The 25 Best Museum Buildings of the Past 100 Years
What makes a great museum? It’s about more than just the art inside its walls—it’s also those walls themselves, which are meant to work in service of what’s on view. As many architects have realized over the years, museum buildings can, if anything, function like artworks themselves, as objects for appreciation. In some cases, these buildings have become just as identifiable as the masterpieces in museums’ collections.
This list collects some of the most important museum buildings of the past 100 years. It includes influential modernist experiments and polarizing postmodern expansions, architectural oddities and beloved additions, circular museums and glassed-in pyramids. These structures proposed strange, new possibilities for how a museum ought to look—and, in some cases, changed the cultural landscape altogether. In the past few decades alone, spurred by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, there’s been a museum boom that caused architects to push their practices in new directions, and while the momentum of that boom has died down, its energy lives on.
From a space resembling a hovering spaceship to an institution shaped like an unrolled carpet, these are the 25 best museums since 1922.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum in Baku had been housed in a 15th-century mosque and a monolith since its founding in the 1960s before it got a so-bad-it’s-great building shaped like—wait for it—a partially unrolled carpet in 2014. Designed by Franz Janz, the building was opened four years after UNESCO added the age-old tradition of Azerbaijani carpet weaving to its “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” The museum was opened amid an architectural boom in Baku, where Zaha Hadid had opened her acclaimed Heydar Aliyev Center in 2012. That building and the Carpet Museum would become crucial in bringing postmodern statement structures to a city host to lots of Soviet-style architecture. Tasked with building a new home for the museum’s 10,000-piece collection, Janz took the assignment literally and offered up a structure that looks not entirely unlike the textiles on offer at the museum. In the international press, Janz was criticized not just for the look of his building—Curbed wrote that it was “somewhere between delightful and terrible”—but also for consorting with Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, who has been widely accused of corruption and human rights violations.
Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at University of California, Davis
This sun-filled museum was designed by the up-and-coming New York firm SO-IL, spearheaded by Dutch architect and Harvard professor Florian Idenburg and also responsible for the newly opened Amant Foundation in Brooklyn. The building’s main focal point is an undulating canopy comprising grids of stretched aluminum beams that cascades over the roof and also shades some outdoor spaces. The firm, who collaborated with a local team, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, sees this design as “open and permeable,” and says the canopy’s pattern was inspired by the fields of agriculture that surround the northern California campus. It also helps offset the intense sun and heat that the largely transparent building would otherwise be pummeled with. The corrugated facade also boasts a smooth zones intended to host projections for outdoor screening.
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art
Thomas Heatherwick’s tendency toward monumentality has occasionally been his undoing—look no further for proof than New York’s Vessel, which has been viewed as an eyesore and a potential danger to public health. But with his Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, he struck all the right chords, transforming a disused grain silo in Cape Town that once ranked among Africa’s tallest buildings into a gleaming art space. Founded by former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz and opened in 2017, Zeitz MOCAA was built by Heatherwick Studio as an homage to the silos and the corn they once contained. Heatherwick even digitally analyzed a piece of corn once held there and based the resulting building on its form. “My one regret is that we couldn’t have cut out that grain of corn and put it next to the museum on the square,” Heatherwick told Architectural Digest at the time. The museum has bulging windows meant to recall how densely packed in all that corn was, as well as ovular forms inside resembling cell walls. At its heart, sandwiched between two structures that host galleries, is a light-filled atrium adorned with otherworldly sloping forms that combine to create a cathedral-like space.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
This campus, which opened in 2004 in the Japanese city of Kanazawa, on the western coast of Honshu, is designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishikawa Architects and Associates). For their design, SANAA rather literally fitted squares into a circle. A dozen or so rectangular rooms—galleries, a library, a lecture hall—are united under one round roof. Sinuous, translucent hallways have become the firm’s signature, and here, the wall encircling the building’s perimeter is glass, giving it an airy feeling. Using both the surrounding windows as well as skylights, for this building, SANAA thoughtfully tunnels—and elsewhere blocks out—natural light, based on the particular needs of a given room.
Odunpazari Modern Art Museum
Located in the Turkish university town of Eskisehir and opened in 2019, the Odunpazari Modern Art Museum is home to Erol Tabanca’s collection of Turkish modern art, and also hosts temporary exhibitions. Borrowing from local traditional wooden Ottoman houses—Odunpazari means “wood market,” and is also the name of the region where the institution is sited—the design by Kengo Kuma & Associates looks akin to an elegant log cabin, with interlocking boxy structures composed of stacked laminated blonde timber beams that feature Lincoln Log–like slits. (The Japanese architectural firm is known for using timber in sleek, rather than rugged, ways.) For this project, the firm wanted to recreate the urban experience unique to those Ottoman houses, whose cantilevered windows on upper stories—at times positioned at unlikely angles—playfully hover overhead. The architects said they wanted “to continue the streetscape and recreate the non-linear journey of visiting the inside of the museum.” Inside, you might find interlocking beams hovering above your head and opening up to a skylight, or notice a boxy shape twisting ever so gently.
The Museo Tamayo in Mexico City implodes the boundaries between natural and manmade, old and new. To conceive this institution host to artist Rufino Tamayo’s collection, Teodoro González de León and Abraham Zabludovsky looked to the pioneering designs of people like Frank Lloyd Wright and I. M. Pei while also taking into account modes native to their home country. The blocky building they ended up making opened in 1981, and is situated in the Chapultepec Forest. Elements of it, including its exterior, are shaped in such a way that they recall the stepped pyramids of the Aztecs. Inside, manmade illumination mingles with sunlight. In the museum’s famed atrium, viewers can descend into a recessed portion of the floor where sculptures are on view; slats in the heavy concrete ceiling allow daylight to pour in. Though initially regarded by some as a building too aestheticized to be a museum, the Museo Tamayo has now been embraced by the Mexican art scene. It’s a shining example of the way that architects can synthesize foreign styles with ones from home to offer a gift to their respective communities.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
At one point in its planning, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was supposed to open alongside arts spaces in Dubai designed by Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid. As of 2022, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the only one of those glamorous, expensive institutions in operation. Inaugurated in 2017, the museum was designed by Jean Nouvel, and features a gigantic steel dome whose crisscrossing elements let in sunlight and speckle it around the museum’s campus. Composed of 55 individual structures and situated on its very own island, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was conceived by Nouvel during a lunch conversation in the early 2000s with Thomas Krens, formerly the director of the Guggenheim Museum, and is intended to allude to traditional Middle Eastern architecture. Part of a $1.3 billion deal between the French and Emirati governments, the Louvre Abu Dhabi was periodically plagued by controversy over alleged non-payment of construction workers who helped build Nouvel’s structure. Still, it has emerged as a major attraction in the years since, with crowds coming in droves during its first year.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Tai-Soo Kim, the architect behind the National Museum of Modern Art and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, South Korea, often looked to the landscape around him when designing his structures. Located not far from Seoul, this institution was South Korea’s first modern art museum. To create it, Kim drew on the Cheonggyesan Mountain, using pink granite found there as the basis for the institution. Opened in 1986, the museum lacks many of the frills found in institutions built contemporaneously. In fact, it looks less like a museum than a fortress—which was, in a way, Kim’s intention. He wanted it to draw on the aesthetics of Buddhist temples and traditional Korean structures, so that it could blend in with its surroundings. “I believe the building should be part of the land,” he told the Korean Herald in 2016. In combining postmodern styles with centuries-old ones, his building establishes an understated continuum between Korea’s past and present.
By the time Zaha Hadid was brought on to do MAXXI, a new contemporary art museum in Rome, in the late ’90s, she was already world renowned for her sumptuous buildings, which arc and bend in seemingly impossible ways. She applied that signature aesthetic to MAXXI, offering up a severe concrete building that, from above, looks like five elements weaving around each other. Housed within is a black staircase that cuts around and above a white atrium. Hadid preferred to call the museum, which was completed in 2009, a “campus,” alluding to her intention of creating something that meshed seamlessly with its surroundings. Set within a neighborhood primarily composed of apartment buildings, MAXXI was one of the most significant buildings to be erected in the Eternal City in years, and it was greeted with widespread praise, even from locals who had initially regarded it with suspicion. It remains one of the few major museums worldwide designed by a woman of color.
Kunst Haus Vienna
This funky building inaugurated in 1991 was designed by the eccentric environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the artist and architect who famously called straight lines “godless and immoral.” Renovating a late 19th-century Thonet furniture factory—the company that invented the iconic bistro chair—Hundertwasser covered the building’s facade into a patchwork of mosaic, often arranged in a wavy black-and-white grid that’s punctuated with splashes of color. He also added quirky columns cobbled together from found objects. The building is replete with the architect’s signature features, including his famed undulating floors, which were utilized because he believed that “an uneven floor is a melody to the feet.” Hundertwasser was intent on bringing people closer to nature, so to the Kunst Haus he added a rooftop garden and a fountain in the lobby. But, in its present state, it currently lacks a few key elements of his eco-vision, like composting toilets. The galleries host permanent exhibitions of works by the architect himself, as well as temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists.
Teshima Art Museum
Located on a small, remote island off the coast of Okayama, this round, concrete museum hosts just one artwork: Matrix (2010) by Japanese artist Rei Nato. Each day, drops of water gracefully glide across the ground’s gentle curvature, pooling in a barely perceptible basin just below a gaping oculus. The sloping building is set into a hill by the sea, just one island over from Naoshima—a popular yet remote art hub that hosts permanent works by Yayoi Kusama, James Turrell, Claude Monet, and others. For most visitors, this mesmerizing and meditative experience follows a lengthy pilgrimage, in a tradition that builds upon works spanning from Renaissance chapels to commissioned earthworks. The building was designed by Ryue Nishizawa, who, with Kazuyo Sejima, cofounded SANAA, the Pritzker Prize–winning team behind the New Museum in New York. Nishizawa worked closely with Nato on the building’s design, which opened during the 2010 Setouchi Triennale and remains the island’s main attraction.
Picking up on a newfound fascination with postmodern museum architecture sparked by the Centre Pompidou’s opening in 1977, the Neue Staatsgalerie pushed the style even further by greatly exaggerating unexpected collisions between old and new. Designed by James Stirling, this museum is an extension of a 19th-century building done in the neoclassical style that one has come to expect of art institutions. Stirling’s addition, which hosts exhibitions of modern art, diverges from its counterpart in its unusual tendency toward elements that serve no explicit purpose. There are sloping windows lined with steel, and there are green floors that fill certain spaces with color. The galleries, which are comparatively restrained, look like typical art spaces, yet they are arranged in an offbeat U-shaped format. In the middle of them, there is an open-air rotunda that acts neither as an area to see art (there is none on view) nor as a crucial component of the overall structure—it’s instead a place to appreciate the sky above. Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie upended the traditional format for museums, and is now considered one of the institutions that helped cement the postmodern architectural style.
Yale Center for British Art
From the outside, it’s hard to tell that the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, contains all kinds of idiosyncrasies. “On a grey day it will look like a moth,” Louis Kahn, its architect, once said of the building, which opened in 1977. “On a sunny day like a butterfly.” Its glass and steel exterior may resemble that of an office building, but inside, various flourishes differentiate this boxy structure as something far more ambitious. In a typical Kahn touch, structural and mechanical systems are left visible to the viewer, and the air ducts are displayed uncovered. These stylizations are less postmodern twists intended to subvert the very structures of museums themselves (à la the Centre Pompidou) than they are ones that Kahn hoped would communicate his building’s honesty. In the interior court, which hosts centuries-old paintings donated by Paul Mellon, whose holdings form the basis of the collection, there’s a giant concrete cylinder plopped down in the center. Its effect is something like the appearance of the monolith toward the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): oddly graceful, fascinatingly off-putting.
As for the galleries themselves, Kahn designed them in such a way that they evoke sun-splashed salons of bygone centuries without any of the chintz associated with restaged period rooms. These spaces contain movable panels that Kahn labeled “pogos,” which essentially function like walls that can be rearranged with ease, allowing the museum’s curators a kind of freedom that is rare in institutions. The Yale Center for British Art marked Kahn’s last building, and it was a fitting swan song for a designer who reshaped the practice of museum architecture with institutions like the Yale University Art Gallery (his first museum, sited not far from this one) and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
No one was entirely sure that Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain would be a success before it was completed in 1997. The project was the result of an approach that was unusual at the time: local and national governments worked closely with the Guggenheim to effectively breathe new life into an area of the Spanish city that had fallen into decay. (This merger of private and public interests aroused controversy among some critics who claimed that the Guggenheim Bilbao was being effectively foisted onto locals who had no choice other than to accept it. Since then, the arrangement has been reused often during the building of new museums in locales beyond traditional European city centers.) Gehry designed the building so that it resembled a ship similar to the ones that pass through the river the museum is positioned beside. His metal swirls were so sophisticated, they required 3-D imaging technology to design. Gehry’s building may have offered a surprisingly elegant place to see art—a monumental Richard Serra installation is permanently housed there—but the museum polarized the art and architecture worlds. Still, the Guggenheim has been quick to note that the institution succeeded in drawing millions of visitors and boosting the local economy, and a “museum boom” fueled by a desire to create similar statement architecture elsewhere was born. Many have tried to replicate what Gehry did in Bilbao, though few have succeeded.
The Louvre had remained largely unchanged—at least from the outside—for centuries by the time I. M. Pei was asked in 1981 to invigorate an institution that had grown crusty. Part of his intervention in that museum was an element that is now considered a classic: a glassed-in pyramid that lies at the heart of a gigantic plaza framed by 18th-century buildings. On paper, this bold move seemed to spell disaster, but Pei forged onward, convinced that his futuristic addition would usher the Louvre into modernity. Inaugurated in 1985, that pyramid now acts as one of the main entrances to the museum. (The alternative would have been to come in underground, which Pei found to be a notably unsexy way to enter one of the world’s great art institutions.) The pyramid was initially greeted with controversy, with Le Figaro accusing Pei of “megalomania.” But now, along with the twisting staircase beneath it, Pei’s pyramid is one of the Louvre’s defining features, up there with the Mona Lisa. Lesser-known, though equally important, are some aspects Pei added that can’t be seen by the public: conference rooms, offices, and passageways for Louvre staff members, who previously had to traverse the length of the museum for meetings.
Museu de Arte de São Paulo
Opened in 1968, this cantilevered glass building was designed by the Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, an icon in her adopted country for her daring modernist buildings. Two stories of exhibition spaces are suspended off the ground by four large red columns, connected by bold beams that stretch over the roof. Bo Bardi worked closely with engineer José Carlos Figueiredo Ferraz to pull off this quintessential Brutalist feat, known for its stunning combination of lightness and weightiness. But it’s no mere formalist gesture—the architect wanted to leave open, public space for São Paulo residents, rather than allow an elitist institution to take it over. Today, that space—which provides a dry spot in the city’s wet season and shade in the summer—continues to host markets and other types of everyday urban life. It’s also often the site of major protests in the city. Below ground, two basement-level floors are set into a hillside and house a theater and bookshop. The museum’s most famous element, though is Bo Bardi’s radical exhibition design. Her building has an open floorplan, and she showed canvases not on temporary walls, but on glass “easels” set in blocks of concrete. That way, viewers could see works’ fronts and backs, and art could be shown in consecutive rows.
For this home for nightlife mogul and top collector Qiao Zhibing’s private collection opened in 2019, Open Architecture, a New York– and Beijing-based firm, converted five former aviation fuel tanks into a sprawling museum for a diverse array of contemporary art. Sited along the Huangpu River, with a stunning view of the Shanghai skyline, the institution’s chic post-industrial vibes testify to the city’s rapid developments since the 1990s. The project is also a textbook example of adaptive reuse—the process by which architects repurpose defunct structures for modern functions, instead of tearing them down and starting from scratch. Open Architecture nods to the iconic interior of spiraling ramps in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum building in New York, to which the firm has added stylish slits as windows and skylights. Two of the museum’s tanks are outfitted with traditional white cubes, while the other three are largely untouched inside. The firm also carefully intervened into the surrounding landscape: meandering paths connect the five buildings and invite scenic walks in the park, while a sloping wedge cut into the ground guides viewers to the main entrance.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is the sole building in Europe that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed after he departed for the U.S. in 1937 amid the rise of the Nazis. That alone would make the Berlin museum worth noting, but its design also qualifies it as one of the more elegant structures of its kind worldwide. Mies, who rose to fame during the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and ’30s, made a point of prioritizing functionalism throughout his career. This museum, like many of his other structures, includes few elements that aren’t needed—it’s mostly made of industrial materials like steel that are presented without frills. From the outside, the Neue Nationalgalerie doesn’t even resemble a museum, since much of the art on view can’t be seen from its glassed-in second-floor façade. Pared down to its most basic forms, this squat, imposing museum opened in 1968, and in the decades afterward, its elements began to rust and crack. David Chipperfield was enlisted to perform “surgery” to repair the building in 2015, and the museum was reopened in 2021 following a $168 million renovation. As of January 2022, the museum was in contention to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Chichu Art Museum
The subterranean Chichu Art Museum on the Japanese island of Naoshima is perhaps most breathtaking when viewed from above, where visitors can see that its plan forms a triangle with a few rectangles playfully placed on the ground resembling giant confetti. The Japanese self-taught architect Tadao Ando built it directly into the land on a hill overlooking the Seto Island Sea. The institution’s Japanese name, Chichū Bijutsukan, means “art museum in the earth.” Made of concrete, the building is considered an example of “Japanese Brutalism,” and it houses permanent installations by James Turrell, Walter De Maria, and Claude Monet. The campus gently yet decisively guides visitors from one gallery to another, punctuating each installation with an outdoor stroll—Ando was intent on merging nature and architecture, and on conforming a building to a landscape’s natural flow and curves, rather than vice versa. It opened in 2004 on Naoshima, an island just a ferry ride away from Okayama that’s now—thanks to this museum and other attractions—a major art destination.
Museum für Moderne Kunst
Designed by postmodern Viennese architect Hans Hollein, this Frankfurt building, which opened in 1991, expertly blends vernacular German architecture with playful postmodern forms. Hollein repurposed local post-and-beam architectural styles, the remnants of the city’s historic architecture which was largely destroyed during World War II, with extruding and intruding glass windows resembling the skyscrapers that dominate this banking capital. The odd combination feels right at home in a city where old and new Europe rub right up against one another. The Museum für Moderne Kunst was one of the first museums to open after German reunification, and the interior is expertly laid out. Visitors feel gently guided through exhibitions in the three-story building—a feat made all the more impressive by the lot and structure’s unusual triangular shape and resulting wedge-shaped rooms, some of them gently tucked into intimate pockets. (The MMK is know locally as “the piece of cake.”) With staircases that sharply frame long views and balconies overlooking the main hall, the interior manages what few custom-built museum buildings nowadays can pull off: architecture that’s distinctive without being distracting.
Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery
If you’re standing in the center of London’s famous Trafalgar Square, facing the imposing Neoclassical building of the National Gallery, it would be easy to miss the bizarre yet understated postmodern intervention by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, a 1991 addition off to the side of the main building. But that’s exactly the point. The high-profile competition that led to Venturi, Scott Brown having the winning design was embroiled in controversy from the start, as warring perceptions about how a nation ought to represent its culture faced off. One faction, spearheaded by Prince Charles himself, comprised adamant Classicists, while detractors saw the major expansion as a chance to assert England’s contribution to cutting-edge architecture. Venturi and Scott Brown did what they does best for their winning proposal—the firm learned the logic of the museum’s existing Pantheon-like structure, then obeyed it super literally, subtly mocking Classicist pretentiousness in the process. The facade copies the Corinthian columns from the original 1824 building, in some locations installing them at every corner. But the building bends so much that, in some spots, there are hilarious mashups of five quarter-columns that look almost like a glitched-out rendering. These conglomerations poke at the Neoclassicist use of Greek architectural emblems not as structural supports, but as a hollow image of authority and prestige. As the building extends further from the original, the Greek ornamentation slowly fizzles and fades. ArchDaily wrote that the addition “is an essay in how to turn conflicting demands (of being contextual, of being modern, of showing creativity and of showing restraint) to one’s advantage.”
There is no other institution in the world that looks quite like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, a pleasantly strange circular building that completely reorients how viewers see art. Unlike the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, a more classical structure, the original structure for this New York museum contains few right angles. Inside, the art is arranged around a rotunda with a ramp that inclines upward and loops around and around. Unwrapped, that ramp would be more than a quarter-mile long. Wright conceptualized the building’s exterior as an “inverted ziggurat,” alluding to its basis in ancient Mesopotamian architecture. He wanted his museum to disturb the ways visitors typically take in what’s on view, and in that spirit, the building’s walls are tilted.
Originally, visitors were supposed to start at the top of the rotunda and work their way down, and artworks were supposed to be leaned against those walls instead of mounted, but that plan proved unfeasible. So, too, did an idea to paint the building red, which art adviser Hilla Rebay, the museum’s first director, nixed, viewing the hue as a gaudy one. Even before the Guggenheim’s opening in 1959, critics and artists spoke out against Wright’s building. Since then, the reception of the building has changed, and the Guggenheim is now among the most well-attended tourist destinations in New York. Now, many people regard the building itself as a work of art—an intriguing concept that Wright himself even gestured toward when he signed its facade, almost as a painter would with a canvas.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Perhaps the most striking building sited on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is the National Museum of African History and Culture (NMAAHC), designed by David Adjaye with the aim of creating an institution that doubles as a monument. Devoid of the white marble typically seen in classical art institutions, this museum is largely composed instead of slanted bronze aluminum elements on its façade that allow in light in strategically arranged spaces. Adjaye has spoken of the museum using a three-part structure that mirrors the movement of Black people out of Africa and across the U.S. over the centuries. He has referred to the darker underground gallery as a “crypt” and to its middle levels focused on migrations as a “corona.” The top floor, the most luminous space, represents what Adjaye calls the “Now,” a space of liberation in which the arts take precedence. Upon its opening in 2016, the NMAAHC received rapturous praise from critics such as the late Greg Tate, who wrote in ARTnews, “Great museums offer a range of opportunities and strategies not only for getting those devilish details right but also for killing us softly, as the song goes, while doing so. NMAAHC scores high on both counts.”
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum
Completed in 1996, MAC Niterói is one of several museum masterpieces by the prolific Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Its flying saucer–like structure hovers above a reflecting pool at the edge of a cliff that overlooks a bay, where it offers panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro. Most assume the building was inspired by a UFO, and Niemeyer toyed with this trope when, in the 2000 film Oscar Niemeyer, An Architect Committed to His Century, he flew over the museum in what appeared to be an alien spacecraft. But Niemeyer saw the building as a flower blooming from the earth. The interior is filled with bright blue carpet and furniture designed by the architect’s daughter, Anna Maria Niemeyer. Visitors approach the retrofuturist building via a winding path in red concrete. Such sinuous forms epitomize Niemeyer’s sensibility: he often said he was inspired by “the curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.” The Architectural Reivew noted that “Niemeyer neatly overcomes the ‘Guggenheim dilemma’ (the patent unsuitability of curved walls for the display of art) by creating an inner hexagonal-shaped core of space enclosed by flat screen walls,” while also pointing out that “the stunning panoramas of Rio … occasionally upstage the art.”
Upon its inauguration in 1977, the French newspaper Le Monde reviled Paris’s newest museum, the Centre Pompidou, calling it “an architectural King Kong.” Since then, however, the museum has come to be a beloved addition to the French capital’s cityscape—even if it awkwardly sticks out in the metropolis, whose look has remained largely unchanged since the late 19th century. Gianfranco Franchini, Renzo Piano, and Richard Rogers’s design for the space effectively envisioned an art museum turned inside out. Air conditioning and plumbing systems are typically encased within institutional walls, out of sight from museum visitors. At the Centre Pompidou, those systems appear on the outside, and each are color coded, so that viewers can identify what they’re looking at. Alongside all that angular piping is a set of escalators inside tubes; take them to the top, and you get a striking view of Paris from above. The gargantuan building’s inside was conceived as a large empty space that could be rearranged with ease. Few would say the resulting boxy structure is easy on the eye, but what the Centre Pompidou lacks in elegance, the museum makes up for in conceptual richness. Piano once described it as an attack on old-world ideas about what a museum should look like, telling the Guardian in 2017, “After decades of museums being dusty, boring and inaccessible, someone had to run away, to do something different, have a sense of participation. Someone had to express that rebellion.”
Correction, 02/16/22, 3:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at University of California, Davis exclusively to SO-IL. It was designed by SO-IL in collaboration with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.