‘Starchitecture’ – good for boosting urban property values or sheer civic vanity?  


Museums, art galleries, and other cultural and civic projects have been used to bolster prestige for millennia. Indeed, the first ever museum popped up in Alexandria in Egypt as far back as the 3rd Century BC. In recent years, however, the desire for new and often eye-wateringly expensive civic architecture has become ever more irresistible. Much of this is down to what is known as the “Bilbao effect." In essence, it's the terrific economic effect a showpiece museum like the Guggenheim’s outpost in Bilbao, Spain, can have on a town. When it opened in 1997, visitor spending in the city jumped, recouping the building cost within three years. Five years after construction, the city estimated that its economic impact on the local economy was worth 168m Euros and poured an additional 27m Euros into Basque government tax coffers – the equivalent of adding 4,415 jobs. More than one million people annually now visit the museum, which became the centrepiece of the Bilbao Art District: a cluster composed of the maritime museum, the fine arts museum and the Sala Rekalde art centre.

Today, city planners around the globe continue to put their faith in showpiece architecture, but it's with often-variable results. The knock-on benefits may not be as immediate and obvious across the world as hopeful local governments think. The idea has been that such places are, fixed cost excepted, always going to be beneficial to the community. These showpieces can however drain their surrounds. The push-pull effect of them upon a city and a city upon them is complicated.

Asia has some fine great examples of successful civic architecture. In Singapore the new Indian Heritage Centre coming in at a staggering USD14.24m, is the latest in a succession of projects that includes The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, an acclaimed performing arts centre. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the M+ in Kowloon, a giant museum of visual culture due to open in 2019, is eagerly awaited.

Few cities command the accolade ‘great’ or even ‘liveable’ without a significant cultural presence. Successful cultural districts are therefore powerful policy tools. But they are supremely difficult to get right, and expensive and politically embarrassing to get wrong.

Possibly Adrian Ellis, a global thought leader in international arts and culture, had it right when he wrote: “A successful cultural district is not one that is built, but one that, once built, thrives and animates the city or region that it serves.” And with the “Bilbao effect” continuing to be a huge factor in thinking, the likelihood of more grandiose projects – successful or otherwise – is as set in stone as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the first purpose-built public museum in the world.

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