Emporis compiles data on spectacular museums

That time-honored institution, the museum, is gradually being superseded. Increasingly, instead of old-fashioned exhibition rooms, it is gigantic event and experience locations that await the visitor. More often than not designed by star architects, many museums now count among the most impressive buildings of our time. As total works of art, it is not just the treasures within that fascinate, but also the breathtaking symbiosis of exhibits and architecture.

A selection of the world’s most spectacular museums has now been compiled by a jury of building experts from Emporis (emporis.com), the international provider of building data. The list contains some of the most diverse museum buildings from all over the world – from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, opened in 1959, to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

The most prominent example is Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, of course, a building that stands like no other for this new understanding of museum architecture. As is now common knowledge, the shiny silver monumental sculpture was the principal reason for Bilbao’s transformation from a small industrial city into a major international centre of art, a transformation that has come to be known as the “Bilbao Effect.” The building continues to this day to influence the architecture of many a 21st-century museum.

Museum design allows architects to play with a very wide range of architectural forms and styles. This can be seen for example in Daniel Libeskind’s deconstructivist works, such as the Jewish Museum in Berlin or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. His asymmetrical structures of iridescent steel and glass, with sloping floors and walls without right angles, attract the attention (and, at times, criticism). That an empty architectural shell can draw crowds all by itself was demonstrated by the 350,000 visitors who came to marvel at the Jewish Museum even before it opened.

Extravagant structures have their price, however, and it is not uncommon for costs to reach into the hundreds of millions. Nevertheless, the wave of unique museum buildings is not about to ebb. In Lyon, for instance, work is proceeding on the planned completion in 2014 of the Musée des Confluences, a massive civic project designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The 190-meter-long structure, a combination of a giant crystal and a cloud, floats eight meters above the ground and will house a museum of science and society.

Following are 15 of the most influential museums from around the globe. For more data, visit the Emporis website.


Architect: Coop Himmelb(l)au

BMW Welt, designed by the architects Coop Himmelb(l)au, is home to an elaborate exhibition, museum and experience location. The building with the distinctive double cone is not only used as an exhibition hall, but also for handing over new cars to BMW customers.


Architects: Renzo Piano; Richard Rogers

The Centre Georges Pompidou, which opened in 1977, was initiated by the former French president Georges Pompidou. A particularly striking aspect is that the pipes, elevators and escalators are placed on the outside of the building, visible to all. This gives the art museum the advantage of being able to move the interior walls at will.


Architects: Shigeru Ban Architects Europe; Jean de Gastines Architectes

The Centre Pompidou-Metz was built as a branch of the Centre Georges Pompidou Paris in the French city of Metz.The most distinctive element of the museum is a lattice roof inspired by a Chinese bamboo hat – a kind of woven umbrella made of cross laminated timber.


Architects: Frank O. Gehry; LMN Architects

A broken Fender Stratocaster guitar was Frank O. Gehry’s inspiration for the shape of the building. The Experience Music Project was endowed by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.


Architect: Frank O. Gehry

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao stands for a new understanding of museum architecture, in that the building as such is itself a work of art. Since the museum opened, the small industrial city of Bilbao has become a major center for art, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Bilbao Effect.”


Architect: Studio Daniel Libeskind

The Jewish Museum is made up of two buildings: a baroque older building and Daniel Libeskind’s new structure; the two buildings are only connected with each other through the basement. The architecture of the new building is characterized by its zigzag-shaped footprint, sloping floors, a shiny titanium facade, narrow angles and typical Libeskind window shapes.


Architect: Spacelab Cook-Fournier GmbH

The Kunsthaus Graz, also known by the name “Friendly Alien,” was built in 2003 to mark the city being named European Capital of Culture for that year. The exhibition building has a technoid media facade of just under 900 conventional fluorescent lamps on which images and animations can be shown in rough definition.


Architect: Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner; SIAD

Since opening, the Maritime Museum has been the landmark building of Lingang, China, a planned city under construction since 2003. The two curved roof shells in the shape of sails tower over the exhibition hall, in which historical ships, junks and models can be viewed.


Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects

The museum building, designed by the British star architect Zaha Hadid, opened in Rome in 2010 after 10 years of construction. The MAXXI is an impressive building composed of exposed concrete, glass and steel. Inside it houses black-painted, twisting staircases.


Architect: FR-EE, Fernando Romero EnterprisE

The Museo Soumaya was commissioned by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim so that he could display his extensive art collection. Around 17,000 sparkling, honeycone-shaped metal plates form the facade covering the building.


Architect: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

The museum, designed by I.M. Pei, was constructed on an artificial island in the harbor of the city of Doha. The desert sun transforms the building – as intended by the architect – into an interplay of light and shade.


Architects: Kish Kurokawa Architects & Associates; Nihon Sekkei Inc.

The National Art Center Tokyo is one of the last works of the Japanese architect Kish Kurokawa. Fins were mounted over the wavy glass facade to prevent direct sunlight from entering the building. Overall, the facade is approximately 160 metres wide.


Architect: Oscar Niemeyer

The museum was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1967, but only officially opened in 2003. Due to its shape, the exhibition building is also referred to as the “Museu do Olho.” The “eye” can easily be seen from some distance.


Architects: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Bergmann + Hamann Architects

Founded in 1912, the Royal Ontario Museum was remodeled and extended in 2006-2007 according to plans drawn up by Daniel Libeskind in a project called “The Crystal.” The huge “crystal,” with its asymmetrically overlapping glass und aluminum shapes, towers over the historical older building, which was built in the Victorian classical style.


Architects: Frank Lloyd Wright; Swanke Hayden Connell Architects

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opened in 1959 and is the eldest of the Guggenheim museums. The architectural highlight of the building
– one of the most famous in the world – is the spiral construction that towers up out of the New York streetscape. Inside, the construction holds a 400-meter-long ramp that twists in a spiral up to the fourth floor.


Emporis is a leading database of information about building and construction projects, based in Germany. For over a decade Emporis has helped companies, organizations and individuals stay informed about the building industry. The Emporis Skyscraper Award is the world’s most renowned prize for high-rise architecture.