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Bilbao - Spain

Since its foundation in 1300 as a walled town with seven streets, Bilbao’s architecture and urbanism have developed in parallel with the city’s commercial and financial activity in the vicinity of the River Nervion. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Bilbao’s growth reflected that of its mining, iron – and steel – making, shipbuilding, commerce and banking. The Ensanche plan of 1876 and the urban projects of the early twentieth century established the basis of the present metropolitan conurbation. Associable by recognizable styles or movements, Bilbao’s buildings range from the eclectic to the regionalist, from followers of the Modern Movement and others influenced by postmodernism, to the most recent urban projects.


It is impossible to evaluate Bilbao’s architecture without referring to eclecticism, and in particular the eclecticism of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. A form of rationalism which saw itself as the culmination of Beaux Arts teaching, eclecticism is gradually becoming more appreciated. Pragmatic and well-versed in different styles, the architects of eclecticism sought by means of appropriateness to give each building a particular character. Architects such as Luis Aladren, Severino Achucarro, Leonardo Rucabado, Jose Maria Basterra, C. Emiliano Amann, Ricardo Bastida and Manuel Maria de Smith strove to adapt their work to the building’s purpose, to site, construction methods, urban context and, above all, the individual client.

Eclectic architecture was the reflection of bourgeois society in a booming industrial, commercial and financial Bilbao. Examples include the headquarters of social clubs -la Sociedad Bilbaina, la sociedad El Sitio and la Sociedad Filarmonica and above all the Palacio de la Diputacion. Bilbao’s eclecticism, which went as far as to incorporate the international Style, lasted well into the twentieth century.


The evocation of the primitive in architecture first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century, when neo-Classical architects identi¬fied in vernacular architecture a bastion of rationality safe from external influences. Notable theoreticians such as A Pugin, J. Ruskin, E. Viollet-le-Duc, W. Morris, L. Domenech i Muntaner and many others argued the case for an architecture which took into account the craftsmanship, the techniques and particular character of each place. Regionalism came up against the quest for an international style which began to surface after the Great War: the Paris World Fairs of 1925 and 1937 paid very little attention to regiona¬lism, while in 1932 New York ignored it completely. By the 1940s the regionalist movement had been totally surpassed by the internationalStyle.

In the Basque Country there are some very significant examples regionalist architecture. Architects such as Manuel Maria de Smith (Ramon de  la Sota Houses) and Gregorio Ibarreche (Ibaigane Palace) took vernacular farmhouse (caserio) as a reference and, with the addition of certain historicist impurities -both Spanish and English-, contributed to the development of a  neo-Basque style which, like equivalent styles elsewhere in Europe, seemed more appropriate for houses than apartments.

Modern Movement

The International Style was reflected in the GATEPAC (Group of Spanish Artists and Engineers for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture) formed in 1929 as a branch of the CIRPAC, an avant-garde group led by Le Corbusier. Many of Bilbao’s architects were sympathetic to the Northern Group of the GATEPAC, including Luis Vallejo -the sole Bilbao member only relevant for his designs- Juan de Madariaga, Tomas Bilbao and Fernando Arzadun. However, despite the GATEPAC’s influence, Bilbao’s rationalism may be described as a partial, non-radical rationalism, notable exponents of which also included C. Emiliano Amann, Pedro Ispizua and Manuel I. Galindez. Without renouncing their academic training, all these architects showed their sensitivity to the Modern Movement and displayed the professionalism so characteristic of the generations of architects responsible for the construction of the Ensanche. The Luis Brihas, the La Equitativa and La Aurora buildings and many other examples all contribute to the personality of Bilbao’s Ensanche.

After the postwar period there was an elaboration of the International Style which coincided with development and an openness to foreign countries. Amongst the works of the architects referred to, we would highlight the apartment blocks on Elcano and Henao Streets (Eugenio Maria de Aguinaga and Felix Ihiguez de Onzono) and the Economics facuity of Sarriko University.


The advent of Postmodernism was accompanied by a questioning of the belief in a universal model for thinking and culture. In the period around 1968, there began to be heard voices proclaiming the right to be different. In 1966, for example, American architect Robert Venturi, in his famous book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, called for an architecture unconditioned by modern orthodoxy; in Learning from Las Vegas -written in 1972 with D. Scott Brown and S. Izenour- he suggested turning to pop culture to revitalise high culture. In Italy, Aldo Rossi and other architects sought to “reinscribe” architec¬ture in the historic city, whilst Leon Krier demanded the “reconstruction of the European city” by means of traditional town planning. In architecture, Postmodernism meant taking a look at history and abandoning modern principles in favour of the ludic aspects, within a less univocal attitude that eschewed utopia.

In Bilbao the impact of Postmodernism, as was the case with Modernism, was by and large more formal than programmatic. The Post modern condition has culminated in the coexistence of different styles and individual manners lacking ideology, in an atmosphere of vedettes and disenchantment.

Recent Projects

Bilbao realised the need for economic and urban renewal implicit within the process of industrial restructuring at the end of the 1980s. Since then the authorities have been carrying out a series of public works aimed at revitalising Bilbao, beginning with the construction of the underground. The latter, with its high-tech station , represented a new perception of the urban environment. The success of the Guggenheim Museum (Frank Gehry 1997), unprecedented in contemporary architecture, has made it the symbol of the new city of Bilbao Meanwhile the institutio¬nal management group Bilbao Ria 2000 is developing the old industrial zones on the banks of the River: Abandoibarra, for example, a former Industrial zone in the very heart of Bilbao for which architect Cesar Pelli has drawn up a master plan, including an emblematic tower. This policy of employing prominent architectural firms also involves architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, whose new airport  termnal was built along structural expressionist lines.

High-tech architecture, expressionism and structural expressio¬nism are current trends which are complemented by minimalism and represented by Bilbao’s most recent architecture. The major infrastructure projects, such as the ringroad and the new access plan, the Artxanda tunnels and the cleaning up of the river, complete the work in progress.

Urban Design

Bilbao’s growth has been accompanied by notable episodes of urban design. The El Arena salon and the Plaza Nueva in the Old Town are two magnificent historic examples of urban design in Bilbao. The construction of the Ensanche from 1876 onwards took into account existing elements which pro¬duced cases of particular urban interest: the Albia Gardens, laid out around San Vicente Church, and the Misericordia and its gardens, which determine the layout of the Gran Via.

Certain sitings have resulted in especially interesting urban configurations: the Gran Via, the Plaza Moyda, the Doha Casiida Iturrizar Park, the Campo Volantin promenade, and the River Promenade in the vicinity of the Guggenheim Museum. Also of interest are the San Ignacio housing complex , the Plaza del Puente Colgante in Las Arenas and the combination of the Paseo de Zugazarte-Paseo de Arriluze-Old Port of Algorta. We would also highlight the contemporary works which break the unity of a city block in the Ensanche, as is the case of Estraunza, and recent projects like the one to take the Southern Railway Link-Avenida del Ferrocarril underground, which has allowed for the development of Ametzola and Abandoibarra.

Bilbao and the surrounding area

The metropolitan zone of Bilbao is home to approximately eighty per cent of Bizkaia’s one million two hundred thousand inhabitants. The rugged topography of the surrounding territory of mountains and valleys includes areas of outstanding beauty.

This territory incorporates several districts: Duranguesado, Lea-Artibay-Bustuarialdea, Uribe, Encartaciones and Arratia. All founded their economic growth upon agriculture and livestock. Those nea¬rest to Bilbao, like Uribe and the eastern part of las Encartaciones, have shared in Metropolitan Bilbao’s industrial growth. Others, like el Duranguesado and Arratia, crossed by Bilbao’s major road connections with other parts of Spain, are less isolated than Busturialdea and Lea – Artibay. Busturialdea encompasses the towns of Gernika and Bermeo whilst Lea-Artibay includes Markina, Lekeitio and Ondarroa. The latter districts have remained more detached from the life of Metropolitan Bilbao, and have combined an agricultural and livestock economy with fishing.

In the area surrounding Bilbao, the founding of towns permitted the agglutination of urban developments which, generally speaking, miiiain fairly intact today. Improved communication infrastructures are increasing the accessibility of the more isolated corners of this uniquely attractive landscape.

Towards Metropolitan Bilbao

Since its foundation, and in its role as Castile’s principal port, Bilbao has been the most important town in the Lower Nervion Valley. The creation of iron and steel mills in the mid-nineteenth century and indus¬trial development brought about the rapid growth of all the towns situa¬ted along the banks of the River.

In 1923, Ricardo Bastida first mooted the concept of metropolitan area, agglutinated by the need for communication infrastructures. The establishment of the Greater Bilbao Administrative Corporation incorporated the Lower Nervion Valley municipal districts, with the aim of controlling land development by means of zoning. It was the 1990s, however, with the construction of the underground and improvement of the road network and transport system, that produced the definitive vision of  a metropolis in Bilbao This metropolitan area might be said to include the following municipal districts: Bilbao, Abanto, Alonsotegi, Arrigorriaga,Barakaldo, Basauri, Berango, Derio, Erandio, Etxebarri, Galdagao, Larrabetzu, Leioa, Lezama, Loiu, Muskiz, Ortuella,Portugalete, Santurzi, Sestao, Sondika, Sopela, Trapagaran, Zamudio, Zaratamo and Zierbena.

Features of Bilbao’s architecture

Sobriety and pragmatism are the principal features of Bilbao’s architec¬ture. Bilbao’s sobriety reflects the Basque character and is apparent in different historical periods: in the Baroque, with an architecture devoid of decoration; in the austerity of neo-Classicism, and also in examples of recent architecture. Pragmatism is a reflection of the city’s spirit of enterprise and results in a well-built architecture, mindful of climatic conditions and executed by architects who thought first and foremost of their clients. Bilbao’s architecture reflects Bilbao society, as is evident in the eclecticism that accompanied the bourgeois splendour of the late nineteenth century and the architecture of the development of the industrial metropolis displayed by the Ensanche.

The significance of the River is another of Bilbao’s characteristics. The city’s architecture both turns its back on and overlooks the River, in response to the topographical situation created by the waterway and surrounding mountains. Hense significance of transport and engineering works in Bilbao: roads and railways, the underground, and the port-the major infrastructures of which drive the metropolitan economy- are organized around the axis with scant attention to urban planning. The great challenge facing the new urban projects is, we believe, that of modernizing Bilbao whilst retaining the  personality formed by these features.

The above text is taken from the book “BILBAO: Guide to Architecture”.
Authors: Javier Cenicacelaya | Antonio Roman | Inigo Salona.

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