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Katherine Shonfield

Oh how we love an architectural panacea. It is actually quite sweet the way architects are so like kids: we inhabit a world where a spot of judiciously-applied building ointment can make everything disappear for ever.

The supreme example being globally flogged is the arts building, and among arts buildings the mother of them all, Bilbao's Guggenheim. How disconcerting, therefore, to hear the daddy of them all, the former mayor of Bilbao and museum commissioner, talk for 45 minutes about the magical renaissance of that city without mentioning it. OK, he ran out of time, and the Powerpoint presentation broke down. But do not switch off. All this ointment is but the superficial sign of longterm city therapy.

In the mid '80s Bilbao was just a place where the rivers ran, quite literally, bright red, with 40 per cent unemployment, strikes and ETA bombing campaigns.

Over a period of years the authority searched for the terms for regeneration - economic, social and aesthetic - through city-wide study forums.

Their conclusion: to get 65 per cent of new jobs from industries serving the public world. Their goal: a massive re-education and reskilling of the entire urban population. Their means: directed at the marginalised population - skills-targeted education, including building, plumbing, woodwork; a new business school; a new institute of bio technology; and a unique 'School of Second Opportunity'.

The driving force of the city's magnificent architecture is sewn into long-term economic and social strategy - the transformation of communications and public wealth necessary for a post industrial, newly democratic city.

The foundations of the unique Guggenheim were, and are, a unique philosophy. And as even the most childlike of architects know, without foundations, arts buildings, however inspiring, collapse.

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