There is a common phrase often in architecture, in construction and in business that says that “if you build it, they will come” often in reference to the idea that a major ambitious project constructed using building materials online will be so attractive to people that they will invariably be drawn to a place purely to see it.

The origins of the saying are a misquote from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, a film about a farmer who ploughs his farm to form a baseball field that will draw people to relive their innocent childhood days.

However, the spirit behind that misquote, as well as the “people will come” speech has been found in other major building projects, with one, in particular, having a lasting impact not only on the region it revitalised but also on the world of construction at large.

During that time it seemed to present a radical idea and approach to construction and architecture, but decades after its construction, people still question whether the so-called “Bilbao effect” was the rule or in fact the exception.


What Is The Bilbao Effect?

Bilbao is a city in the Basque Country in Northern Spain that throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s was going through a fundamentally transformative economic and industrial crisis that left the former industrial capital of the region on its knees.

In 1991, the somewhat ambitious rescue plan involved building a hugely ambitious museum in the port area that once funded the city.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao museum cost $89m to build and after a six-year construction process was opened in October 1997 by King Juan Carlos I. It immediately became a major attraction and source of revenue, eventually more than paying off the building cost in taxes and revenue to the area.

The building was designed by Frank Gehry, and it was a rare example of a daring piece of architecture that architectural scholars loved, critics loved and the general public similarly adored, in contrast to the eventual adoption of the Sydney Opera House by Australians.

The immediate success of the museum surprised even its staunchest supporters, and quickly the concept of the “Bilbao effect” was coined as a way to describe ambitious projects made by star architects that could turn around and regenerate declining cities and regions.

Whether it does is a matter that is still being debated.


Will They Come?

The Guggenheim was a true spectacle, and it did (and still does, being in the top 75 most visited museums in the world) drive people to see it. However, whether this is a genuine effect, as many advocates of so-called “starchitecture” propose or an exception is a fierce debate.

In the 25 years since the Guggenheim opened, many different regions have copied the concept of the Guggenheim Bilbao, from having a star designer to an expensive, ambitious and radical design that is meant to draw.

However, many others, including Mr Gehry himself, disagree with that, arguing that Bilbao was not the first example of the “Bilbao effect”, and that the building’s construction coincided with a coordinated urban strategy and several invisible changes that left a lasting legacy.

Many duplicates of the Bilbao concept that fail, neglect these unseen changes in favour of the spectacle of a showpiece building, which ultimately can backfire as has been seen with many expensive abandoned sporting stadiums over the years.