indigenous character that is articulated and made manifest in the Basque language, one of the oldest in Western Europe. Predating the Indo-European languages, it is not derived from Latin and its roots remain shrouded in mystery. Basque Letters, which were developed in the early twentieth century from inscriptions on medieval tombstones, has become a distinctive part of the way this sense of identity is expressed. Today, they demarcate a territory and express a commitment to a shared project, just like other historical symbols of the Basque country.
Only in the case of Celtic or Uncial calligraphy in Ireland do we find an equivalent to Euskara as the symbolic identifying mark of a people. There, typographers, drawing on the country’s calligraphic tradition, created an association between national identity and Celtic typography that has endured to the present day. In the Basque Country, Euskara letters have evolved to become official institutional fonts. These include the Basque New font, designed in 1990 by Enrique Lucas for the new corporate identity of the Basque government, and the Alfabeto Bilbao, designed by Alberto Corazón for Bilbao city council, for use on the city’s signs as part of the Bilbao Ría 2000 regeneration project. If the city is a written space, in Bilbao, identity and tradition are written in Basque Letters.
It’s so well suited to Bilbao’s climate, and so familiar to city residents, you could consider it an emblem of the city. Its origin is still debated, but it hardly matters when it first began to replace asphalt on the sidewalks, who first manufactured it, or whether the design resembles other rosette-style paving tiles that predated it. The fact is that the Bilbao paving stone, with its indented flower pattern and four grooves to drain away rain water, is felt by the city to be its own, because for decades it has been a practical solution for a populace that walks on wet streets for almost half the days of the year. Originally it was made in hand-operated presses, one by one, from a mixture of concrete and coarse sand, with a layer of iron shavings, by-products of the region’s former iron and steel industries, to make it less slippery. Today, they’re made of cement, but the design is the same, and now that Bilbao has become a model of the intelligent city for internationally respected journals of urban innovation, it is as valid as it was on the first day.
Some of them are so closely associated with Bilbao that they transcend the category of public art. They have become elements of a composite portrait, fragments of the city’s image in the minds of many visitors. But the best-known among them — Jeff Koons’ Puppy, the monumental terrier made of flowers that stands guard outside the Guggenheim — is only one of almost 100 artworks that make up the city’s urban landscape. The sculpture in the image, Sites and Places, by Ángel Garraza, is located within Bilbao’s most artistic zip code, 48009, specifically in the Parque de la Ribera. It is part of the Paseo de la Memoria — “the memory promenade” — a garden-museum that traverses the city on the banks of the estuary, recalling the area’s industrial past. Sites and Places is composed of two huge pieces of concrete, covered in ceramic tiles. Garraza seeks a sense of both abstraction and identification, by drawing on familiar, everyday objects.
"It’s fresh, salty, and a little spicy". And so its creator named it la Gilda, after the femme fatale played by screen icon Rita Hayworth, whose father was Spanish, in the film that was a scandalous success that same year, 1946. It was an accidental culinary discovery that married the flavors of an olive, a guindilla –- a chili pepper, pickled in wine vinegar –- and an anchovy, simply by skewering all three on a toothpick. Joaquín Aranburu, “Txepetxa,” a customer at the Casa Vallés restaurant in San Sebastian, had invented what legend has it was the first pintxo, combining the appetizers that were served with pitchers of wine. The invention spread, and in Bilbao it has become so omnipresent you could say they have adopted it as their own. Going out for pintxos, that quintessentially Basque style of socializing, strolling from bar to bar with friends, eating elaborate tapas skewered onto a toothpick or a piece of bread and drinking small glasses of wine, would not be the same without a gilda. 70 years on, it is still the essential Basque pintxo. Long live la Gilda!
In Bilbao, wine is drunk in sensible measures. At the first bar you visit, a txiquito, as a reasonable 12 cl (4 fl oz) glass of wine is known, and a pintxo or two. Friends; talk; laughter, and on to the next bar, where the ritual is repeated. And so the night unfolds. Bilbao’s residents call it txiqueteo or poteo, pote being another name for a txiquito of wine. A style of socializing so deeply rooted it has become a tradition. In recent years, the glass the original txikiteros used has been revived, although its weight — more than 600 g (21 oz) — means you won’t find it in many bars. They are hand-made, so no two are the same, but more than half their height is always made up by the pressed-glass base. Their origin is unknown, although we know they first arrived in Bilbao as part of the official visit of Queen Victoria Eugenia. The city was decorated with candles in small glass holders, which were distributed to the city’s tavern owners. After the queen’s departure, the candle holders were repurposed as the perfect glasses for an evening’s poteo.
She was such a dazzling sight that, whenever she went by, works in the shipyards stopped, and a deafening siren blared. It was the 1950s, and this scene — worthy of an Italian Neo-realist film — was repeated twice a day, when Carol Iglesias, a beautiful blonde who worked in the Spanish tax office, came and went in the boat that carried her across the river to have lunch in Deusto. The workers named their new crane Carola in her honor: it was the crowning glory of a historic inland port, founded more than 700 years ago. Built in 1957, Carola, a winch crane, could lift loads of up to 70 metric tons and worked unloading containers and in shipbuilding for 27 years. It was the tallest and most powerful crane in the whole of Spain, and established the port of Bilbao as one of the most important in the world. Today, bright red and elevated to the status of sculpture, at 60 meters tall, it is a majestic symbol of Bilbao’s industrial past.
Special thanks: to Boinas Elósegui for opening up their factory in Tolosa for us, and, in particular, to Josu and Unaiz for their generosity in sharing their knowledge.
Cover: The Basque Government Health Department Headquarters, by Coll-Barreu Architects.