Space-age technology, dramatic architecture, and good old-fashioned human ingenuity are transforming global villages into vanguards of the 21st century
Javier Pla

A grassy knoll beside the sleepy city of Santiago de Compostela seems an unlikely site for one of Spain's foremost architectural innovations. But there, in February, the American architect Peter Eisenman—known for his love of oblique lines and oblique theories—broke ground for the City of Culture of Galicia, a futuristic, $125 million complex of six buildings. The last in a trio of ultra-contemporary edifices along Spain's northern edge (including Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Rafael Moneo's Kursaal Center in San Sebastián), Eisenman's City of Culture encapsulates the ambitions of a medieval metropolis remaking itself for a global future.

In his New York office, Eisenman recently showed me models for the complex: two libraries, a history museum, a music theater, a center for new technologies, and administrative headquarters. The gently undulating, striated forms, to be clad in glass and stone, are based on Santiago's labyrinthine streets and arcaded alleys, which curve down to the city's main square, the Plaza del Obradoiro, and its great cathedral.

"When you invert it, the street plan of the old city resembles a scallop shell, the ancient symbol of Santiago," Eisenman told me. "We took that structure, put it up on the mountainside, laid a Cartesian grid over it, and warped it onto the site. We're taking the old, the sacred, and bringing it to the new, the secular."

Sacred and secular are an old couple in Santiago. This capital of Galicia, a province of Spain on the western tip of Europe, probably served as a pagan pilgrimage site long before a ninth-century hermit discovered the body of the apostle Saint James there. A holy city sprang up, where a half-million faithful soon began arriving each year via the Way of Saint James, a network of footpaths stretching across southern France and the Pyrenees. In 1994, Shirley MacLaine herself made the journey, dodging paparazzi and seeking revelation.

The Museum of Pilgrimage, which opened five years ago in a Gothic house, focuses on the cult of Saint James, but like much of Santiago it has another face. On a recent visit, I made my way upstairs where, beside sculptures of the saint, Christ, and the Virgin (who wear pilgrim's clothing out of empathy for their devotees' suffering), hung self-portraits by Zhang Yuan, a Chinese performance artist whom I'd last run into at a loft party in New York. "Zhang Yuan had to abandon his country, his family, and follow a path to arrive in New York, with many sacrifices and renunciations," the museum's director, Bieito Pérez Outeiriño, explained. "So he feels like a pilgrim, too."

The scallop may be the sacred emblem of Saint James—pilgrims pinned a shell to their cloaks upon arrival—but it's also a favorite food in the tapas bars that line the Rúa do Franco, popular spots for the 44,000 students (almost half the city's total population) who attend Santiago's 500-year-old university. The students' willingness to endure the vagaries of ancient plumbing helped keep the old city alive until EU funds contributed to a real renovation. Now they can no longer afford to live there.

So they inhabit the new city, an anonymous mass of hotels, shopping malls, and high-rises. Twice the size of the old, with 10 times the population, the new city also houses the workers who provide services for Santiago's ever-widening stream of tourists. There are pizzerias and Chinese restaurants, and traces of past political conflicts—Red Square is so named because of demonstrations that erupted in the last years of the Franco dictatorship. And there's a smattering of luxury, too. Famished pilgrims may dine on local nouvelle cuisine or clothe themselves at the chic boutiques of Galician designers Adolfo Dominguez and Purificación García.

Remote from the rest of Spain, Santiago is close to the idea of Europe. In recent years, Galicia's relative isolation from Madrid—reinforced by high mountains and a local dialect, Gallego—has fueled a fierce regional pride, modeled on that of the Basque country and Catalonia. Santiago was for centuries a center of cosmopolitan religious culture in a sea of underdevelopment. "Within Spain, our culture can only be understood as an island," said sociologist José Pérez Vilariño. "Santiago belongs more to a European tradition than a single country."

The City of Culture project was born from this combination of ardent regionalism and transnational aspirations. It is the brainchild of Manuel Fraga Iribarne, president of the governing Xunta of Galicia. His eight-year tenure has already seen the construction of two luminous, imposing buildings by Pritzker Prize-winner Álvaro Siza, housing the university's school of journalism and the Galician Center for Contemporary Art, on the edge of the old city. Iribarne was once minister of information under the Franco regime. But this is the new Spain; when he retires, his legacy will include these monuments to the free exchange of ideas. The City of Culture, with its state-of-the-art research center and cyborgian focus on emerging technologies, is the most expansive and inventive.

"The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a magnificent building, which everyone admires, but it belongs to the past century," said Jesús Pérez Varela, the Xunta's minister of culture. "We want our City of Culture to belong to the new millennium."