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Why? It's home to the Guggenheim Bilbao, which contains works by late 20th century greats such as Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, as well as avant garde artists such as Britain's Gilbert and George. Just as big an attraction is the much-lauded museum building designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry. With its unearthly curves and titanium "fish-scale" surface, the Guggenheim has quickly become one of the most recognized buildings in the world.
Bilbao is just one example of how architecture can play as much a role in drawing visitors to museums as the art itself. And the trend shows no sign of abating, as cities from Denver to Abu Dhabi commission projects they hope will have the "wow" factor to grab the public's attention.
"It's not conceivable these days to have a major museum development without a distinctive design linked to it," says Magnus von Wistinghausen, an associate at arts-management firm AEA Consulting in London.
Of course, museums have been hiring big-name architects to create signature buildings for decades. Perhaps the most famous example is the original Guggenheim in New York, which was designed by legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1959, the year of his death.
The spiral building was poorly received at first by neighbors, who found it unsightly, and by art critics, who felt the architecture overwhelmed the art. But over time, Wright's final masterpiece has become a beloved icon (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/19/06, "From Reviled to Revered").
In the 1960s, architect Philip Johnson snagged one of his most important early commissions when he was asked to design the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth. A decade later in the same city, Louis Kahn made history with the vaulted Kimbell Art Museum.
As famous as these architects are now, they weren't necessarily household names in their day—nor were they marketed to the public as design celebrities. But the urban rebirth of the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with the growing visibility of top architects (think of I.M. Pei, Michael Graves, James Stirling, Norman Foster, etc.) made curators and arts funders realize the degree to which hot architecture could boost a museum's fortunes.
Perhaps no project drove the message home more clearly than the 1989 renovation of the Louvre by I.M. Pei. Though hugely controversial at the time, Pei's pyramid entrance and new atrium propelled the fusty Louvre into the present day and lit a rocket under attendance.
But while Pei's pyramids boosted an already popular destination, Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim almost single-handedly transformed a city. Since the museum opened eight years ago, some 8 million visitors have flocked to the formerly downtrodden industrial port on Spain's northern coast. More than half of the 965,000 visitors in 2005 were from abroad, and they pumped an average of $217 each into the local economy. Little wonder Bilbao is revamping its airport.
Hot design can have unintended consequences, however. Pei recently lamented to The Times of London that the main Louvre entryway is now so crowded that it's "beginning to look like an airport." Two-thirds of the museum's visitors insist on using the pyramid entrance instead of the two less crowded ones. The Louvre has now drafted Pei to rethink the structure and help it cope with a record 7.5 million annual visitors, almost double the number it had a decade ago.
Of course, even the most stunning architecture can't compensate for a ho-hum collection, notes von Wistinghausen. And as museums have increasingly become urban landmarks—not just homes for art—a wider swath of interest groups has gotten involved in design decisions. Whereas once curators and art experts called the shots, design committees may now include everybody from urban planners to politicians. That, some industry watchers say, can result in decisions that aren't always in the best interest of the art or the museum-goers.
Either way, the pull of museum architecture is beyond dispute. Britain's Tate Modern, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron from the shell of a disused power station, has proved so popular that the museum has just announced plans for an addition that will more than double its space.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE.
Around the world, Asian and Middle Eastern cities are tripping over each other to woo big-name firms in the hope they too, will get a little of that "Bilbao effect."
In the past, says von Wistinghausen, architecture "was the envelope designed for a function." Now, "architecture has become an integral part of the museum experience." And, he might have added, of how museums sell themselves.
Click here to see a slide show of historic and contemporary designer museums.