Let’s bring Frank Gehry to Canberra
Q: So what is Tony Trobe going to be banging on about today?
TT: Well I thought we could talk a little bit about the Bilbao effect.
Q: Sorry what’s that?
TT: It’s what Starchitects architects do?
Q: Sorry you lost me.
TT: Starchitects are the rock stars of architecture, talented celebrity architects jetted in to create iconic buildings.
Q: And Bilbao affect? It sounds like something that might happen to a hobbit?
TT: Not quite. Bilbao was until recently a sleepy mid-size city in northern Spain, coincidently with a population almost exactly the same as Canberra’s. The good burgers Bilbao decided to puff their chests out and reinvent their town by engaging a Starchitect.
Q: …and who was this Starchitect
TT: An American called Frank Gehry. In the early 1990s the Basque government coughed up $100M ($183m in today’s dollars) to build a spiffing building in Bilbao.
Q: So what did the Bilbaons come up with as a brief for Frank?
TT: In Frank Geary own words; “They said: ‘Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying.’ I looked at them and said: ‘Where’s the nearest exit? I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything.’” The Guardian newspaper gave the final result a good wrap describing the building as; ‘a convulsive, majestic, climactic assembly of titanium and stone, of heft and shimmer, a cross-breed of palazzo and ship that also flips its tail like a jumping fish”.
Q: So did it work?
TT: Did it ever, it now has an actual ‘effect’ named after it and revitalised little Bilbao received its 20 millionth visitor to the museum on its 20th birthday.
Q: So Sydney and Bilbao have done it, who else?
TT: A pat on the back is due for own little Hobart which has now crashed through from backwater to full hipsterhood. The gorgeous Mona museum really has transformed this city into a real cool little capital.
Q: How much did this cost?
TT: Well it was paid for by a sporting chap called David Walsh with a magnificent $75M philanthropic gesture in 2001. The population of Tassie is 211,000 so that works out at about $350 for each man woman and child on the Apple Isle.
Q: How much did the Opera house cost?
TT: In 1973 it was $102M which is about $833m in today’s dollars or $156 for each Sydneysider, not bad value!
Q: And the Bilbao effect for Canberra? Perhaps the light rail fills this slot? How much is that costing us?
TT: Well it was reported in the Canberra Times that the relevant figure is $939 million, which is the ‘net present cost of the entire 20-year project’. With our 357,000 population it works out at $2533 each.
Q: So how do you compare the light rail to these other iconic projects?
TT: Looking at the published construction costs of the various projects it looks like we could either have one light rail, or pro rata; five Bilbao museums, seven Monas, 16 Sydney Opera Houses or another 23 Arboretum buildings.
Q: Yikes isn’t $939M a lot of eggs in one basket with the Capital Metro?
TT: Yep, I may be spitting into the wind but there is a strong case that this iron horse will be swamped by the oncoming tsunami of autonomous vehicles in the near future. The venture has also arguably diverted funds from other worthy endeavours such as the ‘City to the Lake’ project which sought to rescue the moribund city centre by connecting it to our best asset, the lake. Dear Frank Gehry; perhaps don’t wait for our call; we have probably ‘done our dough’ for the time being.
Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.