If the Bilbao Effect is a phenomenon that only describes one project, that may not be such a bad thing. There’s no question that the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao turned out the once-sleepy city of Bilbao, Spain, drawing art tourists by the thousands. The 1997 museum is both an architectural icon and a cultural touchstone, often cited as the most important cultural building of the last 15 years as well as the building that marked the rise of the starchitect.

Yet the Guggenheim transformed Bilbao both for better and for worse. In their significant 2003 study, The Globalized City: Economic Restructuring and Social Polarization in European Cities, scholars Frank Moulaert, Arantxa Rodriguez, and Erik Swyngedouw examined the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao as one of nine critical case studies. The report demonstrated the relationship between large-scale development projects and their unintended sociopolitical side effects—including social stratification, elitism, and exclusion.

More recent projects suggest that Frank Gehry, FAIA, is not a prescription that works for every city, even in terms of ticket sales. Betting on a Bilbao effect for Biloxi, Miss., the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art—an institution devoted to the work of artist George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi”—commissioned Gehry to build a new five-building campus. For reasons that fell in part outside Gehry’s control, project costs ballooned. Hurricane Katrina damaged the museum during its construction, as if to underscore the reason that insurance costs are so high for Gulf Coast art institutions. Protecting the galleries from the notorious high humidity further added to project costs. As of July 2011, a year after the museum’s opening and with a still-incomplete campus, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum admitted that it was facing steep financial hurdles.

Facing an economy that some observers are now describing as the Lesser Depression, cultural institutions looking to expand their footprint must tread carefully. The Bilbao effect seems like a vestige of a different economic and architectural era, and cultural institutions are now pursuing progressive designs to suit the changing strategies of the performing and plastic arts. New designs that adapt or reuse existing institutions in innovative ways also examine the ways that these cultural institutions interact with their host cities.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., put the cart in front of the horse with its Seasonal Inflatable Structure (referred to by everyone else as the Hirshhorn’s Bubble). The winner of a 2011 P/A Award for Cultural Projects, the Seasonal Inflatable Stucture by Diller Scofidio + Renfro seeks to extend the museum into the national social and political debates—realms of experience that modern and contemporary art museums don’t typically address through their buildings.

“Except for the museum’s one window, the Hirshhorn has turned a blind façade to the rest of the city,” says Erica Clark, the associate director for program partnerships at the Hirshhorn. “There’s something that Liz [Elizabeth Diller] said that we love: ‘The Hirshhorn is going to inhale the air of the National Mall.’ It’s going to breathe in but also give back out by virtue of the experience there.”

The Seasonal Inflatable Structure’s inflatable membrane complements Gordon Bunshaft’s original 1974 concrete-donut museum design, filling its center and encapsulating 14,000 square feet of space within the museum’s central courtyard and plaza. The space will provide a seasonal conference area and stage for Bubble-specific programming, which the museum describes as a new “cultural research think tank.”

“The raising of the structure is going to be an extremely festive occasion,” Clark says, likening its potential to that of the annual architectural pavilions erected by London’s Serpentine Gallery, which draw large and varied crowds.

The Seasonal Inflatable Structure physically and figuratively extends the museum’s mission into Washington itself. The first of three programs for its inaugural season, for example, will be a three-day international conference on cultural diplomacy, presented jointly with the Council on Foreign Relations. Another program, an “experiential public forum” called “Open Sources” reveals the self-referential potential for the Bubble as a transparent, permeable membrane.

Clark describes the event space as an “anti-auditorium,” one that does not privilege listener over speaker. “We have plenty of auditoriums in Washington,” she says. “This is never going to be strict rows of seating.”

Whereas Washington loves its public-policy chambers, San Antonio prides itself on its traditional spaces. One of those, the 1926 Municipal Auditorium, is undergoing a renovation that will reorient the theater. When the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opens in 2014, it will retain the building’s historic stone façade yet also open on to the River Walk.

“The formal stone façade [of the Municipal Auditorium] is oriented to face right into the urban street grid,” says Mark Reddington, FAIA, partner at LMN Architects. “On the back side, there’s a loading dock and blank walls. Then along came the River Walk. Now you have one amenity meeting a cultural landmark on its backside, and there’s no relationship between the two.”

Reddington says that LMN’s renovation will preserve 70 percent of the existing façade and associated arcades. But the existing core and auditorium will be demolished and replaced in the new 157,000-square-foot facility. The core elements are not partial to the original 1926 design; they were built after a fire gutted the auditorium in 1979.

The new performance hall is wrapped in a metallic veil, a counterpoint to the sturdy stone of the surrounding component. The surface quality of the punched metal veil will be lacy, airy, and porous, Reddington says.

“The historic stone façade is very powerful, and we did not want to preserve a thin façade,” he says, explaining that the renovation retains the public arcade spaces abutting the stone exterior. “The new piece [the veil] has a similar color, but the way the veil and the faÇade will take the light will be completely different.”

The most dramatic departure for the new Tobin Center may be its new face along the River Walk. LMN Architects introduced a studio theater space that overlooks the promenade, while a new lobby and River Walk Plaza will greet entrants directly. The tall profile of the performing arts core will also change the character of the Museum Reach portion of the River Walk.

For the performing arts stage itself, LMN Architects is planning a modular stage design, one that can transform between orchestra seating and smooth floor with the push of a button. This highly configurable, mechanical approach to the open theater is already in evidence elsewhere in Texas: the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.

Part of Dallas’s AT&T Performing Arts Center complex, the Wyly Theatre space can undergo any number of transformations within a season. “The idea of a self-obliterating theater, built in service to theater-design elements, is a reversal of several thousand years of theater architecture,” Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty says.

Designed by REX and OMA and built in 2009, the 80,300-square-foot theater is built around an open theater space that occupies the entire first floor. All of the theater’s amenities—including the lobby, costume shops, and administrative offices—are located on one of nine levels either above or below the first-floor stage. The stage is an adaptable space that can be transformed with the press of a button, mechanically shifting between proscenium, thrust, flat-floor, and alternative stage configurations in a matter of hours. Employing sports-stadium technology, balconies on three sides can be raised or lowered, depending on performance needs.

“The idea of a flexible space has certainly existed in the American theater for the last 50 years,” Moriarty says. “But that’s typically been done by assuming an open space and a team of carpenters to build the stage out. The challenge of that is that it’s incredibly expensive and very, very time consuming for each new performance.”

The Wyly Theatre replaces the Arts District Theatre, a beloved and highly configurable metal barn designed by preeminent stage designer Eugene Lee in 1984. REX and OMA maintained the older theater’s experimental legacy but built all of the capital costs for the Wyly Theatre’s adaptive stage into the project’s $354 million total.

“Rem [Koolhaas] and Joshua [Prince-Ramus] managed to remove that predetermination” between stage and performance, Moriarty says. And there’s nothing standing between the glass walls of the theater space and the city; the famous Dallas skyline could easily be featured as an element of a production.

While the Wyly Theatre can switch between a Broadway configuration and an Elizabethan production in a matter of hours, it’s unlikely to ever be mistaken for a traditional theater. “We’re asked one question often: How do I get into the building?”