Beyond Buildings


Culture Building Boom RIP

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Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim Bibao. Image:


It’s been a bad stretch for culture buildings. Big project after big project is getting delayed or canceled. In the last few weeks, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) announced that the Academy of Motion Arts’ film museum is moving into the old May Company building LACMA owns next to their campus, meaning that glorious building will not become the capstone in their often reconceived and always shrinking planning efforts. The Tate Modern announced that they will not open a giant new Herzog & de Meuron addition in time for the Olympics, but will rather occupy basement spaces with art. In Abu Dhabi, construction officially halted on the new Guggenheim there (though a friend who visited months ago said the cranes have been motionless since spring), while the adjacent branch of the Louvre will now not open for another few years. I won’t even mention the continual delays in the renovation of the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; both are running between five and ten years behind schedule. To cap it all off, the opening of the renovated Museum d’Orsay in Paris was marred by strikes and protests.



Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Image:


So I guess we can now officially say that the so-called big museum building boom is over. It was never as big a deal as some thought, as there were a lot more buildings announced than were ever completed. In the Middle East, we got a new museum in Qatar, period. In Asia, they renovated a massive existing museum on Tiananmen Square. In this country, mediocre new wings grace the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and LACMA. None of them is a signature building.


Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Dubai. Image:


The Bilbao Effect, in other words, didn’t really exist. What was built were not iconic structures (other than the Libeskind bombs he likes to detonate around the world, regardless of program or site), but interior renovations or polite boxes. The place where quality truly shone was at a much smaller scale. Partially because of EU policies and partially because many European countries actually care about the culture that brings communities together, the whole continent is now dotted with little jewels of regional museums and cultural centers, though even there the financial crisis has curtailed operations and construction.



San Francisco's de Young Museum. Image: Wikicommons


The few bigger museums that do not pretend to be neutral containers, such as the De Young Museum in San Francisco, have been successful, both as forms and as attractors for visitors. The Bilbao Effect could work or not; we will never know.


It turns out that the Bilbao Effect was actually a name for a different phenomenon: cultural attractors. In an era of instantly consumable images, etherizing communities, and lack of either social or societal identity, we actually want places to gather, to contemplate, to be immersed, and to be part of a history of making, seeing, and thinking. Sometimes that act needs architecture of a recognizable sort as a catalyst, other times it needs a great performer or artist, an event (the proliferation of biennales and art fairs comes to mind), or just a good place to reoccupy, such as the sprawling precincts in and around the 789 Factory arts district in Beijing.


Just putting up a big building and importing some art alone will not do it. In fact, it is often difficult to predict what will work, though good spaces seem to be key, even when, like the High Line in New York, they have no ostensible function. So let’s hear it for the real Bilbao Effect: great architecture, great culture, great place, all coming together at the right time. RIP imitators, haters, and the many boxes the Bilbao Guggenheim came in.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.