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Rafael Moneo

The Big Three museums star in Madrid

The 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain threatened to steal the thunder from Madrid's museums. Bilbao's whirling dervish of a building, a titanium-clad fantasy designed by Frank O. Gehry, zoomed instantly to the top of every art pilgrim's list.

But after you've seen the building, you've seen the building. It's unlikely that Americans would make the return trip for the contents, most of which are packaged shows sent from the Guggenheim in New York.

Madrid is another story. The collections in the museums around the Prado, oldest and proudest of them all, are spectacular and singular, whether your interest is in 17th-century painting, cutting-edge...