Museum Architecture

A Picture Dictionary of Styles

modern flying saucer type building on a pedestal
Niemeyer Museum of Contemporary Arts in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer, Architect.

Ian Mckinnell/Getty Images (cropped)

All museums do NOT all look the same. Architects create some of their most innovate works when designing museums, art galleries, and exhibition centers. The buildings in this photo gallery don't merely house art — they are art.

Suzhou Museum, China

Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China
2006 by I.M. Pei, Architect Garden view of the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, Jiangsu, People's Republic of China. I.M. Pei Architect with Pei Partnership Architects. Completed in 2006. Photo by Kerun Ip for American Masters, "I.M. Pei: Building China Modern"

Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei incorporated traditional Asian ideas when he designed a museum for ancient Chinese art.

Located in Suzhou, Jiangsu, People's Republic of China, the Suzhou Museum is modeled after Prince Zhong's Mansion. Architect I.M. Pei used the traditional whitewashed plaster walls and dark gray clay roofing.

Although the museum has the appearance of an ancient Chinese structure, it uses durable modern materials such as steel roof beams.

The Suzhou Museum is featured in the PBS American Masters TV documentary, I.M. Pei: Building China Modern

Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

Horizontal, modern, linear steel and glass art museum in Michigan.
2012 by Zaha Hadid, Architect Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum designed by Zaha Hadid. Press photo by Paul Warchol. Resnicow Schroeder Associates, Inc. (RSA). All Rights Reserved.

The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid designed a dramatic new art museum for Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Zaha Hadid's design for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is startlingly deconstructivist. Bold angular shapes rendered in glass and aluminum—at times, the building has the threatening look of an open-mouthed shark—create an unconventional addition to the Michigan State University (MSU) campus in East Lansing. The museum opened on November 10, 2012.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
1959 by Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened on October 21, 1959. Photo © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is an example of Frank Lloyd Wright's use of hemicycle styling.

Wright created the Guggenheim Museum as a series of organic shapes. Circular forms spiral down down like the interior of a nautilus shell. Visitors to the museum begin on the upper level and follow a sloping ramp downward through connected exhibition spaces. At the core, an open rotunda offers views of artwork on several levels.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who was known for his self-assurance, said that his goal was to "make the building and the painting an uninterrupted, beautiful symphony such as never existed in the World of Art before."

Painting the Guggenheim

In Frank Lloyd Wright's earliest drawings of the Guggenheim, the exterior walls were red or orange marble with verdigris copper banding on the top and bottom. When the museum was built, the color was a more subtle brownish yellow. Over the years, the walls were repainted an almost white shade of gray. During recent restorations, preservationists have asked which colors would be most appropriate.

Up to eleven layers of paint were stripped, and scientists used electron microscopes and infrared spectroscopes to analyze each layer. Eventually, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to keep the museum white. Critics complained that Frank Lloyd Wright would have chosen bolder hues and the process of painting the museum stirred heated controversy.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, the old building with glassed plaza, and Libeskind's zig-zag new building.
1999 (opened in 2001) by Daniel Libeskind, Architect The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Press photo by Günter Schneider © Jüdisches Museum Berlin

The zinc-coated zigzag Jewish Museum is one of Berlin's most prominent landmarks and brought international fame to architect Daniel Libeskind.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin was Libeskind's first building project, and it brought him recognition around the world. Since that time, the Polish-born architect has designed many award-winning structures and won many competitions, including the Master Plan for Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site in New York City.

Statement by Daniel Libeskind:

A building can be experienced as an unfinished journey. It can awaken our desires, propose imaginary conclusions. It is not about form, image or text, but about the experience, which is not to be simulated. A building can awaken us to the fact that it has never been anything more than a huge question mark...I believe that this project joins Architecture to questions that are now relevant to all people.

Commentary by Professor Bernd Nicolai, University of Trier:

The Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Libeskind is one of the most conspicuous architectural landmarks in the city of Berlin. In the southern Friedrichstadt area which was badly damaged in the war and beyond recognition following post-war demolition, Libeskind designed a building which embodies remembrance, melancholy, and departure. Through its designer it has become an architectural symbol in a specific Jewish discourse at the core of which is German history and the history of the city after 1933, which ended "in total catastrophe."

Libeskind's intention was to express kaleidoscopically the city's lines and cracks in architectural form. The confrontation of Libeskind's Jewish Museum building with the adjoining classical building by Berlin City Architect, Mendelsohn, not only defines two highlights of 20th century architecture but also reveals the stratigraphy of a historical landscape - exemplary exposure of the relationship of Jews and Germans in this city.

Additional Projects:

In 2007, Libeskind built a glass canopy for the courtyard of the Old Building, an architectural fusion of the 1735 Baroque Collegienhaus with the 20th century postmodern Libeskind Building. The Glass Courtyard is a freestanding structure, supported by four tree-like columns. In 2012, Libeskind completed yet another building in the museum's complex—the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin in the Eric F. Ross Building.

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

Bold, Yet Transparent
1973 by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Architects I.M. Pei, Architect - Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. Photo © Jackie Craven

The massive concrete slab Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University perches on a 1,000-foot slope overlooking Lake Cayuga in Ithaca, New York.

I.M. Pei and the members of his firm wanted to make a dramatic statement without blocking the scenic views of Lake Cayuga. The resulting design combines massive rectangular forms with open spaces. Critics have called the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art both bold and transparent.

State Museum of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil

Glass Roofs and Metal Catwalks
1993 by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Architect Brazilian State Museum of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate. Photo © Nelson Kon

Pritzker-prize winning architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha is known for bold simplicity and an innovative use of concrete and steel.

Designed by architect Ramos de Azevedo in the late 1800s, the State Museum of São Paulo once housed the School of Arts and Crafts. When asked to renovate the classical, symmetrical building, Mendes da Rocha did not change the exterior. Instead, he focused on the interior rooms.

Mendes da Rocha worked on the organization of gallery spaces, created new spaces, and resolved problems with humidity. Glass roofs framed with metal were placed over the central and side courtyards. Frames were stripped from the internal window openings so that they would provide outside views. The central courtyard was turned into a slightly sunken auditorium to accommodate 40 people. Metal catwalks were installed through the courtyards to connect the galleries at the upper levels.

~Pritzker Prize Committee

Brazilian Museum of Sculpture in São Paulo, Brazil

Concrete Slabs and Underground Spaces
1988 by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Architect The Brazilian Museum of Sculpture in São Paulo, Brazil, designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate. Photo © Nelson Kon

The Brazilian Museum of Sculpture sets on a 75,000-square foot triangular site on a main thoroughfare in São Paulo, Brazil. Instead of creating a free-standing building, architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha treated the museum and the landscape are treated as a whole.

Large concrete slabs create partly underground internal spaces and also form an exterior plaza with water pools and an esplanade. An emmense 97-foot long, 39-foot wide beam frames the museum.

~Pritzker Prize Committee

The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York

Salvaged tridents from the destroyed Twin Towers are prominently displayed at the entrance to the National September 11 Memorial Museum
Salvaged tridents from the destroyed Twin Towers are prominently displayed at the entrance to the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

The National 9/11 Memorial includes a museum with artifacts from the original buildings that were destroyed on September 11, 2001. At the entrance, a high glass atrium displays two trident-shaped columns salvaged from the ruins of the Twin Towers.

Designing a museum of this scope, within an area of historic preservation, is a long and involved process. Plans saw many transformations as architect Craig Dykers of Snøhetta integrated the subterranean museum building with the 9/11 Memorial once known as Reflecting Absence. The interior museum space was designed by Davis Brody Bond with the vision of J. Max Bond, Jr.

The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum honors those who died in terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The subterranean museum opened May 21, 2014.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, overhead photo
1995 by Mario Botta, Architect San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California. Photo by DEA - De Agostini Picture Library Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

At 225,000 square feet, the SFMoMA is one of the largest North American buildings devoted to modern art.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first United States commission for Swiss architect Mario Botta. The Modernist building was opened in celebration of SFMoMA's 60th anniversary and, for the first time, provided enough gallery space to display SFMoMA's complete collection of modern art.

The steel frame is covered with textured and patterned brickwork, one of Botta's tradmarks. The five-story tower in the rear is made up of galleries and offices.The design allows room for future expansion.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art also contains many community-oriented features, including a 280-seat theater, two large workshop spaces, an event space, a museum store, a café, a library with 85,000 books, and a classroom. The interior space is flooded with natural light, thanks to skylights on the steeped rooftop and atop the central atrium which emerges from the roof.

East Wing, National Gallery in Washington DC

Trapezoid Shapes
1978 by Ieoh Ming Pei, Architect East Wing, National Gallery in Washington DC. Pritzker Prize Photo - Reprinted with permission

I.M. Pei designed a museum wing that would contrast with the classical design of surrounding buildings. Pei faced several challenges when he designed the East Wing for the National Gallery in Washington DC. The lot was an irregular trapezoid shape. Surrounding buildings were grand and imposing. The neighboring West Building, completed in 1941, was a classical structure designed by John Russell. How could Pei's new wing fit the oddly shaped lot and harmonize with existing buildings?

Pei and his firm explored many possibilities, and sketched out numerous plans for the exterior profile and the atrium roof. Pei's early conceptual sketches can be viewed on the Web site for the National Gallery.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, UK

box-shaped building withglass facade and glass side panels and triangular metal scaffolding-like molding surrounding the facade
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia in Norwich, Norfolk, UK.

acmanley/Getty Images (cropped)


High-Tech design is a hallmark of the Pritzker Prize winning architect, Sir Norman Foster.

Sainsbury Centre, completed in the 1970s, is but one of Foster's long list of projects.

Centre Pompidou

Brightly colored, industrial looking high-tech building that is really a museum
Richard Rogers & Renzo Piano, Architects of the Centre Pompidou in France, 1971-1977. Photo by David Clapp/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images (cropped)

Designed by Pritzker-prize winning architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, revolutionized museum design.

Museums of the past had been elite monuments. In contrast, the Pompidou was designed as a busy center for social activities and cultural exchange.

With support beams, duct work, and other functional elements placed on the exterior of the building, Centre Pompidou in Paris appears to be turned inside out, revealing its inner workings. Centre Pompidou is often cited as a landmark example of High-Tech Architecture.

The Louvre

The Louvre in Paris, massive stone chateaux with glass pyramid in center courtyard
1546-1878 by Pierre Lescot, Architect The Louvre / Musee du Louvre. Photo by Grzegorz Bajor/Moment Collection/Credit: Flickr Vision/Getty Images

Catherine de Medici, J. A. du Cerceau II, Claude Perrault, and many others contributed to the design of the massive Louvre in Paris, France.

Begun in 1190 and constructed of cut stone, the Louvre is a masterpiece of the French Renaissance. Architect Pierre Lescot was one of the first to apply pure classical ideas in France, and his design for a new wing at the Louvre defined its future development.

With each new addition, under each new ruler, the Palace-turned-museum continued to make history. Its distinctive double-pitched mansard roof inspired the design of many eighteenth century buildings in Paris and throughout Europe and the United States.

Sino-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei stirred great controversy when he designed a stark glass pyramid to serve as an entrance to the museum. Pei's glass pyramid was completed in 1989.

The Louvre Pyramid

People queuing by Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. The glass pyramid was designed by I.M.Pei
1989 by Ieoh Ming Pei, Architect The Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, France. Photo by Harald Sund/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Traditionalists were shocked when Chinese-born American architect I. M. Pei designed this glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

The Louvre Museum, begun in 1190 in Paris, France, is now considered a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. I.M. Pei's 1989 addition consists of unusual arrangements of geometric shapes. Standing 71 feet high, the Pyramide du Louvre is designed to let light into the museum's reception center—and not block the view of the Renaissance masterpiece.

The Pritzker Prize winning architect, I.M. Pei is often praised for his creative use of space and materials.

The Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut

Designed by Louis I. Kahn
1974 by Louis I. Kahn, Architect Yale Center for British Art, Louis Kahn, architect. Photo © Jackie Craven

Designed by modernist architect Louis I. Kahn, the Yale Center for British Art is a massive concrete structure organized into room-like grids.

Completed after his death, Louis I. Kahn's Yale Center for British Art is composed of a structured grid of squares. Simple and symmetrical, the 20-foot square spaces are organized around two inner courts. Coffered skylights illuminate interior spaces.

Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

Red sandstone facade of the Arata Isozaki-designed Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, CA
1986 by Arata Isozaki, Architect The Museum of Contemporary Art, Downtown Los Angeles in California. Photo by David Peevers/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, California was Arata Isozaki's first building in the United States.

At the entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, natural light shines through pyramidal skylights.

The red sandstone building complex includes a hotel, apartments, and stores. A courtyard separates the two main buildings.

The Tate Modern, London Bankside, UK

The Tate Modern, adaptive reuse by Pritzer Prize Laureates Herzog & de Meuron
The Tate Modern, adaptive reuse by Pritzer Prize Laureates Herzog & de Meuron. Photo by Scott E Barbour/The Image Bank Collection/Getty Images

Designed by Pritzker Prize Laureates Herzog & de Meuron, the Tate Modern in London is one of the world's most celebrated examples of adaptive reuse.

The design of the enormous art museum was from the shell of the old, unsightly Bankside Power Station on the Thames River in London. For the restoration, builders added 3,750 tons of new steel. The industrial-gray Turbine Hall runs nearly the entire length of the building. Its 115 foot high ceiling is illuminated by 524 glass panes. The power station closed in 1981, and the museum opened in 2000.

Describing their South Bank project, Herzog and de Meuron stated, "It is exciting for us to deal with existing structures because the attendant constraints demand a very different kind of creative energy. In the future, this will be an increasingly important issue in European cities. You cannot always start from scratch.

"We think this is the challenge of the Tate Modern as a hybrid of tradition, Art Deco and super modernism: it is a contemporary building, a building for everybody, a building of the 21st century. And when you don't start from scratch, you need specific architectural strategies that are not primarily motivated by taste or stylistic preferences. Such preferences tend to exclude rather than include something.

"Our strategy was to accept the physical power of Bankside's massive mountain-like brick building and to even enhance it rather than breaking it or trying to diminish it. This is a kind of Aikido strategy where you use your enemy's energy for your own purposes. Instead of fighting it, you take all the energy and shape it in unexpected and new ways."

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron continued to lead a design team to further transform the old power station, creating a new, ten-story expansion built atop The Tanks. The extension opened in 2016.

Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem, Israel

Photograph of Yad Vashem museum entrance, man sweeping, overlooking Jerusalem
2005 by Moshe Safdie, Architect Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, opened in 2005. Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images, ©2005 Getty Images

Yad Vashem is a museum complex dedicated to Holocaust history, art, remembrance, and research.

The Yad Vashem Law of 1953 ensures the remembrance of Jews murdered during World War II. Assurance of a yad vashem, often translated from Isaiah 56:5 as a place and a name, is Israel's pledge to care for the memory of the millions who suffered and were lost, collectively and individually. Israel-born architect Moshe Safdie spent ten years working with officials to rebuild past efforts and develop a new, permanent homeland memorial.

Architect Moshe Safdie In His Own Words:

"And I proposed that we cut through the mountain. That was my first sketch. Just cut the whole museum through the mountain—enter from one side of the mountain, come out on the other side of the mountain—and then bring light through the mountain into the chambers."

"You cross a bridge, you enter this triangular room, 60 feet high, which cuts right into the hill and extends right through as you go towards the north. And all of it, then, all the galleries are underground, and you see the openings for the light. And at night, just one line of light cuts through the mountain, which is a skylight on top of that triangle. And all the galleries, as you move through them and so on, are below grade. And there are chambers carved in the rock—concrete walls, stone, the natural rock when possible—with the light shafts....And then, coming towards the north, it opens up: it bursts out of the mountain into, again, a view of light and of the city and of the Jerusalem hills."

Source for Quotes: Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) presentation, On Building Uniqueness, March 2002

Whitney Museum (1966)

Whitney Museum of American Art Designed by Marcel Breuer, NYC, 1966
1966 by Marcel Breuer, Architect Whitney Museum of American Art Designed by Marcel Breuer, NYC, 1966. Photo by Maremagnum/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images

Marcel Breuer's inverted ziggurat design has been an iconic staple of the art world since the '60s. In 2014, however, the Whitney Museum of American Art closed its exhibition area at this Midtown New York City location and went to the Meatpacking District. The 2015 Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano, located in an historically industrial area of Manhattan, is twice as large.  Architect John H. Beyer, FAIA, of Beyer Blinder Belle headed the team to save and renovate Breuer's design for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The renamed Met Breuer building is an extension of that museum's exhibition and educational spaces.

Fast Facts About Breuer's Whitney Museum of American Art:

Location: Madison Avenue and 75th Street, New York City
Opened: 1966
Architects: Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith
Style: Brutalism

Learn More:

Source: The Breuer building at [accessed April 26, 2015]

Whitney Museum (2015)

Whitney Museum Of American Art Designed by Renzo Piano Workshop, NYC, 2015
2015 by Renzo Piano Workshop, Architects Whitney Museum Of American Art Designed by Renzo Piano Workshop, NYC, 2015. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

Outdoor public spaces near the elevated High Line provide 8,500 square feet of what Renzo Piano calls a Largo. Piano's asymmetrically modern building takes the place of Marcel Breuer's 1966 Brutalist building, the Whitney Museum on 75th Street.

Fast Facts About Piano's Whitney Museum of American Art:

Location: Meatpacking District in NYC (99 Gansevoort St. between Washington and West)
Opened: May 1, 2015
Architects: Renzo Piano with Cooper Robertson
Stories: 9
Construction Materials: Concrete, steel, stone, reclaimed wide-plank pine floors, and low-iron glass
Indoor Exhibition Area: 50,000 square feet (4600 square meters)
Outdoor galleries and terrace: 13,000 square feet (1200 square meters)

After Hurricane Sandy damaged much of Manhattan in October 2012, the Whitney Museum enlisted WTM Engineers of Hamburg, Germany to make some design adjustments as the Whitney was being constructed. The foundation walls were reinforced with more waterproofing, the structure's drainage system was redesigned, and a "mobile flood barrier system" is available when flooding is imminent.

Source: New Building Architecture & Design Fact Sheet, April 2015, New Whitney Press Kit, Whitney Press Office [accessed April 24, 2015]

Museum of Tomorrow, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Long, low, white building on a pier with cityscape in background.
Aerial view of the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) designed by Santiago Calatrava in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Matthew Stockman / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

The Spanish architect / engineer Santiago Calatrava designed a sea monster of a museum on a pier in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Containing many of the design features found in his Transportation Hub in New York City, the Museu do Amanhã opened to great fanfare in 2015, in time for the Rio Olympic Games the next summer.

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Craven, Jackie. "Museum Architecture." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Museum Architecture. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Museum Architecture." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 1, 2021).