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19 U.S. museums with outstanding architecture

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When design and art collide

The exterior of the Salvador Dali Museum in Florida. The facade features two dome shaped glass structures.
The Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated with the most recent information.

From New York to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, U.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 19 architecturally significant museums throughout the United States.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas

The exterior of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. The building pavilions surround a pond.
The dining bridge of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at dusk.
Photo by Dero Sanford, courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Architecture lovers should make the trek to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; the museum boasts a pristine natural setting, gorgeous structures designed by architect Moshe Safdie, and a classic Usonian house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Safdie created two spring-fed ponds surrounded by bridge structures and a group of pavilions housing the museum galleries and studios. The curved museum walls echo the shape of the surrounding Ozark hillsides, and the museum bridges use a deep brown copper roofing to continue the natural motif. It’s a fitting environment for the museum’s exhibitions, library, and sculpture and walking trails.

The Broad in Los Angeles, California

The exterior of the Broad in Los Angeles. The facade is white.
A corner view of the Broad, a contemporary museum 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.

The exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The facade is gold with a terraced design.
The striking exterior of the 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

The exterior of the Denver Art Museum in Colorado. The facade consists of reflective glass tiles. There is a bright red sculpture in a courtyard in front of the building.
The Gio Ponti-designed North Building at the Denver Art Museum.

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.

In addition to being one of Ponti’s most famous designs, the North Building is also Ponti’s only completed design built in the United States. The castle-like facade uses more than one million reflective glass tiles on the exterior, features 24 different sides, and is currently undergoing a $150 million renovation.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

The exterior of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan. The facade is stainless steel and glass with a sloped roof.
Opened in 2012, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is a contemporary art museum at Michigan State University designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum uses pleated stainless steel and glass to form a striking facade. Completed in 2012, the museum’s bold, angled concept is a departure from Michigan State University’s brick campus. But Hadid designed the 46,000-square-foot space as a forward-thinking gateway between the university and the East Lansing community.

The three-level museum, which is sometimes referred to as a spaceship, also features an array of green features, like occupancy sensors to control lighting, recycling stations, and solar control.

De Young Museum in San Francisco, California

The exterior of the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The building has a funnel shaped tower. In front of the building are palm trees and a pond with water lilies.
The De Young Museum’s famous tower in San Francisco.

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

The exterior of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Missouri. The facade is white with translucent glass and there is a pond surrounding the building. It is night and the lights inside the museum are illuminating the exterior.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Bloch Building glows at night.
Courtesy of Visit Kansas City

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

The exterior of the National World War Two museum in New Orleans. The facade is gray with glass.
The exterior of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Courtesy of the National WWII Museum New Orleans

This stunning museum designed by New York-based Voorsanger Architects 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

The interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There is a staircase in the shape of an ellipsoid.
The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s most famous staircase.

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

The exterior of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. The building sits along a waterfront. There are stairs leading up to a glass entryway.
The Institute for Contemporary Art at night in Boston.

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

The exterior of the Guggenheim in New York City. The facade, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is white and curved.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim in New York City.

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

The exterior of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin. The facade is white with an angular structure.
The Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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:

The exterior of the Modern Art Museum in Texas. The roof is flat and there are glass walls. Outside of the museum is a shallow still water pool.
The Modern Art Museum’s gallery buildings sit in the middle of a 1.5-acre pond.

Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—one of Texas’s most impressive architectural sites—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:

The exterior of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The facade is white and striated.
The exterior of the new addition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Photo by Henrik Kam, courtesy of SFMOMA

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

The exterior of the Salvador Dali Museum in Florida. The facade is white and there are two large glass structures shaped like bubbles in front. In the foreground is a curved bench with a melting clock on it.
The geodesic glass bubbles protruding from the side of the Dali Museum in 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

The exterior of the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado. The facade is paper and resin and resembled a woven box. Photo by Michael Moran / OTTO, courtesy of the Aspen Art Museum

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:

The exterior of the Walker Art Center in Minnesota. The facade is steel and curved.
The 2005 Herzog & de Meuron expansion at the Walker Art Center.
Photo by Floto+Warner, courtesy of the Walker Art Center

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.

Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington

The exterior of the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. The facade is multicolored steel and curved.
The Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

Created with over 21,000 aluminum and stainless steel singles and 280 steel ribs, this Frank Gehry-designed building pushes the boundaries of traditional museum architecture. To pay tribute to the pop-culture exhibits housed by the museum, Gehry sought to create a futuristic structure inspired by the rock ‘n’ roll experience.

The resulting building is a myriad of bright colors and fluid waves that looks different whether it’s viewed at night, during the day, or from different angles.

Watch: San Francisco's MOMA after recent expansion