Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2014 (1053 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At the height of the summer tourism season in Bilbao, Spain, people who don't really care about modern art line up by the hundreds to get into a museum full of nothing but modern art.
The big attraction in the Basque Country's largest city is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a Frank Gehry-designed structure immediately hailed as one of the world's most important architectural works when it opened, on time and on budget, in 1997.
The Guggenheim is the best-known example of so-called destination architecture. Tourists from all over western Europe fly to Bilbao, a once-obscure industrial centre, simply to spend a few hours at the Guggenheim and maybe explore a bit of the rest of the town.
The Bilbao effect, which other cities have attempted to replicate, is particularly instructive for Winnipeg, another internationally obscure industrial centre.
Bilbao is Spain's 10th-largest city, with a metro-area population of about 950,000 and an unflattering nickname: el Boxto, or the Hole.
Winnipeg is Canada's eighth-largest city, with a metro population of about 782,000 and an equally unflattering nickname: Winterpeg, or if you prefer, Loserpeg.
Bilbao's mostly positive experience with the Guggenheim played a huge role in the creation of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is partly open after a decade-long gestation period and $351 million worth of construction.
The museum's backers see the institution as inspiring a debate about human rights. But the structure serves a much more basic function in Winnipeg's economy. The city is counting on the CMHR to convince more people passing through to stop and stay a while -- if not actually lure people into visiting just to see the glass-enclosed behemoth.
Unlike Bilbao, which is a short, cheap flight from Paris and Barcelona, Winnipeg isn't the easiest city to reach. Even more so than the Guggenheim, the CMHR needs a ton of publicity to place it on the international radar.
To date, those press clippings are only trickling in. There was a blurb in a New York Times travel blog in July, alerting readers to the museum's opening.
There was a longer piece in September in the Guardian, penned by London-based Gareth Davis, who visited Winnipeg in August as part of a travel conference and accurately noted the museum's troubled gestation.
"Questions were raised early on when it was decided to locate Canada's first new national museum in almost 50 years not in the national capital, Ottawa, but in Winnipeg, Manitoba, widely considered a city to pass through rather than linger," Davis wrote for his U.K. audience, noting the controversies surrounding the building's content, construction and delayed opening -- even as he lavished praise on the structure.
"One thing that is not in doubt is the success of the building itself. American architect Antoine Predock's signature statement in steel and glass rises out of the mid-western plains like a speared truffle, though his vision is of a mountain wrapped in a cloud of glass."
That's pretty much it for international press. Canadian coverage of the museum has been more extensive, but just as mixed.
"With so many exhibits closed, the 'Garden of Contemplation,' with its winding paths amid pools of water, seemed almost wasted, as visitors had seen so little to reflect on," the National Post's Joseph Brean wrote the weekend the museum tried to open.
The same weekend, Globe and Mail feature writer James Adams questioned the purpose of a human rights museum and the need for massive public institutions to create a multiplex-worthy spectacle.
The following weekend, Globe architecture critic Alex Bozikovic marvelled at the CMHR's construction but lamented the "lack of institutional vision" that gave Predock the freedom to design whatever he wanted.
The result, in his opinion, is "heavy-handed symbolism" and materials that make no sense in a Red River Valley context, such as Mongolian basalt and adobe more suitable to Predock's home of New Mexico.
Even worse, Bozikovic muses we got ripped off.
"It's hard to fathom that the museum, including its mere 47,000 square feet of gallery space, cost $351 million," he said. "Never in this country has so much money and such high ambitions achieved so little architecture."
Presumably, some of the cash has been spent on content. And we're going to see this content on Nov. 11.
It had better be impressive, because Winnipeg can't really count on Bilbao-like crowds of tourists who'll pay decent money to gawk at a building without really caring what's inside.