Euskalduna, from shipyard to Convention Centre

José María Menéndez

Over 100 years ago Bilbao was an industrial city with a powerful naval industry (shipyards and shipping lines). Throughout the 19th century the river port of Bilbao was in the very centre of the town and there were shipyards on the banks of the estuary for the repair of sailing boats and later steam ships.

In 1868, the company Diques Secos (Dry Docks) was created in Olabeaga, in a location of the then republic of Abando (integrated in the municipality of Bilbao in 1870) to meet the repairing needs of the local commercial sailing ships. However, the technological changes in the propulsion of ships soon made these docks obsolete.

The local naval construction took a step forward in 1888, when Astilleros del Nervión was founded in Sestao. These shipyards were created to build three armoured cruisers for the Spanish Navy, which had a short life, since all of them were sunk in the Cuban War in 1898.

At the end of the 19th century, Bilbao was living an extraordinary industrial impulse, based on mining, steel and navigation, which completely transformed the skyline of the town and its estuary.

A group of local businessmen, owners of a large part of the merchant fleet of Biscay, decided to stop buying second-hand boats from British shipowners and stop taking their ships to England for repairing, and create a local shipyard in order to repair and build ships in the Bilbao estuary, thus starting the modern civil naval construction in Biscay.

So, in 1900, the Euskalduna Ship Construction and Repair Company was created, promoted by Ramón de la Sota and Eduardo Aznar, in the lands abandoned by the old Dry Docks, in a very central strategic location. The existing facilities were expanded, refurbished and adapted with new workshops to manufacture boilers and other ship machinery.

The founders of Euskalduna Shipyards were also owners of the shipping line company Sota y Aznar, dedicated to the transport of ore iron and coal between Bilbao and Britain (Liverpool and Glasgow).

The first ship from Euskalduna was built for Altos Hornos de Vizcaya. From the Euskalduna shipyards came the first steam ships with steel hull built in the Basque Country.

In 1909 a new shipyard was created (la Naval de Sestao), a competitor for Euskalduna in the estuary.

In 1917 the ship Artagan Mendi, the first of the many ships built for the shipping company Sota and Aznar, was launched at the Euskalduna shipyards.

The first world war, with a neutral Spain, was a time of great benefits for the ship owners of Biscay, despite of losing many ships by German submarine attacks. Ramón de la Sota leased part of his fleet to the British Admiralty, for which he was later awarded the honorary title of knight (Sir Ramón de la Sota).

In the following decades the shipyards at the Bilbao estuary operated with ups and downs, undergoing cycle changes (expansion and bonanza, contraction and crisis), trying to diversify and being driven by protectionist laws. In the 30s Euskalduna had the capacity to meet the Spanish demand for the construction of modern merchant ships, but it was not competitive in the international market, with significant higher costs.

The Biscay heavy industries remained intact during the Spanish civil war, and in the 50s and 60s a new golden age arised in the shipyards at the Bilbao estuary. But this industry began its decline in the 70s, with a deep crisis (leaving of private capital) and a remarkable reconversion, due to the agreements for the entry of Spain in the European Union, to the reduction of public aids and to the need of adapting to compete with other European and Asian shipyards.

In 1969 Euskalduna was merged with la Naval de Sestao to create Astilleros Españoles (Spanish Shipyards), which in 2000, together with the public Company Bazán, became Grupo Izar and later Navantia.

In 1984 the closing of Euskalduna was announced. This unleashed a heavy rioting (disturbances and confrontations) by the workers of the shipyard, in which there were direct street confrontations with the police next to the bridge of Deusto, including a worker casualty, dead by heart attack. Finally, in 1988 the total closure of Euskalduna took place.

The dismantling and demolition of the shipyards in 1993 marked the end of an industrial era in Bilbao. The 90,000 m2 plot was included in the Abandoibarra plan for urban redevelopment, and the construction of a Congress Palace and the opera house was considered.

The Diputación Foral de Bizkaia (Provincial Council of Biscay) launched in 1994 an international tender for the design and construction of a Conference and Music Palace. This contest was won by the architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios. The building of the Euskalduna Palace, with a structure evoking the silhouette of a ship under construction, was inaugurated in 1999. Its main auditorium can accommodate over 2,000 people.

In 2003 the Euskalduna Palace was awarded by the AIPC (International Association of Conference Halls) as the best congress center in the world. In 2012 Euskalduna was expanded with more space for exhibitions and a new conference room with a capacity for more than 400 people. The Euskalduna Palace hosts many congresses every year, including the ISWA World Congress 2019, which will take place from October 7th to 9th, 2019.

The dry docks of the old Euskalduna shipyard are still conserved, attached to the Maritime Museum. One of the docks has its damper open, while the other has its damper closed and houses a collection of small boats. As an additional memory of the old Euskalduna shipyard, the pump house remains, with the machinery for the water drainage of the dams, and so does the Carola crane, built in the 50s, which at the time was the most powerful crane in Spain.

Very recently the closure of la Naval de Sestao -the shipyard that survived the old Euskalduna in 30 years, its historic rival and then merged- has taken place.

So, attendees at the ISWA World Congress 2019 in Bilbao will be able to recall the industrial past of Bilbao and the old Euskalduna shipyards from the modern building of the Euskalduna Palace and visit the heritage that remains (the docks, the Carola crane, etc.) in the Maritime Museum. A touch of nostalgia for 20th-century Bilbao during a world-reference Congress.

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