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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Bilbao wow wow

March 31st, 2019

Pedro sniffed the Renfrewshire air and prowled through the Basil Spence archways where within the cavernous interior a pack of black clad stray tutors haunched down on all fours. A horrible wail echoed through the airport bazaar, as Pedro raised himself up onto his hind legs and sucked in the rabid spirit of Dr J. Sam & Isa tore off vibrant coloured robes in deepest respect of the Stratharch sage as Pedro led the chant J.. J.. J.. J.. J. Or so I was told, as having missed the first day I traveled solo to deepest Basque to hitch up with Stratharch’s annual third year field trip.

I caught up with the pack as they rounded off day one wolfing into Chorizo hot dog Pintxos washed down with vast bowls of Rioja. Stories of fine architecture and food from the earlier walk through the Basque industrial capital ran deep into the pequena horas. Finally curled up in my basket for the night I fell into a deep sleep to be abruptly woken by Ayrshire Gordie ‘put on your best collar today the way is San Sebastian’. Dressed kind of like priests and resembling a cross stag party, we herded our flock onto the waiting coach and headed for San Sebastian.

Our drive was short but the destination was spectacular. The February sun warmed our backs as we strolled around la Concha Bay. Young Chris could not contain himself, running around in all directions yelping, look at that, look at this; a wiser Nick ran after him, you missed that, you missed this;  eventually Pedro’s patience broke as he whistled ‘away to me’ and the young pups rounded up the students towards a panting Pedro who pointing at the El Real Club Nautico by Joaquin Labayen (1929) barked the following description; ‘a modernist ship like gem hung over the the promenade like an architectural ark’. Dazzled by his verbosity we scrambled up the steep sided Monte Urgull to the Napoleonic stronghold of Castillo de la Mota with its strategic view of the harbour. We circled round the ramparts and gawped at the gigantic Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart) statue, better know as the Cristo de la Mota. Measuring 12 metres tall the huge Jesus stared down to Donastia, the old town, to which we tumbled and headed for the San Telmo museum.

San Sebastian is often described as a Giant Mastiff nestling into a rugged landscape, crashing cliffs and water are imbedded with artworks, the best of which created by the rival sculptors Chillada and Oteiza. This dynamic was not lost on the studio of Nieto Sobejano and their remodelling of San Telmo Museum (2011). Geometric forms emulate the rocks and ramparts forming a bond between rugged coast and shore. In love with the raw strength of the building, we drifted across the adjacent art deco Zurriola Bridge (1931), which straddles the Urumea River closest to its mouth, and gazed towards the Kurasaal Congress Centre by Raphael Moneo (1997), a big lump of a building which was shut. With no where to go the flock scattered until Pedro let out a high pitched whine sending out flankers to guide the flock to a waiting coach. Back in Bilbao we were met by intrepid Iberian writer Chip Landau and his ex pat tash who had joined the trip to pen a guide on unsustainable travel. Forced to walk we all set off towards Party Street (Golenkale), where the Basque underbelly gathered each evening, both students and tutors blended in with ease.

Ayrshire Gordie’s alarm cock crowed the next morning and we gathered for breakfast where Pedro with a giant register between his jaws, joked and jested with the students. All accounted for he barked (jaws full Pedro can speak through his ears, being a rare breed reared to communicate in marshy ground). The students laughed at Pedro’s jokes and wondered at his talking ears. Very proud of his itinerary, Pedro had cleverly left Frank Gehry’s masterpiece to last, we placed our ears next to his and listened to what he had to say; ‘the landscaping around the Rio Bilbao is astonishing (Javier Lopez Chollet, 2005), the Post Modern Artklass apartment block by Rob Krier (2011) is terrible and the Zubiarte shopping mall by Robert A M Stern (2004) even worse, while make your own mind up about the Universidad de Deusto Library by Raphael Moneo (2008) and I would listen to opinions on the Bizkaia Aretoa de la UPV-EHU by Alvaro Siza (2010). Each of these buildings acted as an hor de oeuvre  in anticipation of the grand entrée itself, the Guggenheim Museum by Senior Gehry & his Associates (1997).' We slathered outside waiting to enter this ultimate urban catalyst when with giant register in his jaws, Pedro froze and let out a low blood curdling growl.

Facing us stood a huge dog bedecked in glorious colourful flowers, wow gasped the students, wow. Cameras poised they moved towards the Jeff Koons creation while a green Pedro pounced deep into its midst. Ripping and tearing, the topiary creation was flung skywards transforming into a shower of beautiful petals which fell over tutors and students alike. Black garb transformed into a multi coloured festival and Pedro danced the troop into the museum. We lapped up the curvaceous interior and vowed never again to draw a straight line, never again to make a structure work, and never again to use materials in a sensible manner. With the sound of our own voices in our ears, we left in a dream and headed for Party Street to discover it shut on Sundays.

All dressed up with no where to go, we sat in our most loved Plaza while student detectives used digital smoke signals to discover the one and only bar in Bilbao which opened on the Sabbath. Falling under the underbelly our colours faded as we entered a heavy metal nirvana where a Basque Cruella De Ville served up local brew while eying up our coats. Etiquette agreed with the local zombies, we shoe gazed our last hours in Bilbao head bashing to Spanish hard rock while Pedro slowly revamped back into his lovable darker shade. We all patted his back and tickled his chin congratulating him on another already legendary trip.


Thanks to Peter Welsh for the incredible effort he puts in to make the Stratharch field trips such a success, thank you also to my fellow tutors for being tremendous company however the biggest thanks of all to the Stratharch third year students who are a credit to themselves and the University. Long live Dr J.

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