The Architectural Attraction: How Great Architecture Attracts Tourism
By John Poimiroo Principal, Poimiroo & Partners | August 03, 2010
It was late in the day in Switzerland and, when the phone rang, the only person in the office picked it up. He happened to be the world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. Calling his office was someone from the Northern California town of Redding (pop. 90,000) who hadn't considered the time difference. The caller explained to Calatrava that Redding was in search of an architect to design a footbridge and that Calatrava had been recommended as someone he should call. Despite his celebrity, Calatrava was not put off by the na"ive approach. Rather, it (and the prospect of placing one of his great bridges in a rural location that was virtually devoid of other structures) intrigued him. In 2004, Calatrava's soaring Sundial Bridge opened and was an immediate sensation. Suddenly, Redding was no longer a place to pass through on the way elsewhere. It was the destination.
Great architecture did this. It is a phenomenon that has been termed the Bilbao effect after the Basque borough of Bilbao opened a titanium-sheathed museum designed by Frank Gehry and became in an instant one of Spain's most visited attractions. In the year the Guggenheim Bilbao opened, it had 1.4 million visitors and in the ten years since, ten million have visited... proving the effect was no fluke. Redding experienced nowhere near Bilbao's visitation, though for Redding it was transformational none the less.
Both cities experienced a newly refined identity because of being associated with great architecture. Its hotel industries have also benefited. ilbao's tired tourism infrastructure has since changed from dreary to trendy. Likewise, Redding's hoteliers are in the process of establishing a district to beautify the street where many of Redding's largest hotels are located. And, Sundial Bridge has become an unofficial town square where Redding citizens meet, stroll the bridge's illuminated glass deck at night and show off to visiting relations.
That great architecture does this is not surprising. What is surprising is that analysts are so often skeptical of it. And yet, to read reports from those who questioned the sanity of the Guggenheim Bilbao or Sundial Bridge's costs, one has to wonder whether they ever considered how long man has been traveling in search of great edifices. No doubt Neolithic people were dazzled by the temple of Hagar Qim on Malta (reputedly the world's oldest structure) when it was completed... they had to see it, visit it and be in it.
Why, as early as 2,400 years ago, Herodotus and Callimachus of Cyrene had developed "must see" lists for travelers which we know today as "the seven wonders of the ancient world." And, their lists were compiled from various travel guides that had existed for years. So, let's once and for all put to bed the idea that exciting architecture doesn't pay. It does and in many tangible and intangible ways.
Within the past decade, many of the nation's leading museums and concert halls have hired starchitects the likes of Gehry, Calatrava, Libeskind, and Taniguchi to create singularly stunning structures that, like massive titanium magnets, attract visitors to them. So, too, hoteliers are renovating landmark buildings in major cities into new use as signature hotels. Branded destinations are exporting their architectural concepts abroad. Historic hotels have gained a following of passionate guests.