Ever since Frank Gehry's brilliant, titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum thrust the previously-overlooked Spanish city of Bilbao to the top of tourist destinations, cities around the world have been looking to emulate that success.
But nowhere else but in Britain have there been so many efforts to copy the Bilbao example. The idea is simple. Throw tens of millions of dollars at a glitzy, high-profile cultural project in a rundown area, make sure it has a dazzling architectural design and wait for the tourists and the real-estate developers to flood in. And presto, urban decay is yesterday's problem.
It's by definition a high-risk operation, which needs deep pockets to sustain it. In Britain, that money has been provided by the national lottery. Britain was late into the lottery game and instead of using the proceeds to fill the treasury, the previous Tory government decided to use it to back projects that otherwise wouldn't be funded. The Millennium was given as an excuse for much of the spending.
London got the Tate Modern, a breathtaking new museum housed in an abandoned power station, which is credited in reviving a large swath of the south bank of the Thames. But it also got the Dome, the architectural marvel that cost an unbelievable $1.8-billion, was a dud as an exposition and has been empty for three years now, still awaiting a purpose in life while it sucks away still more taxpayer money.
To see first-hand how the idea of culture as economic catalyst was working, my wife and I set off on a New Year visit to Newcastle in the English Northeast and to Liverpool, the historic port that was just named as Europe's Capital of Culture for 2008.
Both are cities that became synonymous with urban decline in the 1960s and 1970s and are bravely trying to re-invent themselves.
Newcastle seems to be off to a better start. The onetime industrial centre and hub of the coal industry-hence, bringing coal to Newcastle-has got a new bounce in its step thanks to two dramatic projects. First, there's the Baltic, a modern art gallery housed in the old Baltic Flour Mills grain silo on the Gateshead side of the River Tyne.
After being abandoned years ago, what was once a symbol of industrial decline is now a stylish beacon for Newcastle's future. The tall brick-faced structure's interior has been stripped while maintaining its elegant lines, creating beautiful gallery spaces on several levels and roof-top restaurant. The day we were there, the galleries were packed with locals and tourists viewing the daring sculptures and thought-provoking scroll paintings of American feminist artists Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero. The free admission was an extra inducement.
Outside, visitors braved the bracing winter weather to wander along the riverbank, try out a postage-stamp sized skating rink, but mainly to marvel at the Millennium Bridge, an engineering marvel that is also a joy to the eye. The arch-like structure tilts whenever a large vessel passes underneath in an effect compared to the blinking of the eye.
The arch also mirrors the shape of another old Tyne River bridge, neatly linking Newcastle's historic past with its present. The bridge cost 22-million pounds (about $40-million U.S.), a pretty steep price for a bridge that handles nothing but pedestrians, strollers and bicycles. Yet, while a cookie-cutter footbridge may have cost less, it would not have had anywhere near the same impact.
The combination of the museum and bridge seems to have done its magic. Behind the Baltic, there are attractive new condo apartment buildings under construction and alongside it, the Sage, a Norman Foster-designed performance and educational venue for music is nearing completion. On the Newcastle side, new office and commercial buildings are springing up alongside the brick and stone Victorian buildings which line the steep streets climbing away from the riverside.
We spent the night at the Malmaison, a boutique hotel overlooking the Millennium Bridge. Part of a chain of hotels, it has a French theme including a Paris-style brasserie and a breathy Parisian voice in the elevator announcing in French only, “Deuxième étage ” or “Rez-de-Chaussée.” Following the unexpected delights of Newcastle, we were hopeful about Liverpool. After all, it had beaten off Newcastle and 11 other British cities last summer to win the European Capital of Culture designation from a special jury named by Britain's culture ministry.
Best-known at the home of the Beatles and of Cherie Blair, wife of the prime minister, the panel noted that Liverpool had made “great progress in recent years” boasting that it had magnificent public architecture, a revived waterfront and some long-established museums, including the well-known Walker Gallery.
That sort of hype didn't prepare us for the urban devastation that has been visited on Liverpool in recent decades. True, lots of money has been spent on reviving the Albert Dock but instead of a dynamic waterfront venue, we were greeted by a near-empty series of warehouses where beefy bouncers stood guard at the few overpriced restaurants that were open. The dock was surrounded by a sea of parking lots and when we suggested to our waiter that we might want to walk back to our hotel, he said it would be safer to take a cab.
More seriously, much of the city centre still suffers from the kind of urban blight that afflicts U.S. cities, with row upon row of boarded-up housing, once-graceful buildings surrounded by rubbish and horrific post-war “urban renewal” schemes that have left the city crisscrossed by highways and streets that are a nightmare for pedestrians.
Part of Liverpool's problem seems to be that it was so rich and so important for so long, that it developed an urban infrastructure and a shrinking economic base can simply no longer sustain. The City of Liverpool expects the Capital of Culture to lead to more than $4-billion in investment and 14,000 new jobs. Pretty ambitious figures. But Liverpool can do with all the help it can get.