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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bilbao: Magnet of Art and Industry

BILBAO, Spain -- Can a single building bring a whole city back to life?

More precisely, can one modern building designed for an abandoned shipyard by a laid-back California architect breathe new economic and cultural life into a decaying industrial city in the Spanish rust belt?

It would be a tall order for an ordinary building, but the sprawling, curving, shimmering titanium structure that Frank Gehry designed for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is anything but that. Another architect even calls Gehry's new museum "the greatest building of our time." The Times of London says it is "the world's most exciting modern building."

And for Bilbao's debt-ridden government, which somehow scratched together $100 million to place a huge bet on this daring structure, it has been a smashing success.

In the 18 months since its debut, tourism has increased 28 percent - nearly all of it attributed to the Guggenheim - in Spain's Basque country, three Spanish provinces designated as a highly autonomous region. A study by the consulting firm KPMG found that the museum "in its first 12 months generated added value and wealth in the economy of the Basque country of more than $160 million" - enough to create 3,800 jobs. For cities around the world it has become the classic case study of economic revival based on culture.

"Normally, you couldn't say that a single building saved a city," said Josu Jon Imaz, commerce minister of the provincial government. "But this building - it's magic!"

Imaz said that the impact goes beyond tourism, never as important in the gritty cities of northern Spain as it is on the sunny Mediterranean shores.

"To attract industry, a region needs a transport infrastructure, good communications, an educated labor force. We always had that, but who knew? Today, our Guggenheim Museum gets companies to come here in the first place, and then they see what we have to offer."

The Basque government has hired other prominent architects to help reverse its battered image. A new subway system, new bridges and a new airport are also in the works.

But it is Bilbao's Guggenheim that gets the most attention and the most praise. A magnet for architects from around the world, Gehry's seemingly chaotic twisting sculpture of a building is one of the few museums where architecture students sketching the building outside outnumber art students sketching the paintings inside.Gehry's museum has some sections of honey-brown limestone and some of glass. But on top of these materials he has placed billowing metal canopies covered with a shell of thin titanium, which gleams silver, gold and blue as it reflects the river and the clear Spanish sky. For a pedestrian strolling toward the museum on Bilbao's Iparraguirre Street, it looks as if giants had a picnic on a limestone outcropping and left their crumbled aluminum foil behind.

Just to the east of the museum site, an ugly green highway bridge on battered concrete piers crosses the river, with huge trucks rumbling by 24 hours a day. The other two architects who bid for the commission planned to build large walls to block off this urban intrusion. But Gehry - whose seemingly ship-like design twists and sprawls all over the place anyway - incorporated the bridge into his building. The museum wraps under, over and around the bridge, so that those trucks now rumble directly above a giant gallery that displays, appropriately enough, the industrial-sized steel creations of the American sculptor Richard Serra.

One problem with a museum that ranks - as Bilbao's posters proudly proclaim - as un edificio espectacular is that the structure tends to overwhelm the art. Critics have said that paintings, even huge murals, tend to get lost in the vast arched galleries of white plaster and blue glass.

The most successful works of art in this large and unconventional space have been massive pieces designed specifically for Bilbao. The aura of play surrounding the project is accentuated by American artist Jeff Koons' 10-meter-tall sculpture of a puppy, completely covered in multicolored pansies, outside the front door. Fortunately, a plot by Basque nationalists to blow it up was foiled by police at the last minute.

The museum staff says visitors often express envy of Bilbao. "We had some people from Washington, D.C.," one staffer said. "They were complaining that the planning committee or the arts commission or whatever would never allow a building this unusual to be built on [their] mall.

"And I thought, 'Washington, D.C.! You have so much already! You don't need a building to gain a global profile.' But for Bilbao, this new building means new life for our city."