Madrid is having a makeover. The Pharaoh - as Madrid's visionary mayor is being called - is at work. Buildings are cloaked in screens, monuments shrouded in scaffolding. Streets have been dug up and routes diverted.
'Madrid is currently undertaking the greatest process of urban transformation in its history and one of the most ambitious in Europe,' boasted Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, mayor of Madrid, to reporters recently. Bear with me, he implores the grumbling Madrilenos - disturbed, dust-caked and detoured - it'll be all right on the night.
He's not the only one with bright new ideas. Alongside this official reinvention a design revolution is invigorating Madrid, as Spain's capital marks itself out with some
of Europe's most boldly stylish buildings and dazzling interior design. Fed up with looking a frump beside uber-chic Barcelona, Madrid is creating the post-modern sights to match its post-Franco liberation.
The Airport It begins as soon as you land at Barajas Airport. A freakishly long ribbed-steel warehouse glints in the sun. The plane taxis towards it; it must be the terminal. Once inside, all industrial impressions vanish as you stand in awe at an arrivals hall resembling a vast sculpture. An endless parade of angled red pylons soars up to a great wave-form roof coated with wooden slats, undulating into an impossibly far distance, counterpointed at floor level by shimmering steel travelators running to vanishing point. It is a mesmerising ensemble. You have to drag yourself away to passport control for fear of arrest for suspicious behaviour. When able to think, you twig that the colour scheme is a cool take on the Spanish national colours: primary red and yellow.
This stunner is T4, the new pride of Madrid, which - added to the three older terminals - has given Barajas the title of world's biggest airport by terminal area: about a square kilometre in total.
The Hotel 'Eso de los colores, no?' says the taxi driver when asked to go to Hotel Puerta America. Sure enough, this instant celebrity, born in 2005 beside the Avenida de America airport highway, glows in a rainbow of hues, its cladding segueing from purple to orange to green as we circle to find the entrance. Cunningly discreet by comparison, more like a garage door than a posh hotel portal, a steel shutter slides open and I'm in the planet's hippest hotel.
The Puerta America is a design phenomenon, each of its 13 floors conceived by a different designer of global renown: Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad, Sir Norman Foster and nine others each turned their hand to creating a unique style to characterise a whole floor. Because there is one showroom reserved for viewing on each floor anybody can go to see the whole gamut, which makes for one of the best freebies in Madrid and a must-do if you're interested in design.
A futuristic environment that keeps radically changing, the hotel is a creative wonderland in which the simple basics of bed, desk, chair and bathroom, plus corridors and lift lobby, are reinvented and remodelled by distinctive minds. On a guided tour, exhilarated and wildly disoriented, you begin to relate things to what you know - or saw in the movies. A Stanley Kubrick effect clicked in for me: the 2001 space station; the milk bar in A Clockwork Orange.
The abundance of moulded plastic and concealed lighting - soft white, ice blue, blood red - have a lot to do with this, especially in Hadid's design. It is soothing and hallucinatory; so surreally shaped are the walls, ceilings and fittings that you lose sense of distances and exist in a constantly morphing space. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, her rooms are the ones most in demand.
The crazy-walled corridors of the fourth floor (Plasma Studio) are like a stainless-steel version of a German expressionist movie; it's like trying to find your room in a 21st-century Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The warmest rooms, with their post-modern baroque style and bright colours (very Almodovar), are those of the Spanish designers Victorio & Lucchino.
The hotel touts itself as made of 'talent, inventiveness, madness, sanity - a real dream come true'. This is a marketing first: an understatement.
The Office Heading downtown from the north, at Plaza de Castilla, you approach a looming disaster. Huge office towers on each side are falling upon the boulevard. What bad timing! But wait, they're not moving; they're stuck at a crazy angle. Fifteen degrees of permanent leaning (it seems a lot more) make Madrid's most dramatic architectural statement: the Puerta de Europa (Europe Gate) towers.
The tipping twin towers, 120 metres tall (or is that 120 metres long?), sinisterly coated in black glass and boldly marked by crossed polished-steel beams, have justifiably become the chief symbol of the new Madrid. The principal architect was Philip Johnson, celebrated for an early classic of steel-and-glass high-rise architecture, the 1958 Seagram Building in New York. The chief occupants here are a bank (Caja Madrid) and a property developer (Realia), which are predictably averse to sightseers. The exterior views are the most mind-boggling anyway but, if you want to go inside and experience a new form of vertigo, flashing a fat wallet might do the trick.
The Museum Shrine to Spanish modern art, home of some of the finest works of Picasso, Dali, Miro and a hundred fellow modernistas, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia has a spectacular new extension by Nouvel. With a gigantic shiny red roof surfing on top and poking out over Ronda de Atocha boulevard (or is it a tongue soliciting the passing populace), the copious new wing gives the museum a dramatic frontage on the busy avenue, opposite Atocha train station.
Within, housing new exhibition space, an auditorium, a library, a restaurant and a large courtyard, the celebrated French architect presents his customary interplay of transparency, shadow and light, which is well suited to an art gallery. With this structure, Madrid joins the roster of cities with a modern art museum whose building may attract more admirers than its contents.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Madrid. Hotel Puerta America is in the eastern suburbs (41 Avenida de America; tel: 34 917 445 400; www.hotelpuertamerica.com). Hotel Urban is the hippest downtown hotel (34 Carrera de San Jeronimo; tel: 34 91 787 7770; www.hotelurban.com). Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is open on Mondays and from Wednesdays to Sundays (52 Calle Santa Isabel; tel: 34 91 774 1000; www.museoreinasofia.es).