Architect About Town

Starchitect Museums Drive Tourism, Boost Economy

Written for USA Today's 10Best - Source Article

Frank Gehry started an economically beneficial trend when he designed a modern museum for a depressed neighborhood in Bilbao, Spain.

Museums are built to house cultural objects: art and artifacts. But today, the design of the building which houses these items has become an essential component of the museum experience. Modern architects are transforming the perception of recently-built museums into high-tech, sculptural structures, drawing attention to building, site and neighborhood, while fulfilling the traditional role of providing sheltered space in which the public can experience treasured collections.

In the 1990s, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation commissioned architect Frank Gehry to design the Bilboa Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain. Gehry's sculptural museum, intentionally sited in a worn-out port area in hopes of revitalizing it, immediately became a global tourist destination. Not only did the anticipated attendance exceed expectations but the arrival of so many tourists re-energized the depressed economy of the entire city.

Gehry's bold curving design became a turning point in public perception and appreciation for how good design could dramatically affect the success of a project. And now, "Bilbao effect" has entered the lexicon of urban planning and design, referring to how one great architectural project can help transform a city.

As a result, the new global norm to commission internationally known architects (aka starchitects) to design distinctive museums giving them a memorable visual brand while boosting the city's brand as well. Economic and aesthetic benefits often reach far beyond the museum's parking lot. Museum boards across the USA are following the trend for their own public buildings, hiring starchitects as grand public gestures.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA

Joyce Owens