In 1997, architect Frank Gehry completed a structure that would change the history of contemporary architecture forever. In Bilbao, Spain, a place with a then population of 359,000, where even the most frequent world traveler likely had never visited, he built the first international branch of the Guggenheim Museum. It made the city an overnight sensation for the architectural pilgrim—and the art aficionado—and set Gehry up with a signature style that he has repeatedly used in projects across the world over the last 25 years.
Architecture critics and the public alike praised the Guggenheim Bilbao’s sail-like, light-bouncing facade of undulating titanium sheets, grounded by beige limestone slabs from a nearby Granada quarry. The same year it opened, The New York Times Magazine called it a “miracle.” And indeed it was, for this low profile town in Basque Country quickly became a global cultural hub thanks to a commanding building and the collection it holds. The architecture was so successful, it kicked off an industry trend of its own, dubbed the “Bilbao effect”—the idea that a statement structure can demand enough attention to raise the social and economic profile of a city.
The Bilbao effect is every architectural client’s marketing dream: a design so good, it pays you back. And, in the subsequent years, some even asked Gehry to recreate his exact structure in other post-industrial towns. His firm was not the only one to field such requests. Standout projects by a budding group of “starchitects”—a selection of global architects (Gehry included) whose stylized designs made them household names—have since popped up all over the globe, in cities both large and small. Some, like Moshe Safdie’s 2010 Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore, are highly successful; others, like designer Thomas Heatherwick’s 2019 Vessel in New York are not. (The Vessel closed down in 2021 after multiple suicides occured on the structure.)