Art museums have been sites for architectural innovation ever since Edward Durrell Stone came up with the design for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with trustee Philip L Goodwin.

Together they produced an emblem of a new type of museum: flat-fronted, no columns, opening straight on to the street, with six floors stacked like an office block and a terrace at the top to look out over 1930s Manhattan. It was connected to the surrounding city, rather than set apart from it.

From this point onwards, it was not nearly as clear as it had been in the past what an art museum should look like or how it should be designed. With the advent of modernism and the beginnings of a belief that new art was at least as interesting and worth collecting as old, there came an urge to experiment with new ideas about how a museum should operate and relate to its public.

There was a growing belief that museums should be less fusty and more democratic

They began to show contemporary art, photography, design and architecture as well as paintings and sculpture; meanwhile, the public became more demanding of better facilities and more information about the works on display.

There was a growing belief that museums should be less fusty and more democratic. The age of authority was dead – and now a new era of radical experimentation, interaction and architectural invention had begun.

Each decade since the Museum of Modern Art has produced a new museum of extraordinary significance: Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim, which opened its doors in 1959; the original Whitney Museum, designed by Marcel Breuer opened on Madison Avenue in 1966 and the São Paulo Museum of Art, by Lina Bo Bardi, was inaugurated (bizarrely) by the Queen two years later; Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano made their reputations with Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which they won in an open international competition in the 1970s; and Norman Foster consolidated his through the industrial design of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich.

The approaching millennium marked another turning point, with the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao in 1997 and Tate Modern in 2000, both of which were all about contemporary art and much less interested in its history.

So, what next? There are plenty of new museums planned for the next few years, including Jamie Fobert’s new-look National Portrait Gallery and the LACMA expansion by Peter Zumthor in Los Angeles, both set for 2023. Galleries of the future are likely to be lighter weight, more ecological and even more contemporary – let’s hope they demonstrate the same swagger and confidence as their predecessors.

‘The Art Museum in Modern Times’ by Charles Saumarez Smith (Thames & Hudson, £30) is out in hardback on 24 March

modern art museum
Jeremy Jachym

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Copenhagen, Denmark

The opening of the Louisiana in 1958 was as much a moment for modernist architecture as it was for contemporary art. Guided by the existing lake and woodland of a peaceful site 20 miles north of Copenhagen, its low-slung network of pavilions and corridors was designed by Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert as the antithesis of the forbidding state museums found in Europe’s capital cities.

Stuffy halls were swapped for sea views, gardens dotted with sculpture and contemplative spaces for visitors to rest and reflect on the collection. Danish cheese manufacturer Knud W Jensen might have made for an unlikely founder, but his vision of an informal museum set in nature sparked what is now one of the world’s most loved.

modern art museum
Frédéric Soltan

Pompidou Centre

Paris, France

Then French president Georges Pompidou couldn’t have predicted the radical outcome of his call to design a contemporary art museum in 1971. The forward-thinking brief sought something more than a gallery – this was to be a ‘flexible’ cultural centre, housing a vast library and research hub alongside the artworks.

Over 600 architects reckoned they had the right idea, but it was a collaborative entry by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano that topped the lot, with a series of cavernous open plazas inside and a public piazza out. Futuristic and unapologetically fun, its exposed, industrial exterior suggested to Piano, ‘a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and coloured tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of Paris’.

modern art museum
Marco Brivio

Guggenheim Bilbao

Bilbao, Spain

Few art museums can claim as close a link with their location as the Guggenheim Bilbao – and fewer yet their own phenomenon. Measured in cold, hard metrics like visitor numbers and economic growth, ‘The Guggenheim Effect’ refers to the uplift in fortunes for the Basque city after it unveiled the gallery.

With a fluid, billowing structure by Frank Gehry that swiftly became his best-known work, it’s won the approval of critics and crowds of tourists alike, and proved an arts hub can provide a convincing draw for even the most unlikely destination. It’s now perhaps more monument than museum – few are as fussed about its contents as that shimmering façade.

modern art museum
The Beyeler Foundation

Beyeler Foundation

Basel, Switzerland

Though 1997 in the art world is best remembered for the seismic arrivals of the Guggenheim and Getty, a third influential gallery made a quieter entrance. The Beyeler Foundation is a public museum with a private feel, built beyond the city with the serenity of a modern Greek temple.

The exacting standards of art dealer Ernst Beyeler, who founded it with wife Hildy, are the stuff of legend – it took three years to develop the lightweight glass roof, which maximises daylight cast into the exhibition spaces below, and he later had the gallery repainted a new shade of white while the project director was away. The difference, by all accounts, was imperceptible.

modern art museum
SANAA / Century Museum of Contemporary Art

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

Kanazawa, Japan

If there was one word to sum up the story of this gallery on Japan’s north coast, it would be democracy. Chosen by a citizen’s forum, architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa consulted with the museum’s artistic director Yuko Hasegawa to devise a layout that would be democratic by design.

Circular and single-storey, it has four identical entry points and 18 gallery spaces approached from multiple directions. ‘Each visitor creates his or her own, different and specific itinerary,’ said Nishizawa. It went on to win the Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Biennale – before it had even opened.

modern art museum
Simon Menges c/o Brigitta Horvat

The Hepworth Wakefield

Yorkshire, UK

When Wakefield Council announced intentions to build a new home for its collection donated by the estate of city native Barbara Hepworth, it attracted entries from the world’s architectural elite, including Kengo Kuma and Zaha Hadid. But it was British architect David Chipperfield whose proposal was selected – he envisioned a row of concrete trapezoids with pitched roofs, picture windows and a physicality that spoke to Hepworth’s sculptures.

In all, it took eight years to design and build on the banks of the River Calder, backed by a patchwork of public funding. Together with Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute, it has elevated Yorkshire into a global destination for sculpture.

modern art museum
Conradin Frei

Muzeum Susch

Susch, Switzerland

Though it only opened in 2019, Muzeum Susch is a far cry from the airy foyers of most modern galleries. The setting is undeniably picturesque – a 12th-century monastery (and later, an adjacent brewery) among the alpine slopes of a remote Swiss village. Yet much of the museum is underground: with buildings under local protection, there was nowhere to go but into the mountainside.

In total, 9,000 tons of rock were blasted out to form the labyrinthine network of extraordinary exhibition spaces, which feature raw rock walls, dripping stalactites and walls rendered with the excavated materials. Unorthodox and utterly original, it’s a testament to the union of experimental young architects and an imaginative private collector.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration March 2021

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