Canadians aren’t known for controversy, but Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum stirred up passions when it unveiled “The Crystal” addition in 2007. Architect Daniel Libeskind’s angled steel, aluminum, and glass structure looks as if it crashed into the side of the Neo-Romanesque museum—which is either brilliant or appalling, depending on whom you ask.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the museums we’ve selected fit different definitions of the term. They aren’t confined to major cities, but will inspire you to consider destinations that may not be on your radar and to make a museum a part of your next trip.
After all, they’re more than just a pretty façade. A beautiful museum like the Royal Ontario stirs our emotions and challenges us. As Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, says: “We used to build temples, and museums are about as close as secular society dares to go in facing up to the idea that a good building can change your life (and a bad one ruin it).”
Good museums often draw beauty from their surroundings, whether by incorporating local materials or using surfaces that can interact with the shifting light and weather. At Brazil’s Museu Oscar Niemeyer, the glass-encased Annex (“The Eye”) tops a 60-foot-wide yellow pillar above a pool. The mutating reflection of the sky in the glass exterior and in the water below makes each viewing feel unique.
In one famous case, a beautiful museum actually made its location more attractive: Frank Gehry’s buzzed-about Guggenheim put Bilbao, Spain, on the tourist map when it opened in 1997. The museum’s titanium panels look like fish scales, and its 50-foot atrium is partially illuminated by light streaming from the “metallic flower” of the roof.
Justin Davidson, architecture critic for New York magazine, admires the Guggenheim Bilbao for working within its context and for drawing on the past. “The spirit of the Bilbao is essentially Baroque,” he says. “The curvature of its surfaces and in the quality of its forms—I think Gehry reinvented the Baroque for the contemporary age.”
Even though beauty thrives on reinvention, that doesn’t mean the contemporary always trumps the classic. There’s a timeless appeal to a museum like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or the original Guggenheim in New York. Read on to discover which beautiful museum resonates most with you.