From the Louvre Pyramid in Paris to both Guggenheims in New York and Bilbao, many of the world’s best-known architecture has been commissioned for museums. Here in our round-up of incredible museum buildings, we’ve focused on some lesser-known gems.
1. Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, Baku
Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, has become synonymous with outlandish buildings since the country began livening up its soviet-era architecture with money from the 2006 oil boom. One such is the new home of the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, commissioned when Azerbaijani carpets were proclaimed “a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage” by UNESCO in 2010. Austrian architect Franz Janz took the brief and ran with it, offering up a love-it-or-hate-it structure that resembles an unfurling patterned carpet.
2. Villers Abbaye, Villers la Ville, Belgium
This magnificent complex of Cistercian ruins houses a museum that provides an insight into the life of the monks and laymen of the order. Sitting atop hidden medieval water engineering that fed the Abbey mills, the real draw for many is the vestigial fabric of the buildings themselves (and how sympathetically they’ve been made accessible, using Corten weathering steel walkways). Around every corner awaits another poignantly beautiful vista of arched windows, cloisters, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, terraces and herb gardens. A fabulous family day out, with a farm, brewery and bistro to boot.
3. Neue Staatsgalerie, Germany
A James Stirling design for Stuttgart that some claim is the epitome of postmodernism, this building was built in a sensitive spot, next to the Alte Staatsgalerie, which it calls to softly with the use of warm sandstone and travertine while combining modernist and classical elements like vast, sloping, steel-ribbed windows, a rotunda for sky-viewing and brightly coloured metalwork and flooring.
4. The Guinness Storehouse, Ireland
The Guinness Storehouse is another museum where the interplay between the building and the exhibits helps to create a memorable experience. Housed in a red-brick, Chicago-style, former fermentation plant, the museum takes visitors on an interactive journey of discovery, from the founder’s story and base ingredients of Guinness on the ground floor, up through floors that demonstrate the various processes needed to bring the beverage to our taste buds, including roasting, mashing and even marketing the black gold. A glass atrium running through the height of the building resembles a pint glass and finally on the top floor is a penthouse bar with views over Dublin, where you can pour yourself a well-earned pint and reflect on all you’ve learned.
5. Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) Corones, Italy
Dedicated to mountaineering history and culture and designed by Zaha Hadid, MMM Corones perches in the perfect spot, at 2,275m altitude near the summit of Kronplatz (2,275 m), in South Tyrol. Accessible by cable car and on foot from Reischach and from Olang and Ruis, it is one of five mountain museums that are the brainchildren of Reinhold Messner, record-breaking mountaineer, explorer and former MEP. Hadid’s signature playfulness with lines allows the building to disappear into the mountain edge and reappear in fingers that appear to grasp the outcrop and provide panoramic viewing platforms over the Dolomites and the Alps.
If you’re in the area, another extraordinary museum building sits nearby – the Lumen Museum –a converted former funicular ski station turned photography gallery.
6. Chichu Art Museum, Japan
Chichu Art Museum, or ‘the art museum in the earth’ on the Japanese island of Naoshima is, as its name suggests, mostly underground, so the best way to appreciate the building is to see it from above. It inscribes itself in the Japanese Brutalist tradition and the aerial view reveals a series of geometric shapes that resemble a child’s sorting toy. Visitors flow through the complex of galleries via outdoor walks, talking in Monet’s Waterlilies and world-famous sculpture and installations as they go.
7. Casa Museu Passos Manuel, Portugal
In Santarém’s old quarter, near the citadel vestiges and Portas do Sol gardens, sits a house belonging to one of Portugal’s most influential families. Pedro Canavarro lives there. He’s a former Member of the European Parliament and great-great-grandson of 19th century parliamentarian and champion of education and the arts, Passos Manuel. So, to visit Casa Museu Passos Canavarro is to journey through Portuguese (and worldwide) art, culture and history. Tours are guided by the charming Canavarro himself. A sensuous walled courtyard garden full of citrus trees and babbling fountains is just an appetizer for the letters, objects, furniture and stories found within.
8. Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, South Africa
When you ask a ‘star-chitect’ described by contemporaries as ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of our times’ to transform a monolithic grain silo once ranked among Africa’s tallest buildings, you can be sure you’ll get a spectacular result. Thomas Heatherwick took the kernel of his idea from a single grain of corn once stored there and created cellular interior spaces, a cathedral-like atrium, and windows that billow outwards as if under pressure. According to Architectural Digest, Heatherwick’s “one regret is that we couldn’t have cut out that grain of corn and put it next to the museum on the square.”