top of page
azkuna 1.jpg
azkuna 3.jpg
azkuna 4.png
azkuna 5.jpg
azkuna 6.jpg
azkuna 7.jpg
azkuna 8.jpg
azkuna 9.jpg
azkuna 10.jpg
azkuna 11.jpg
azkuna 12.jpg
azkuna 13.png
azkuna 14.png
azkuna 15.png
azkuna 16.png
azkuna 17.png


By Sam Rivers

During the 1800s, Bilbao shared in much of its country’s political turmoil. The Basque country had come under siege during the Napoleonic wars, and many battles were fought in this region. Despite this, Bilbao itself was never captured, allowing for relatively higher economic development. After surviving the French invasion, the Basque regions then became the centre of fierce fighting during the first and third Carlist wars. The Carlists keenly sought Bilbao, a liberal and economic bastion in Northern Spain. As the stem of the wars were rooted in an ideological battle between Isabelline liberalism and rural traditionalism, the liberal powerhouse of Bilbao was seen as quite a threat. 

​During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Bilbao flourished. Despite the warfare, it rose to become the economic capital of the Basque Country. Developments such as the Bilbao stock exchange, and the railway, found themselves established during this time. However, Bilbao’s key industry lay in steelmaking. Owing to the introduction of new factories, including Santa Ana de Bolueta and the Altos Hornos de Vizcaya in 1902, Bilbao was able to flourish.

Much like the Haussmannization of Paris, the city of Bilbao underwent a series of renovations and modernisations. New avenues were paved, along with utilitarian walkways. A fashionable city hall building (pictured below on the left) was erected. Most importantly for this essay, the Alhóndiga Bilbaorose from the ashes of an industrial city - this would later become the Azkuna Zentroa (pictured below on the right).

Alhóndiga Bilbao

​The municipal architect, Ricardo Bastida, was commissioned by the city of Bilbao to build this warehouse in 1905. It would be used to store and sell commercial items such as wine, oil, and corn. For over 60 years, this was a central part of the city’s commercial industry. Bilbao became a trading hub, owing to its situation at the mouth of the riverArno. On account of this, the Alhóndiga Bilbao became vital in sustaining the city’s economy. By the 1900s, Bilbao had become the biggest port in Spain.

The building was designed by Ricardo Bastida, a prodigy who had recently left University, brimming with ideas and keen for the expansion of Bilbao. At just twenty-two years of age, he entered the studio of architect Severino de Achucaro,who had authored the attempted expansion project in 1876. 

The city council, however, had observed the lack of ambition behind the previous expansion attempt, and so they held a competition to help and encourage new and innovative propositions. Bastida joined the competition in its early stages, and thus became a pivotal architect. To better complete the projects Bastida had been commissioned for, he travelled to various European cities such as Brussels and Paris.Returning with new and different ideas, he designed the most modernist buildings of his career: the Alhóndiga Municipal de Bilbao, the Lavaderos de la Alameda de San Mamés, the Calle Castaños, and in the disappeared cinema Olimpia. Bastidawent, throughout his life, on behalf of the town hall, to various centres in Europe and America. During his travels, he acquired an excellent appreciation for architecture of all kinds ranging from banks to hospitals. 

The opening of the Alhóndiga Municipal de Bilbao took place in 1909 and whilst there is not much on the interior of the original building, we see the façade which is still intact to this day as it has become a UNESCO protected site. The façade on the north side consists of 16 bays containing three-centred arches with three windows in each arch. The east side contains only twelve arches which don’t have the original windows. Two of these arches form the entrance, shown below right. The west side also has 16 arches although contains a three-arch entrance. The south side has almost 20 arches although the original windows are no longer in use instead larger glass windows have been added. The building also has an extra fifth side for the main entrance which is curving into the building with 4 open archways. The plan, as simple as it is, was designed to fit nicely into the recently widened streets of 20th century Bilbao. 

On the second floor Ricardo Bastida has made a brick colour to contrast the stone below. However, to link the two storeys, he has placed an oculus above each arch giving the building a feeling of symmetry. The façade is made up of individual modules each one the length of one arch. These modules repeat all the way down the façade of the building creating a real sense of harmony along the building. Furthermore, Bastida’selaborate façade design really draws in the eye as it is full of features, such as the ones listed on the right. The designs however, all link with one another; for example, how the decorated transom mimics the railings. Additionally, a heightened sense of symmetry is created by the windows all being in a line above each other.

The Reinvention of Azkuna Zentroa at the hands of Philippe Starck

​Known for his buildings, interiors, furnishings, and boatsPhillipe Starck, pictured on the right,was the architect chosen to head the redesigning of Azkuna Zentroa.Starck was not primarily an architect and in fact it was design and concept that interested him most. His first ventures into the world of architecture were indeed very against traditions and perhaps more focused on design than function. Nani Nani, 1989, pictured below clearly shows how Starck was not afraid to try new and different ideas. However, Starck is most famous for his hotel and restaurant designs. He designed hotels around the world including but not limited to the Royalton Hotel in New York or the Delano in Miami. Drawing on the prevailing styles, Starck is able to create a unique design that manages to fit in. 

We see Starck’s ingenuity on full display in the renovations of Azkuna Zentroa. Bastida’s building, although enjoying a short period of operation, fell into disrepair in the 1960’s as the economy of Bilbao began to shift away traditionally industrial practices like steelmaking. The French architectworked between 2001 and 2010 to create what is now the building as we know it. The protected façade forced Starck to think innovatively as the building could not exceed the height of the towers on the corners. Starck’s idea was to create three separate buildings inside suspended upon 43 columns that one could walk between. He wished to mimic the industrial aesthetic of the original building by making use of exposed brickwork and reinforced concrete. The modern plan is illustrated below, and you can clearly see the three unconnected buildings inside the old corn exchange. The roof links all these buildings and provides a large deck for visitors to sit up and view the city of Bilbao. 

​The interior of the building is what makes this place truly spectacular. Starck creates cavities of space which contrast the solid look of the buildings, giving the building a unique and modern urban interior. Together with his team of skilled craftsman Starck has been able to merge contemporary architecture with an old building, giving it new life. Furthermore, the building has been turned into an arts centre and now houses an impressive library with over 70,000 titles, a terrace, bars and restaurants, a cinema and exhibition space. Starck has well and truly brought this old, unused corn exchange back to life much in keeping with the other projects happening in Bilbao at this time. 

43 Columns

​Three buildings are seemingly impossibly held afloat by 43 unique columns designed by the Italian set designer Lorenzo Baraldi. Starck had a vision to turn the Atrium of Cultures into a cinematographic experience, so he turned to Baraldi. According to Baraldi the columns symbolise “the millions of columns and the infinity of cultures, architectures, wars and religions that have crossed mankind throughout history”. The columns are designed to be viewed in no specific order so that the viewer can, to some extent, create their own narrative. As you walk through you realise the impact that art and culture have in our everyday lives through the diversity of column designs. 

​The materials used are also designed to take you on a journey through the history of raw materials. It includesdesigns using the oldest materials such as wood, brick and bronze and more modern materials like cement and steel. Relatively unknown materials like lecce stone and terracotta were also used in the columns. This commission was as much a technical challenge as a design challenge, and it is a testament to the skill of the 120 craftsmen working on this project that it has been displayed at such a high level. It is not only a nod to traditional techniques and processes, but also it shows off the skill of modern craftsmen. An example of the difficulties endured is that the casings ranged from 700 kilos to 9,000 kilos for the largest marble ones. 

A Brief Modern History of Bilbao:: News
bottom of page