The Bilbao Effect

In the last 15 years, many a postindustrial city has redefined itself as a design center. Glasgow after its year as European City of Culture in 1990, Barcelona following the 1992 Olympics, Lisbon in the wake of the Expo 98 World Fair, and Bilbao in the first years of its Guggenheim Museum—all made Europe’s design-city phenomenon look unstoppable.
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Of course, their transformations have been helped along by cheap airfares, the weekend-getaway trend, and the legacy of Wallpaper-inspired traveling trustafarians keen to discover the next design frontier.

Design expert John Thackara argues that Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class "has had an enormous influence on cities’ design aspirations. They are often obsessed with attracting the ‘creative class,’" he continues. "The prob-lem with this thinking is that it creates a monocultural view. I’m actually predicting an anti–design-city movement. A No Logo kind of cultural backlash against the idea of a ‘design city’ is very likely. The more insightful architects and designers I meet  think the city is too designed—there isn’t enough space for people, for spontaneous creativity. The danger with an overdesigned city is that it squeezes out the space for spontaneous bottom-up creativity and social innovation."

James Bradburne, former director of Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts, has studied the "S-curve effect" of "one-stop-shop" big design attractions, which tend to lose visitors after the initial rush—Bilbao itself is a noteworthy example. He concurs with Thackara. "Cities are getting less payoff from their investments in hard assets like buildings. They don’t always seem to realize that ‘soft’ capital like people, atmosphere, and events can be more important in attract-ing visitors long-term—and making sure they come back."

Clearly, being a design city takes more than a trophy building or two. Soft capital—such as Barcelona’s culture of street theater or Antwerp’s vivacious bar scene—adds the human warmth without which design alone can be too cool for school. Whatever the future viability of the design-city trend, Europe’s urban centers are still keen to vie with each other for hipsters’ dollars. Whether or not this pays off in years to come, it’s all good fun for design tourists today, as this quick tour of highly visitable locales shows.

Antwerp, Belgium
The thinking person’s fashion capital. Quirky, cool designers based here include Raf Simons and Veronique Branquinho, as well as the more established Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, et al. Stay at De Witte Lelie and visit MoMu, the Mode Museum, for an offbeat look at the politics of fashion. Next door, you can check out the upcoming talent at the Flanders Fashion Institute.

Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona has great architecture, starting with the medieval center, carrying on through the magnificent Gaudí monuments, and continuing up to the present with daring new additions like Herzog + de Meuron’s enormous blue triangle, the Edificio Forum. In 1999, the entire city was awarded a Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Current visitor faves include the Gothic quarter’s cool Hotel Neri, beach-front restaurants in Vila Olimpica, and the El Born district for cutting-edge design shopping.

Glasgow, Scotland
This once-decaying Victorian city is now a design success story: Once-tepid tourist numbers are now around four million a year. For the design conscious, St. Judes is the place to stay, and the West End the place to shop. Glasgow has built beautifully on its Charles Rennie Mackintosh heritage, and keeps delivering the goods. On the horizon are Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum (at left) and Richard Rogers’s pedestrian bridge spanning the River Clyde, joining the likes of Sir Norman Foster’s Clyde Auditorium in the city’s enviable architectural pantheon.

Göteborg, Sweden
It’s the new Stockholm! Göteborg has Sweden’s only design and crafts museum, plus some fine modern architecture, such as Gert Wingårdh’s imaginative ecological Universium building (near left) and the lipsticklike Göteborgs Utkiken by Ralph Erskine and Heikki Särg (far left). Stay at the stylish new Hotel Odin Residence, and do some design shopping in the area around Vallgatan and Korsgatan. After you max out your credit card, take a tram to the nearby archipelago with its floating saunas: Steam on a wooden raft, then plunge into icy water. 

Lille, France
As the 2004 European City of Culture, this northern French city regaled visitors with over 2,000 cultural events and performances. The Eurostar connection, which has been accompanied by an ambitious urban-regeneration program, ensures that visitors will keep coming. New modern architecture here includes Christian de Portzamparc’s "Boot" tower block (at left), Jean-Marie Duthilleul and Etienne Tricaud’s TGV station, and Rem Koolhaas’s Grand Palais and Eurolille. Stay at the medievalist-meets- minimalist hotel L’Hermitage Gantois.

Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon is an up-and-coming force in design, with a developing local design scene, a world-class Design Museum housed in the stunning Centro Cultural de Belém building (designed by Gregotti Associati), and interesting initiatives from the Experimenta Biennale. (The second biennale occurs in 2006.) Modern architecture highlights include Santiago Calatrava’s train station (far left), the monumental Vasco da Gama bridge (near left), and Alvaro Siza’s monolithic Portuguese Pavilion building designed for Expo 98. Stay at Hotel Albatroz.

Valencia, Spain
The spectacular City of Arts and Scientists (at left), by local architect Santiago Calatrava, is the jewel in the crown of a city that deserves to rank alongside Barcelona and Madrid for its architecture and ambience, and probably soon will. Valencia is currently developing its port area in preparation for hosting the America’s Cup in 2007, which will draw billions of dollars into the city. Valencia does well for design hotels: Palau de la Mar is the latest, with huge rooms and a serene black-and-white design, or opt for Ad Hoc or the Petit Palace Bristol.

Warsaw, Poland
Move over Prague: There’s a buzz about this once-downtrodden city in eastern Europe, a place now happily discovering the joys of latte bars and designer shops. The most striking modern building is still the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science, which initiated the city’s long-standing fascination with high-rise buildings like its Trade Tower (far left). Daniel Libeskind recently revisited his native country, so surely it’s only a matter of time before he builds something there. Stay in Warsaw’s first (and so far only) bou-tique hotel, the Deco-inspired Rialto.


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