Irritable Bilbao Syndrome

By Ben Bull
Published January 07, 2007

Ex-Winnipeg Mayor and Urban Strategist Glenn Murray introduces us to an unusual complaint in his Toronto Star column today.

"Irritable Bilbao Syndrome [is] an epidemic spreading across the globe, transmitted by civic enthusiasts who believe iconic museums are the shortcut to successfully transforming a rust belt city into a Mecca of creativity," he writes.

RTH readers may well be familiar with the 'Bilbao miracle' – the urban renaissance experienced by the Spanish Steel producing town following the construction of the world renowned Guggenheim museum in 1997.

According to Murray, Irritable Bilbao Syndrome has claimed many copycat victims, including Sheffield in England, whose Center for Popular Music closed down after just eight months.

There are many other sufferers of the disease, of course. Those who watched Michael Moore's documentary Roger and Me may recall the ill-fated Flint Automotive Museum, which was meant to be a catalyst for the 'revival' of the filmmaker's hometown (it wasn't).

Then there's Cleveland's impressive Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, which, while it may well attract the visitors, has not - if my last visit was anything to go by – done much to improve its surroundings.

Murray blames a lack of urban understanding and an eagerness to take shortcuts as the main causative factors for this disease.

"The reality is that Bilbao's success is the product of a steadfast commitment to planning, repositioning, and re-creation of the city's authentic 20th century economic and cultural assets," he says. In other words, build on your strengths.

Many people questioned the wisdom of locating a Canadian Music Hall of Fame on Hamilton's waterfront recently. 'What does Hamilton care about pop music?' they wondered.

For myself I have recently advocated the creation of a Steel museum in Hamilton, or at least a tour of some sort – what could be more Hamiltonian than that?

Urban revitalization is complex at the best of times, and it takes a multi-tiered approach. And any effort to implement a 'Big Fix' that fails to account for the town's unique attributes and values is almost certainly just going to replace one ailment for another.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 07, 2007 at 22:10:05

Great catch, Ben. I've been banging on for awhile on the dangers of megaproject thinking - the idea that people will come downtown if only we had the right big, iconic, landmark signature amenity. You know, like Hamilton Place or Jackson Square or the AGH or the Convention Centre or ...

The simple, unavoidable fact is that a downtown will thrive if it is genuinely what you have called a "people place": pedestrian friendly, safe, and attractive, with a wide variety of useful and interesting micro-destinations in close proximity (I mean hardware stores as well as hip cafes) and convenient transit.

The Project for Public Spaces actually trashed the Bilbao Guggenheim in its "Hall of Shame":

"A spectacularly beautiful and sculptural building, the Guggenheim Bilbao succeeds monumentally in its efforts as an iconic building, and has drawn much attention to the city of Bilbao. However, the project fails miserably as a public space, missing a significant opportunity to celebrate and support the cultural and community life that is pulsating throughout the city.

"Situated prominently on the waterfront near the center of Bilbao, the building interrupts the life of the city, and is an insult to pedestrians who would like to use the space for anything other than gawking at the building. Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the museum, appears afraid to support, or even acknowledge, human activity in and around his buildings. The museum may bring people to Bilbao, but it only degrades the civic and cultural life that makes people proud to live in the city."

(For some reason, images from the PPS website are not loading right now, but it's certainly worth visiting the site again to see just what they mean about the building's oppressiveness.)

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 07, 2007 at 23:10:23

great thoughts. Hamilton should be highlighting our steel industry and our fantastic natural surroundings.... think trees everwhere and public art: steel birds, waterfalls and 'green' fountains in parks and in front of public buildings...large steel panels in prominent locations. For one great example, check out the city's website for the drawings of the streetscape plans for King West between James and Bay. It really plays on our industrial heritage. Now if we could just get city council to do it and liven that crummy stretch of King.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted January 08, 2007 at 06:51:46

I saw ths article yesterday and made a point of showing it to my Hammer-discussion-mate Anthony, expecially noting the author and making a mental note of the get in touch with him.

Part of what ensued was a suggestion of a kind of 'coffee klatch' get together; myself, Anthony and another ex-Hammerite, with Jason, Ryan, Adrian, and you, Ben. To informally toss around some perceptions and ideas and maybe formulate some long-term initiatives on the advocacy front. I'll be in touch with all of you presently.

I am saddened by the recurring suggestion...of any suggestions regarding Hamiltons 'steel heritage'. Because for the life of me, I can't understand why there's this insistence to cling on to the past. Steel is Hamilton's history. Its HISTORY. Not its future. Whatever happens in the city over the next 25 years is not going to be the result of any sort of resurgence in this sector, nor does 'honouring' this vital aspect of our past have anything to do with creating a new vision of our city.

Right here on this page is a reference that actually has under it the notion of somehow entrenching the steel-making heritage or creating a museum about it... "I've been banging on for awhile on the dangers of megaproject thinking - the idea that people will come downtown if only we had the right big, iconic, landmark signature amenity. You know, like Hamilton Place or Jackson Square or the AGH or the Convention Centre or ...

The simple, unavoidable fact is that a downtown will thrive if it is genuinely what you have called a "people place": pedestrian friendly, safe, and attractive, with a wide variety of useful and interesting micro-destinations in close proximity (I mean hardware stores as well as hip cafes) and convenient transit."

Maybe it's a blindspot with me, but seriously: why do you (all) look to the past like this? There is only a certain amount of energy available for 'making things happen' in a visionary sense, and it doesn't matter whose vision it is we're talking about. Why expend any energy on ruminating over memorials or temples or museums...reflecting on the past...when what this city (and its people) need, is to have a new future created?

More anon.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 08, 2007 at 08:48:54

Hi schmadrian,

As always, plenty to think about in your post. However, hope you can help me understand one of your comments. You quoted me writing about creating a lively, functional 'people place' downtown and seemed to sugest that I was "look[ing] to the past ... ruminating over memorials or temples or museums".

Perhaps I misunderstood your reply, and perhaps I wasn't clear enough in my original post, but what I'm writing about is a healthy, functioning downtown - a relatively dense, eclectic collection of homes, businesses, amenities, parks, and meeting places that provide people with most of the stuff they need to function.

Many downtown 'revitalizations' these days focus on cafes and art studios, and those are great to have, but you can't use them to fill your fridge, fix a leaky faucet, do your laundry, replace a defective RAM board, buy an end table, borrow a book, take an evening class, put weatherstripping around the door, pick up some new underwear, find a job, and so on and so on.

These are the basic, day-to-day things that have mostly fled the downtown, forcing urban residents to own cars so they can drive out to the Meadowlands to get them and at least partly defeating the point of living downtown.

My point is that a vital downtown is not just a collection of tourist attractions and icons, but is a real, diverse economy where people can exchange what they have for what they need. That's "reflecting on the past" only in the sense that the basic needs of humans, and the basic system for matching resources with needs - i.e. the market augmented by a decent social policy - hasn't really changed in 8,000 years.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted January 08, 2007 at 09:02:47


Yes, I should have been more judicious in the way I quoted. Apologies. And I admit that waking up to this, in the face of having spent hours of this past weekend discussing with Anthony quite passionately so many issues about Hamilton, may have resulted in me going off half-cocked. (Or, to continue this theme, 'loaded for bear'.)

I was simply latching onto your first observation that nothing substantive is achieved by having more 'landmarks' built. A Steel Museum only works as a final touch. anything reverential only makes sense when the city has been built. (That's not thecase in Hamilton.) That's all I was getting at here. I agree with you entirely about the downtown. We're on the same page. There a scads of questions to be raised and points to be offered, but I won't clutter up this thread, I'll save them for the previously-mentioned get-together.

Again, I'm sorry for not being clear. Evidently, more caffeine is indicated.



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By jason (registered) | Posted January 08, 2007 at 12:14:36

you guys are both right. I think the ideas and articles presented on RTH show a very clear desire for Hamilton to jump into the future (or at least catch up to the present!) and develop a vibrant, livable city. Honouring our steel heritage comes from a desire for us to honour our history more. Instead of demolishing old buildings or pretending that we never had a booming steel industry, I think we should celebrate it. We were a very important city at a critical time in Western civilization. That is something to be proud of as we move forward and strive to once again become an important city leading the way for other Canadian cities in the future.

By the way, the coffee - meet up idea is great.

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By Joe (registered) | Posted January 09, 2007 at 21:41:15

It sounds like all ideas sound pretty good--look to the future with creative, new ideas, while celebrating our past and heritage. Hamilton already has character, we just need to sculpt it a bit to make it more tourist- and local-friendly. I take serious offense to anyone suggesting we hide or forget our steel heritage. By working in undesirable conditions at a steel factory for many years, my dad (among many others) was able to put food on the table and a roof over our head.

Though steel may no longer be Hamilton's primary economic engine, it's still an image that makes Hamilton unique from other Canadian cities. Steel structures and statues can be beautiful things.

A perfect example is the fountain in Gore park. I insisted to my wife that we take wedding our photos in front of it. Everyone thought I was crazy, but they turned out to be our best pics. People commented that it looked like we were married Europe (so I also agree with closing the south portion of King for more patios).

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By don't throw out the baby (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2007 at 17:10:33

In the context used by the author of the original article, the iconic structure is an advertisement, drawing people (tourists and otherwise) to the city where it was built.

It points to the importance of timing in advertising, especially when it is effective. If it succeeds in its purpose, drawing people to the "product" when the product is defective, the service bad, or in the case of an iconic building, without the rest of the community in a position to present accompanying diversions, visitors will be disappointed. The ad, or building, has done what it should do, attract people, but I've often seen conventioneers in Hamilton, for instance, wandering the streets trying to find something else going on that would entertain them- the day to day stuff that gives them a sense of life in this town. Are the restaurants and pubs, the museums, the galleries present, and open?

I see a similar thing on the James North Gallery strolls. The galleries are open and interesting, but I'm always surprised at how few other shops are open on James North on a Friday night, compared to such districts in other cities I've visited.

I'd hate to see the galleries close, or no longer run their strolls, because there wasn't the support from surrounding businesses (and some of those gaps do seem to be filling now.) I don't think we can call this initiative a failure either. But there does seem to be, still, a lack of co-ordination between various elements in the city- business, administration, political, arts, that make this the level of success it could and should be, for the broader community.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted January 12, 2007 at 13:34:59

Good points. I think the crux of Irritable Bilbao Syndrome is that cities think that the advertisement is ALL they need. As has been said on your post and other posts here, there are (at least) 2 problems with this:

  1. If the advertisement is generic or crap. If the draw is just not a good enough experience (I mean come on Sheffield - a Center of Popular Music?) or if it has no ties to the town's history or expertise, and
  2. If there is nothing else to anchor the town's tourist industry and keep people in town.

I recall a friend of mine telling me the story of his first visit to Hamilton. He went to the theatre, walked around for a bit afterwards, realized there was nowhere to go and went home. Oh, and he got lost in the one-way streets and vowed never to return (he hasn't).

Jane Jacobs talks a lot about mixed use neighbourhoods in Death and Life.... She cites the example of Manhatten island, down by Wall Street and the ferry to Statton Island. 'There are not enough tourist draws' she complains, explaining that people have no reason to hang around and little excuse to ever come back once their ferry trip is over.

That's why we advocate mixed uses for all neighbourhoods - especially tourist areas like the downtown, as well as good street planning - good streetwalls so people will keep walking, traffic calming, etc. For a tourist area if you have lots of draws for people, and mixed uses so we have residents, tourists, visitors all mingling for different purposes - then we get vibrancy, what real life is all about - people living their lives, creating communities, being together.

There are no Big Fixes to creating this kind of successful city - it's all about the dispate elements working together (Jane Jacob's, 'chaos'). I'm not against big draws, we just need to understand that this is merely one element in a big puzzle. And if the other peices don't fit, you have one almightly white elephant on your hands.



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