The World’s Most Dazzling Museum Architecture
Today’s museums often feature design that’s transformative. They are conceptual, shape-shifting, related to their environment, digitally conceived, often engineering marvels, with their own story to tell. They house impressive collections, yes, but astound just as much with their ingenious, breathtaking architecture.
The following 11 museum buildings, masterminded by the likes of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, dazzle most.
Guggenheim Bilbao - Bilbao, Spain
American architect Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Bilbao — daring, inspirational and one of the most influential buildings of our era. The now-iconic museum opened in a small town on the Basque coast in 1997 — more than 20 years ago, but it continues to surprise and delight. Its provocative, silvery titanium silhouette and random, out-of the-box shapes catch the light by day and night.
Inside the Guggenheim Bilbao
The Guggenheim’s interior is as wonderfully audacious as the exterior, a foil for its impressive contemporary collection. You may not like everything, but it’s hard not to be intrigued and engaged — Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko, sculptor Amish Kapoor and many more modern masters are represented. There are excellent temporary exhibitions as well.
Louvre Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates
It seems as though the Louvre could only ever be in Paris, yet the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi convinced the French that there could also be one in the heart of the Middle East. Undeterred by cost or skepticism, the sheikhs chose the tiny island of Saadiyat, commissioned award-winning architect Jean Nouvel and created a museum that takes your breath away.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, comprised of 55 buildings with multiple galleries, water features and walkways, is a serene world of light and shade. The dome is clad in a geometric lattice with random perforations that let rays of light pierce the carapace. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful.
Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Inside, the content spans eons and dynasties, chronologically exploring the connections between cultures. It starts with one of the oldest statues in history, a two-headed sculpture from Jordan, dated 6500 BC, but there is something for everyone — Egyptian mummies, Middle Eastern calligraphy, Asian carvings, Japanese screens, and works by van Gogh, Picasso and other luminaries. A guided tour leads you to key pieces as well as to less-highlighted treasures.
Soumaya Museum - Mexico City
Thousands of hexagonal aluminum tiles ripple like an animal’s scales across the surface of this museum, reflecting the ever-changing light in Mexico City’s Polanco district. This modern-day pyramid with its voluptuous contours is the vision of one of the world’s wealthiest men, Carlos Slim, and designed by famed architect Fernando Romero. The museum opened in 2011.
Inside the Soumaya Museum
Soumaya’s minimalist interior holds around 66,000 exhibits spread across six levels. Artworks range from Renaissance and Old Master paintings to monumental sculptures by Rodin, plus work by Matisse, van Gogh and Mexico’s celebrated muralist, Diego Rivera. The Soumaya is named in honor of Slim’s wife.
National Museum of Qatar - Doha
As Middle Eastern capitals have accelerated into the 21st century, their buildings have shot skyward in the form of ever-higher towers. But in this new Doha museum, which opened in March 2019, the architecture stays low to the ground, calling to mind the circular shapes of whirling dervishes.
French architect Jean Nouvel was inspired by “the crystalline forms” of the local desert rose, though from the air, the museum more closely resembles a space station. The complex sprawls for more than a kilometer opposite Doha’s coastal road, the Corniche, and includes the historic, fully restored Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani.
Inside the National Museum of Qatar
Billed as “the people’s museum,” the complex celebrates the country’s history and tradition. Learn about the traditional hand-built wooden dhow, a boat that enabled fishing and trade, as well as local customs, the region’s pearling history and the area’s indigenous plants.
International Museum of the Baroque - Puebla, Mexico
Puebla’s historic center features extravagantly ornamented Baroque architecture from the 1600s and 1700s, but the city’s museum dedicated to this style is masterfully understated. The startling exterior is a rhythmic play of white overlapping walls, which look like curling sheets of paper. In fact, they are made of heavy-cast concrete built to withstand an earthquake. The building, designed by Japanese architect Toyoo Ito, opened in 2017.
Inside the International Museum of the Baroque
Inside, the bold atrium, sweeping staircase and spectacular courtyard are exhibits in themselves. The collection’s theatrical display captures the high drama of the Baroque in painting, sculpture, architecture, music and more. There are myriad interactive exhibits and guided tours, plus regular international exhibitions.
Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) - Dundee, Scotland
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma was inspired by the cliffs of northeastern Scotland when designing Dundee’s new V&A Museum, but the building looks less organic and more like a cross between a fortress and a mighty ship on the banks of the River Tay.
This is not just a venue for a collection of art — the architecture tells its own story. One part of the building evokes a prow, part of a ship’s bow, a reminder of Dundee’s shipbuilding history. And the imposing scale of the building signals the importance of art and culture in this once gritty neighborhood.
Inside the V&A
Scotland’s first design museum, the V&A Dundee showcases Scottish design in particular, both in permanent and temporary exhibitions, with many pieces from the V&A London on display. The Scottish Design Galleries have some terrific treasures, including a sparkling, winged tiara with thousands of diamonds, inspired by the helmets worn by heroines in Wagner operas.
There’s also the fully restored Oak Room, a beautifully paneled space by Scotland’s most famous designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Fondation Louis Vuitton Museum - Paris
“It is a vessel, a fish, a sailing boat, a cloud,” Frédéric Migayrou, architecture curator at the Pompidou Centre, told “The Guardian” when describing architect Frank Gehry’s design of the Fondation Louis Vuitton Museum.
It appears to be a mass of curling and shifting planes, of glass panels, intricate steel and timber struts. It looks as if it’s opening up — or then again, maybe it‘s closing down. This privately funded museum, opened in 2006, is in Paris’s famed Bois de Boulogne. In a city overflowing with museums, its startling profile is dazzling, unique and memorable.
Inside the Fondation Louis Vuitton Museum
The Fondation Louis Vuitton museum houses the collection of Bernard Arnault, reputedly France’s wealthiest man (who happens to own Louis Vuitton, Moet and a few other extravagant things). The constantly evolving permanent collection is divided into Contemplative, Pop, Expressionist, Music & Sound. There are also top-notch temporary exhibitions.
Heydar Aliyev Center - Baku, Azerbaijan
Baku’s cultural center appears to hover, its profile unexpectedly fluid — it swoops and curves, rising and falling, revealing its multistoried interior through walls of glass. It’s hard to imagine anything further from the rigid blandness of Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era architecture. This is cutting-edge design and engineering but with classical references — the wave-like shell is said to echo Islamic calligraphy and traditional Azari building forms. One would expect no less from the architectural firm of the brilliant Zaha Hadid, which designed the center in 2013.
Inside the Heydar Aliyev Center
The Heydar Aliyev Center contains exhibition spaces, a library and a museum, all linked beneath the curving roofline. The dramatic exterior arcs are carried through to the interior, where voluminous white spaces, flowing from one level to another, are linked by bridges and flooded with light.
The museum, on three levels, traces the history and culture of Baku and Azerbaijan. The 1,000-seat auditorium, with its warmly colored, backlit oak panels, is another design masterstroke.
Museum of Tomorrow - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Museum of Tomorrow, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, dramatically cantilevers across Rio’s Guanabara Bay. A reflection pool around the museum creates the impression the museum is floating. It is notable for its sustainable design; solar panels supply power, while water from the bay regulates the internal temperature of the building and also supplies water for the reflecting pools.
Inside the Museum of Tomorrow
Exhibitions focus on sustainability and the future (so close it’s “tomorrow”) and ideas are more important than objects. The museum takes a surprisingly realistic view of the future, more concerned with how we manage today than with how we hurtle ourselves into the coming decades.
Oscar Niemeyer Museum - Curitiba, Brazil
Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s visionary design style put him at the forefront of modernist architecture. At age 95, he remained innovative, designing the sci-fi looking annex to this museum in regional Curitiba in 2002. The sculptural annex balances on a bold yellow-tiled plinth and is reached by a sinuous, moat-like ramp.
Inside the Oscar Niemeyer Museum
Most of the exhibits are in the adjoining modernist building, designed by Niemeyer in 1967, which forms a well-balanced backdrop to the annex’s distinctive sculptural form. The focus of the collection is on art, architecture and design, with changing exhibitions and events.
Prince Felipe Science Museum - Valencia, Spain
Valencia architect Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic Science Museum (opened in 2000) is part of the city’s cluster of startling, white, space-age-looking buildings in Valencia’s Arts and Science cultural complex. The Science Museum’s profile fuses engineering and design skills, with an awesome “exoskeleton” that evokes dinosaur vertebrae or a whale skeleton. Perfect for a science museum!
Inside the Prince Felipe Science Museum
Like its modern exterior, this museum takes a contemporary approach with its collection. It’s very much experiential — all about interactive exhibits, immersive audiovisuals, giant graphics and learning by exploring.