aerial view of Kunsthaus Graz a modern building in Austria.
An aerial view of Kunsthaus Graz, a building located in southern Austria.Photo: Getty Images/Deymos

How Much Impact Do Starchitects Have on a City’s Economy

After Frank Gehry’s bold Guggenheim design helped turn around Bilbao's economy in Spain, researchers studied the effect star architecture had in other European cities to understand if a correlation exists

For years, the northern German city of Wolfsburg was known primarily for one thing: Volkswagen. The town of approximately 130,000 people sits adjacent to the automakers’ manufacturing plant, which meant nearly everything in the city orbited around a single industry. “Ask anybody in Germany about Wolfsburg, and they will tell you that there’s nothing else going on there other than Volkswagen,” says Nadia Alaily-Mattar, the chair of urban development at the Technical University of Munich. The thing is, Wolfsburg, like many mid-size cities, did have a lot more going on. People just didn’t know about it. So in the late 1990s, the city commissioned a pre-Pritzker Zaha Hadid to build the Phæno, an interactive science center, whose angular concrete facade stretches over downtown Wolfsburg. City officials figured a showy building could work wonders for Wolfsburg’s reputation, as it had in Bilbao, Spain, with Frank Gehry’s splashy, patchwork Guggenheim design. “The project was about building something that showed Wolfsburg as not just the city of Volkswagen but as a city with big projects and aspirations,” Alaily-Mattar says. “It was really a battle of symbolism between the city and the industrial giant.”

Alaily-Mattar and her colleague Alain Thierstein recently released a study in which they examined the effects of star architecture on three mid-size cities including Graz, Austria; Lucerne, Switzerland; and Wolfsburg. The researchers examined economic statistics, spoke to city officials and residents, and tallied visitors, to figure out if the alluring “Bilbao effect” was, in fact, an effect at all in these cities. The answer they found was slightly more complicated than a simple yes or no.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was designed by Frank Gehry in 1997.

Photo: Getty Images/Nito100

All three cities the researchers studied had different motivations when it came to investing in high-profile architecture. “When we started this research we had the hypothesis that cities wanted to do this because they wanted to tap into super-regional networks, which might attract tourism or attention,” she says. “We found out that each case study had its own story, so to speak.” While Wolfsburg was looking to revamp its public image in relation to an established industry, Graz commissioned Peter Cook and Colin Fournier to build the Kunsthaus art museum, to give the city a physical landmark in time for hosting the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2003. The other example in the study, the Jean Nouvel–designed Culture and Congress center in Lucerne, was built to host the city’s famed music festival.

The Jean Nouvel-design KKL Luzern (Culture and Convention Centre) in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Photo: Getty Images/Ingolf Pompe

Understanding why a city decides to build star architecture is key to evaluating how effective the buildings ultimately are. The researchers found that while the cities were originally motivated by economic factors—increasing tourism, spurring growth—what they ultimately got in return was harder to quantify. The architecture impacted the cities spatially by revitalizing neighborhoods and changing the way people moved through town. But Alaily-Mattar and Thierstein learned that high-profile architecture can also have intangible effects that were only discovered through conversations with citizens and city officials. Most said the new buildings changed the way they, as citizens, perceived their city. They felt proud and more confident, which ended up causing ripple effects on future development. “People become more courageous in tackling other big projects in town,” Alaily-Mattar says. “It’s not always about an economic competition between other cites; it’s also about how a city feels about itself.”

Located in Wolfsburg, Germany, the Phæno Science Center was designed by Zaha Hadid.

Photo: Getty Images/Querbeet

It’s perhaps an unsatisfying answer for people looking for a quick fix. But to Alaily-Mattar, the fabled Bilbao effect is just that—a fable. She believes the nuanced gains that the mid-size cities she studied have experienced are impactful and sustainable in a way that shiny architectural projects often lose after media attention fades. Architecture is a considerable investment; it’s a physical manifestation of a city’s ambition that will long outlast any media attention and tourism marketing campaigns. That’s why cities can’t approach it as a silver bullet for rehabbing their image or economies.

Alaily-Mattar says before a mid-size city invests millions in a big-name project, it needs to ask itself a few questions. The first being: Why do you want to build the project? “It’s important to have realistic expectations,” she says. “There are simply too many star architecture projects in the world—there’s a decreasing marginal utility, as economists would say.” Commissioning a big-name architect to design a fancy building in Omaha, Nebraska, might not bring in hordes of tourists, but then again, that’s only part of the benefit, Alaily-Mattar says. “You can’t underestimate the impact it can have on a city’s confidence.”