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Chasing the Bibao-effect: time to put a tired old myth to rest


Of the many myths which flourished in the fin-de-siÞcle folly of the past few years, the hallowed Bilbao-effect is perhaps the most absurd. Would our regeneration industry be in quite such a parlous state if it had not spent the past few years concentrating on how to deliver just the type of architectural icon required to trigger a quick-fix cultural and economic makeover? Not only has the phenomenon which launched a thousand pop music centres, cross-stitch museums and indeterminate visitor attractions left a landscape littered with architectural oddities, it has encouraged us to neglect more considered and sustainable development strategies, and lumbered public architecture with untenable expectations.

It is no longer enough to be an ingenious solution to a specific architectural problem, or simply an outstanding public building. Iconic architecture is expected to act as landmark, marketing tool and economic flagship, reinvigorating its immediate surroundings, if not the entire local economy. After the initial euphoria, it appears that even the most unequivocal of millennial success stories cannot live up to the challenge.

The British Museum's Great Court stands accused of 'sucking the life out' of the surrounding galleries.With debts of £130 million to its name, even the BA London Eye is not quite the commercial success that it once seemed.

As for the Bilbao Guggenheim itself, it too is struggling to deliver the much-hyped Bilbao effect. Recent reports suggest that the predicted economic regeneration has been decidedly limited in scope, with little real impact on the city as a whole. The situation brings the tale of the apocryphal 1960s rock groupie to mind.When asked about each of her conquests, she would answer: 'He was good.But he wasn't Mick Jagger.'

When she finally landed Jagger himself, the verdict was all too predictable: 'He was good, but he wasn't Mick Jagger.'As an example of architectural icon as a trigger for economic regeneration, the Guggenheim carried all the mystique, promise and mythological status of an undisputed icon.But in the cold light of day, the verdict is all too clear:

'It's good.But it's not Bilbao'.

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