Reurbanization of the Nervión River Docks


© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.


Project by Juan Sádaba and José Luis Burgos


The goal of the project is to rediscover the defining characteristics of each area, what we would call the genus loci in western cultures or feng shui in eastern cultures. The project takes place along a narrow (8 meters) and long (600 meters) area next to the Nervión River that faces urban and social issues, among them a problematic relationship between vehicles and pedestrians, due to the limited width. However, it is also a symbolic area as it is one of the founding spaces of Bilbao. With sensitivity and respect towards its surroundings and a capacity to translate the memory of the context, the project aims to intervene minimally. With this premise, the design incorporates formal languages borrowed from architecture as well as urban sculpture and public intervention. The project also incorporates clear criteria to address functional problems. The concept of contemporary spatial intervention is changing. Static and unchanging elements belong to approaches from another period. Today, with the continuous movement of people in the city, urban interventions need to negotiate, interact, and change with the activities of the city. A decorative object is nothing more than an artistic corpse. The structural element of the project is evidently the Nervión River. Thus, the bridges become the organizing element of the area. In the project, we find three areas of intervention with shared criteria and different rules.


Balconies over the River

The balcony with corten steel structure and wood flooring cantilevers over the river where the space becomes narrow and uncomfortable. The balcony/walkway relates to the industrial culture of Bilbao without imitating it. The most industrial façade of Bilbao La Vieja can be found between the Merced Bridge and the pedestrian bridge of La Ribera. The new dock becomes a comfortable pedestrian bridge that pays respect to the industrial character of the area. The streetlights lean out to light the balcony, creating a continuous row of fluorescent lights that, in elevation, relate to the curve described by the edge of the wall. Both in plan and elevation, four rectangular planes form the balcony over the river. The wooden pavement folds and creates a dihedral angle that turns the river into the focal point. Being able to be very close to the river when it is swollen is quite an interesting experience. In the dock, the slope of the Conde de Mirasol Street has been extended. The wall that defines the expansion makes its presence, expressing its edge and retaining its orthogonal corners, without a handrail, more abstract. Under it, we find another hidden element in the benches, which conceal a message in Morse code: BLV (Bilbao La Vieja)


Seven Centuries

The basic rhythm is created by the projection of the seven historic streets that, when touching the Marzana Dock, define seven historic nodes, one per century. They establish a relationship between the passing of time and space. In the past, seven towers marked the entrance to the seven streets. Today, we remember them on the other side of the river, assigning a century of history of Bilbao to each one of them. An urban blackboard of asphalt creates a semantic island within the neutral stone pavement. It is on that black surface where texts appear. Each fragment, talking about Bilbao, represents one of the seven centuries. They are fragments of literature pushed into the background of the urban reality, with letters and rusty manhole covers living together with equal hierarchy. In the exact point where each of the projections of the seven streets meets, the dock is a square patch of pavement. These materials are subtly related with the text and the accompanying century but, above all, they are void microstages, small platforms where no one is present, but where you could find a sculpture or a speaker. A small light, similar to those found on a stage, strengthens the texture of the pavement at night. From the dock across the river and from the bridges, you can see a light for each of the centuries, like candles in honor of saints, placed in the dock and illuminating the river to make it a participant of the installation. A piece of each century remains alive. Over these patches of asphalt, a final element provides a vertical reference to the composition and variety to the path. The “Elemental” benches are pieces of reinforced concrete that function as pseudo-sculptures, urban benches, tall stands, and even loungers. The different relationships between the pieces become a metaphor for human relationships, sex, affection, and diversity. Finally, between the patches of asphalt, there is a sequence of streetlights in pairs. These streetlights, like the benches that accompany them, imposed by the need to provide formal continuity to the riverfront, are placed as if they were in a zarzuela stage. It is a tactic that removes their meaning, but provides urban flair.


The Walls

There is a height difference of eleven meters between the edge of the river and the city. It is a place from which to observe the river with its bridges and buildings. The project then is considered both from the perspective of the observer and the observed. The combination of those two factors is achieved through a clear and strong geometry. Establishing the spatial composition from the diagonal of the sloping street and the buttress of the nearby bridge, a series of interwoven ramps and stairs meets all the levels and complies with the universal design requirements. The expansion of the La Naja Street is resolved with a large red, clean, and clear wall. The covering of the concrete bunker that is the electricity substation providing current to the light rail is resolved with an equally strong green wall. These two walls are pinned into the amalgam of grey material, each one with its own texture and incorruptible linearity, each a clear shape bastardized with geometric games to unsettle the viewer. It’s a nice and carefully considered promenade, with its pivotal point located at the place of biggest compositional tension: the balcony lookout.



Previous state. © Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



Area 1. © Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



Area 1. © Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



Area 2. © Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.



© Courtesy of Juan Sádaba.


Facts and Figures

Authors: Juan Sádaba and José Luis Burgos.
Client: BILBAO Ría 2000.
Location: Bilbao La Vieja.
Years: 2000-2004.
Budget: 3 million euros.
Site Area: 8,200 m2.
Building Engineers: José Ramon de Azumendi and David Meléndez.
Contractor: Balzola.


Juan Sádaba is an architect, urban planner, and industrial designer. He understands design as a creative strategy to solve problems and create intelligent beauty. This approach can be applied to the different scales of design problems, trespassing the classical boundaries between disciplines. He is currently a part-time professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Juan is also the co-founder and CEO of Nerei Emotional Intelligent, a company focused on new strategies and designs for the urban space, design, and architecture. The company is part of the NER group.. | | @nereiEI

José Luis Burgos received his architectural degree from the School of Architecture in Madrid. As the Basque Government’s Deputy Ministry of Transport between 1987 and 1991, he was involved in key projects for the region such as Metro Bilbao, the expansion of the port, the new airport terminal, and the removal of the train tracks along the river. He has also worked on the revitalization of the Nervión river docks and has collaborated with Philippe Stark on the Azkuna Zentroa project. In 1980 he was awarded the Spanish National Urbanism Prize.

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