Text: Megan Barber
From New York to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, America’s museums house some of the finest art in the world. While it’s easy to get caught up in the Gauguins and the Lichtensteins, it’s important to remember that the buildings themselves are worth a second glance.
At a well designed museum, the architecture can rival the art, captivating onlookers from the outside and drawing them in to explore a visceral experience. Good architecture influences the presentation and reception of art, often flavoring how we interpret or appreciate the smallest paper sketch or a massive two-story sculpture.
To design a museum has become a badge of honor, attracting starchitects like the Pritzker Prize-winning Shigeru Ban or the iconic Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. At their core, museums are public spaces, visual reminders of the value of art, culture, and critical thought. In honor of their beauty and to underscore their importance, we’ve rounded up 16 architecturally significant museums throughout the United States.
The Broad in Los Angeles, California
This new, 120,000-square foot contemporary art museum—designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro in collaboration with Gensler—opened in September 2015 in Los Angeles. The museum houses 2,000 works of art, cost $140 million to build, and welcomed 820,000 visitors in its first year alone.
National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.
Recently opened in September 2016, Washington D.C.’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture expected tens of thousands of visitors. What the museum didn’t expect was how long people would stay after they arrived. With “dwell times” ranging from two to six hours, the acclaimed museum is a stunning addition to our capital. The $540 million project was designed by architect David Adjaye.
For a full review of this long-awaited cultural institution on the National Mall, head over here.
Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado
Located in downtown Denver, the Denver Art Museum boasts one of the largest art collections between the West Coast and Chicago, with more than 70,000 pieces. One of its most striking buildings is the North Building, a seven-story, 210,000-square-foot structure built in 1971 and designed by the Italian modernist architect Gio Ponti.
De Young Museum in San Francisco, California
Originally constructed in Golden Gate Park in 1894 for the California Midwinter International Exposition, the Fine Arts Building now houses the acclaimed de Young Museum in San Francisco. The museum is internationally recognized as the foremost museum in the western United States for American art, international textile arts and costumes, and the art of the ancient Americas, Oceania, and Africa.
The original 1894 building has received several additions over the years, including the structure’s signature tower that was added in 1921. The museum suffered significant structural damage as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and the current structure—designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron—opened in 2005. According to the De Young’s website, it’s the most visited art museum west of the Mississippi.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri
This free public art museum has been serving the Kansas City public since December 11, 1933. The current collection contains more than 35,000 works of art, and the Bloch Building—designed by architect Steven Holl—was opened in 2007 to accommodate the museum’s growing collection.
The all-white, translucent glass structure uses ever-changing natural light during the day and a glowing illumination at night to ensure that all of the art is presented under the best light possible.
National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana
This stunning museum in Louisiana tells the story of the American Experience in the Second World War, from why it was fought to how civilians experienced warfare at home. The architecture furthers the museum’s goals, using a series of pavilions to create a continuous path that takes visitors on an extended historical journey.
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in Chicago, Illinois
With a mission to champion the provocative side of contemporary art and culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago impresses visitors both with the quality of the collection and the building’s design.
The current museum was designed by the German architect Josef Paul Kleihues to use classical proportions based on the square grid of Chicago’s city plan. The most iconic feature is the main staircase—built in the shape of an ellipsoid—which functions as both a dramatic ascent to the galleries and a stunning photo op.
Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, Massachusetts
Opened in 2006, Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art—designed by award-winning architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro—is a 65,000-square-foot building with a dramatic folding ribbon form and cantilevered structure that sits along the city’s waterfront.
The architects conceived the building “from the sky down” and sought to provide shifting views of the water and the city skyline from throughout the museum’s galleries.
Guggenheim in New York City, New York
As one of the most famous and recognizable museums in the word, the Guggenheim in New York is a quintessential example of museum architecture. Originally designed in 1943 by American icon Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim was not built until 1959 thanks to design modifications and the rising costs of building materials.
It was worth the wait. Today, the Guggenheim is celebrated as arguably the most important building of Wright’s late career and a monument to modernism. It also serves as an impressive art venue, with many rotating exhibitions taking advantage of the building’s famous spiral ramp and domed skylight to present art in unique ways.
Looking for more New York city museums with outstanding architecture and design? Curbed New York has mapped them all—from the Lower East Side’s New Museum to the Bronx Museum of the Arts—right this way.
Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Celebrated as a national architectural landmark, the Milwaukee Art Museum consists of three buildings designed by three legendary architects: Eero Saarinen, David Kahler, and Santiago Calatrava. The most famous of the three is no doubt the soaring Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Spanish architect Calatrava in 2001 with a moveable sunscreen that unfolds and folds twice daily.
The museum also features a pedestrian suspension bridge that connects the structure—which houses 30,000 works of art and sits on Lake Michigan—with the city beyond.
The Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas:
Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth sits opposite of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum and consists of five long, flat-roofed pavilions situated on a 1.5-acre pond. Ando’s design also uses immense cantilevered cast-concrete roofs to shade the building’s exterior and natural light floods the space thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows.
Taken together, the peaceful reflecting pond and outdoor sculpture garden functions as a bucolic setting for the museum’s 3,000-piece collection.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, California:
As the first museum on the West Coast devoted solely to 20th-century art, SFMOMA houses over 33,000 works of art. The iconic building recently underwent a three-year expansion—helmed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta—that more than doubled the museum’s gallery space.
Since the remodel, SFMOMA now contains 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, making it one of the largest museums in the United States. You can read more about SFMOMA’s transformation, over here.
Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida
A focused look at the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, this Florida museum—which originally opened in 1982—features 2,100 works from throughout the artist’s career. A new building was designed by architect Yann Weymouth of HOK and constructed in 2011.
Like Dali’s art, the museum’s architecture combines the rational with the fantastical, featuring an 18-inch thick concrete rectangle with a geodesic glass bubble protruding from the side.
Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colorado
You wouldn’t expect a tiny ski town like Aspen, Colorado to have a world-class art museum—much less one designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect—but so it goes. Tokyo-based architect Shugeru Ban often makes headlines for his small-scale, of-the-people projects: cardboard cathedrals for an earthquake-ravaged town, rain-resistant, eco-friendly huts, and quick-turn-around disaster relief housing, to name a few.
But Ban also designed the 33,000-square-foot Aspen Art Museum, a woven box built with a façade made of paper and resin. The free museum features a rooftop garden offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and an ever-changing lineup of top-notch exhibitions. Head over here, for more.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota:
With two different buildings—the 1971 Edward Larabee Barnes building and the 2005 Herzog & de Meuron building—the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has evolved from a small, privately held collection to an internationally recognized institution.
The museum now boasts a 19-acre campus that holds 13,000 modern and contemporary art pieces and has an annual attendance of 700,000 visitors.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts:
Housed in a 15th-century Venetian-style palace, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum features a world-renowned collection of 2,500 paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts. The most striking architectural element of the building are the three stories of galleries that surround the museum’s flower-filled courtyard.
A new wing was added to the museum in 2012. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano designed the space—which features a glass atrium—to compliment the museum’s iconic lush garden landscape.