A tale of one city

What would you do for poor Bilbao? It's not inherently pretty, the economy stinks on ice, the weather isn't great, and - worst of all - the ETA separatist group wages a campaign of terrorism in the region. What the Basque authorities did was invite the Guggenheim Foundation to base part of its art collection in Bilbao. Then they commissioned the award-winning architect Frank Gehry to build a gallery for the art. The techno-wise Gehry subsequently stepped up and created what some people have called the Building of the 20th Century (or whatever the last one was called). In other words, to regain economic prosperity, build it and they - the money-wielding tourists - will come. And they did.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (www.guggenheim-bilbao.es) lies next to the grey River Nervión. Clad in limestone, glass and 0.5mm-thin titanium sheets, the exterior defies easy description. Commentators have called it an "architectural epiphany" and "a lunar lander in search of its moon", while the locals call it "the artichoke". On the inside, half the galleries are what you might call regular, box-like rooms; the remainder are fluid, soaring spaces. The Fish Gallery, a simply amazing space for displaying large-scale art, is free of columns and measures 30m wide and a staggering 130m long.

The 70 year-old Gehry has managed to realise his amorphous vision by using the CATIA computer-aided design system (www.catia.com) from Dassault Systèmes and a key offering of IBM's Engineering Solutions outfit. You're probably familiar with CAD software, but CATIA goes further by adding CAM (manufacturing), CAE (engineering) and lots of project management tools. Whether you are building lawnmowers or circuit boards, the aim is to allow a designer to take a project from concept to reality with the same software.

One example of its application is Boeing's 777, supposedly "the only 100 per cent digitally designed and assembled commercial jet". Yes, digitally assembled, because CATIA allowed full-scale pre-assembly of the entire plane, to identify and correct misalignments without having to build a single model.

The bonus for architecture is that the sort of shapes that can be modelled relatively easily in the studio can now be reproduced faithfully on a huge scale, almost regardless of how complicated and "untraditional" those shapes might be.

Indeed, the architects delivered the details of internal and external forms as CATIA files directly to the Spanish subcontractors.

And the results are spectacular. Rising from the floor of the museum's central atrium is a broad, sinuous pillar faced with limestone. It twists and bends its way upward to the third-floor level, where it becomes a balcony. Each piece of stone facing is different and abuts its neighbour perfectly; they have been laser-cut according to the precise dimensions specified in the CATIA model. As the museum's audio guide suggests, if this pillar had to be made using traditional masonry techniques, it would still be under construction.

So, did Guggenheim, CATIA, Gehry and his gallery save the day for Bilbao? Despite an ETA bomb attack at the Gallery's opening that killed a museum guard, people continue to flock to the place - 1.3 million people in the gallery's first 12 months. But a bright future is not at all assured: the ETA organisation ended its self-imposed ceasefire late last year, and the Basque people now wait to see if the bombs will return.

There are some things that even the considered combination of great art, computers and oodles of money can't fix.

As for Gehry, we'll certainly see more of his computer-aided architecture in the future. "In the past, there were many layers between my rough sketch and the final building, and the feeling of the design could get lost before it reached the craftsman," he has said.

"It feels like I've been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. In this case, the computer is not dehumanising; it's an interpreter."

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