Fifty Shades of Titanium

Fifty Shades of Titanium

Fifty Shades of Titanium

Many architects have had the opportunity to create masterpieces that have become iconic landmarks and changed the urban landscape, but none have done so as much as Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad Guggenheim Bilbao.

Known as the Bilbao Effect, it has changed the fate of the town, transforming the sleepy former industrial city into a much-desired destination for high-end cultural tourism. But is it only the captivating light-effects of the glittery metallic structure, or is there more to Bilbao? Is the glamour still there, or have the multiple shades of its titanium cladding faded by time? I’m finding about it, almost 20 years after the museum opened its gates.

Star Chefs versus Starchitects

My original intention to visit Bilbao had been to see the building as an architect, a dream which never happened, now I’m visiting the town as a food writer to dig into the food culture of Bilbao, and enjoy a special dinner at Nerua, the museum’s award winning restaurant.

With a twist of fate, it was not my original profession to bring me to Bilbao, but it was gastronomy, my current occupation and obsession, which seems to fit well in the Zeitgeist of our times with the rise of gastronomy as world wide phenomenon.

When does a cook become a celebrity chef? Do all great cooks have to become celebrities? What about masters of single dishes, a kebab or baklava master in Turkey, an asadores master in Basque country, a pizza master in Italy. Who owns the stardom? Is it the celebrity chef or the un-named cook toiling in front of the wood-fired oven that deserves the most credit?

We all know secretly, but do not dare to say aloud that in our daily lives we opt for the latter, and go for the traditional comfort food. Just like we feel more connected to a country when we visit a typical old town with old buildings and a vibrant social life, in contrast to shopping oriented made-up modern quarters. But from now and then, we need a splurge, we need to feast our eyes and soul, and nothing is more thrilling than the excitement of the new, the modern, the unseen, and the untried. That is how progress is possible.
All around the world we travel for the sake of experience. My heart goes to anonymous builders of the past, not even recognized as architects, and to unnamed cooks and food vendors, but I must admit that in this world there is room to stardom, and they do act like comets sprinkling their stardust for others to follow.

Although Gehry himself despises the portmanteau term starchitect, there is such a phenomenon, and Gehry is not the only architect that brought stardom to Bilbao; there is an array of world-recognized architects that have their signatures on various structures of Bilbao, such as Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki, Frank Gehry, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, and Zaha Hadid, to name a few, and the town is still moving forward, with a huge development area yet to be constructed, planned by the late starchitect Zaha Hadid.

One can easily say, Bilbao is like textbook of various architectural styles and building types, not only of contemporary architecture, but a cornucopia of styles from Gothic to Art Deco, from Neoclassic to Art Nouveau.


Nerua at the Guggenheim celebrates the 20th anniversary of the museum with a series of special four-hand dinners with guest star chefs with the title Ongietorri, which simply means welcome. Visiting such a celebrated building is an excitement in itself, but savoring a tasting dinner by two star chefs, Josean Alija of Nerua and Ana Roš of Hiša Franko from Slovenia is a unique occasion; also an opportunity to think about notions of stardom and celebrity that keeps bugging my mind.

At a different scale, what Guggenheim has done to Bilbao. Ana Roš has done to Slovenian gastronomy scene. She has single headedly put Slovenia to the world map of gastronomy. However, it was not by top-end design work, on the contrary, it was a natural flowing process. She started by helping the family-owned restaurant of her husband’s parents, and started transforming the fate of the place by her dishes inspired from the seasonal produce of the land. Now Hiša Franko is a destination on its own and many people travel just for the food.

Josean Alija, the chef of Nerua, is another case, he is truly a Bilbao boy, with his innovative cuisine he tries to be the link between the past and the future of Basque cuisine, he is like the umbilical cord between tradition and modern. His cuisine and traditional food of Bilbao is worth another article of its own, but I have to note that a restaurant of such importance was not envisaged in the original planning, but was a later addition to the scheme. Apparently gastronomy was not considered as important as today 20 years ago. The space was created for Josean Alija, an efficient open kitchen and a small dining room with a single window overlooking the river Nervión, from which Josean picked the name Nerua that is the old name of the river in quest to connect with his hometown. The ambience is not a flashy one, it is simple yet classy, but has hints from the building such as the wavy ceiling panels that mimic the reflections of the river. The food is like the ambiance, simply pure and elegant.

I notice that, in my both two visits to Nerua, I unconsciously chose a chair facing outside to see the river and have a glimpse of Bilbao. The gentle sloping pedestrian bridge-like walkway between the river and the Guggenheim is constantly active, day and night, not only with enthusiastic tourists, but also with Bilbao people, strolling, jogging, and walking their dogs. No, the much-feared metal fatigue is not there, the titanium-clad building is still very much alive; it is embraced by the city. Apparently it was not only the “wow factor” that created the Bilbao Effect, but also the high “delight rating” of the building. I swirl my glass of white txakoli, the local Basque wine, and raise it to the reflections of Nervión River.

The city is ever evolving and living, the building is vibrant with its zillions of shades, and the food and wine is great. Long live Bilbao, I’m already in love with you. Thanks to chefs like Ana and Josean to bring gastronomy as an asset worth travelling for, and a final toast to you Bilbao Guggenheim; Zorionak as they say in Basque country: Happy birthday!

Aylin Öney Tan,