Long gone are the days of Roman columns and decorative friezes; today’s museums have become an exercise in pushing the boundaries of structural engineering, favoring cutting-edge composition over ornamentation. Many of the world’s contemporary museums have become icons of their respective cities and regions, drawing tourists as much for their landmark architecture as the cultural relics they house.
Read on for a list of our favourite contemporary museums around the world.
Aga Khan Museum (Toronto, Canada)
Designed by Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki, this museum is dedicated to Islamic art, Iranian (Persian) art, and Muslim culture. Named for Aga Khan, a title used by the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis (a position currently held by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini), the museum contains artefacts of cultural, scientific, and artistic relevance in Muslim culture. Maki designed the museum as a celebration of light and the mysteries of its various qualities and effects, likening the structure to a “precious stone.”
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, United States)
Perhaps one of the most iconic museums in the world, this structure in the heart of Manhattan is one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s best known designs. Despite its present-day status as a New York landmark, the building’s construction was a contentious struggle between Wright and the city, its residents, and the art world. While Wright was vocal about his belief that the museum should not be built in New York, he settled for a location close to Central Park, believing this would offer a reprieve from the overcrowded city which he deemed to be lacking in architectural merit.
The Louvre (Paris, France)
The world’s largest museum, the Louvre is by no means new; the building itself was formerly a fortress constructed in the twelfth century, and it was converted to a museum that opened to the public in 1793. However, it makes our list of contemporary museums thanks to its new additions. Architect I.M. Pei was awarded a contract in 1983 for design of the relocation of France’s finance ministry to the Louvre. His pyramid structure and corresponding La Pyramide Inversee (Inverted Pyramid), a skylight constructed in the Carousel De Louvre Shopping Mall in front of the museum, have drawn visitors from around the world; by 2002, the museum’s attendance had more than doubled since the renovation’s completion.
Museum Of Islamic Art (Doha, Qatar)
Another project of I.M. Pei’s, the Museum of Islamic Art is located beside a 290,000 m2 park. Pei undertook this project at the age of 91 when he was coaxed out of retirement to do so. The building’s design is heavily influenced by Islamic architecture, featuring prayer rooms and ablution facilities for Muslim visitors. To avoid the encroachment of surrounding buildings, the structure was built on its own peninsula, which juts from the city’s waterfront promenade. Today the museum hosts Islamic art from the past 1,400 years.
Guggenheim Bilbao (Bilbao, Spain)
Designed by Canadian–American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Bilbao, like the Guggenheim in New York, belongs to the Solomon R. Guggenhim Foundation. While Gehry doesn’t identify his work as such, the building is considered to be a work in the style of Deconstructivism. In an article on Gary’s work in Vanity Fair, writer Matt Tyrnauer spoke of “the Bilbao effect” – that is, an economic revival that occurs in an otherwise declining region with the introduction of world class architecture. However, he points to a second Bilboa effect, one that he describes as “the rise of spectacle and showmanship in architecture in the wake of Gehry’s masterstroke.”
Niterói Contemporary Art (Niterói, Brazil)
This museum, infamous for its UFO shape, is positioned on a steep cliffside. The building was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in collaboration with structural engineer Bruno Contarini, and construction was completed in 1996. The museum has had a history of controversy, beginning with a land scandal and widely held criticism for Niemeyer’s design. Wrote Benjamin Schwarz in a retrospective piece for The Atlantic, “…Since the 1960s Niemeyer’s penchant for curves and, worse, flying-saucer shapes has gotten the better of him…Too many of his later buildings, such as the 1996 Museum of Contemporary Art in Niterói, smack of kitschy Futurama.” Love it or hate it, this museum is certainly a feat in modern engineering.
Museo Internacional Del Barroco (Puebla de Zaragoza, Mexico)
This museum, dedicated to Baroque art, was designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito. It opened to the public in February of 2016 after a long controversy, thanks to a hefty building cost of 7 billion pesos. However, that hasn’t stopped visitors from around the world who come to seek out its permanent exhibitions and admire its irregular shape. It is located at Linear Park and has a footprint of 18,000 square metres. The exterior also showcases a pool of swirling water, the movement of which echoes the undulating composition of the museum itself.