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Bilbao Emblematic Building

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Following years of social and economic distress, the city of Bilbao, one of the most important industrial centers in northern Spain, undertook an ambitious urban renewal program to reclaim the dying city from its toxic past. Beginning in the late 1980s, with help from leading international architects, plans were implemented to replace the active center-city port, shipyards, heavy freight and light railways with cultural institutions, educational facilities, parks, new commercial buildings, and housing. The singular success of the transformation is often characterized as the “Guggenheim Effect” for the impact of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum but, more accurately, it is not the result of a single building, but the coordinated activities of enlightened government initiatives in concert with diverse interested parties.

In early 1990 (by which time a site for the Guggenheim Museum had been selected, but no designs had been prepared), I.M. Pei was asked to envision a flagship development for the future city. He chose a prime site at the head of the Avenida Sabino Arana, one of the grand axes of Bilbao, just north of the Estatua del Sagrado Corazon monument, to anchor the redevelopment of a 170-acre area adjacent to downtown. Encouraged to think large, he proposed two identical 38-story prismatic towers as the literal and symbolic gateway to the new Bilbao. Pei had just completed the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and worked again with its structural engineer Leslie Robertson to further develop BOC’s innovative composite structural system. Here, the spatial dynamic is magnified by twin structures joined at a single node on the 32nd floor to create what Pei called “kissing towers.” The project includes retail and restaurant facilities, multi-purpose exhibition spaces, banking and recreational facilities in a park-like setting. The emblematic towers step down to the river and provide for arrival by boat, clearly demonstrating the environmental benefits of the to-be-cleaned blue waterway.

The project was intended to demonstrate the potential value of depressed riverside lands, which the government planned to sell for development in a coordinated program for moving forward. Pei’s demonstration project remained just that. Although well received, the mayor explained that a design competition would have to be staged as a necessary formality, and hoped the Emblematic Towers would be submitted for official consideration. Pei declined, explaining his policy not to participate in competitions, which he derided as “beauty contests.” The project went no further. Pei focused instead on some of the most important works of his career, including completion of the Louvre and commencement of Miho Museum in Japan.


View from river, rendering by Paul Stevenson Oles / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

While unexecuted, Bilbao’s emblematic towers did have an afterlife. The idea of developing the innovative structural system was revisited several years later for Sentra BDNI (also unexecuted). More recently, the scheme inspired the Bank of China Shanghai Free Trade Zone Commercial Tower, now under construction by Pei’s sons at PEI Architects.

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; C.C. Pei, L.C. Pei, Rossana Guttierez
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners