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The Report

The World’s Most Inspiring New Museums

From a real-life Lego house to the new Louvre – the seven cultural hotspots to visit right now

  • Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town. Photograph by Mr Iwan Baan, courtesy of ZEITZ MOCAA

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Mr Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, the museum that saw architecture take on an almost equal (sometimes, arguably superior) status to the artefacts inside. Things haven’t slowed down over those two decades. A cascade of new openings this year and next shows the appetite for art remains voracious, and cities are still desperately keen to express their commitment to culture through powerful architecture.

While the wilder excesses of sculptural architecture embodied in the Guggenheim might have been a little toned down, the museum remains architecture’s critical medium. It is where architecture’s future is sketched out and where its successes – and failures – first become visible. The biggest difference is that architects are now working more with older buildings, either transforming existing institutions (MoMA, the Royal Academy, the V&A and Tate Modern are all being – or have been – hugely expanded) or converting industrial spaces for new uses. The interventions have become more sophisticated and nuanced, acknowledging former histories and stories, adding layers and exposing narratives of former incarnations of the architecture.

The contemporary museum has emerged not only as a status symbol for the city and self-conscious icon but as the laboratory for avant-garde architectural form. If you want to know what is going on in architecture today, you don’t look to housing or hotelsairports or city squares, but to the proliferating ranks of the world’s museums. It is one of the last places where architects are set genuinely free. Scroll on for the seven best examples anywhere in the world.

Louvre, Abu Dhabi

  • Photograph by Mr Mohamed Somji, courtesy of Louvre Abu Dhabi

The pierced, shallow-domed dish of architect Mr Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi covers what has become the most eagerly awaited museum in the Gulf. The long-promised big guns of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island have been slow to emerge but, as an opening shot, this one looks unmissable.

The museum beneath the sheltering dome appears as a Middle Eastern city, a jumble of white blocks assorted in an urban arrangement of pools and streets through which the visitor wanders, sheltered, all the while, by that great curving canopy above. The tangle of structural members which make up the dome allow enough light to penetrate the interior and filter it through its complex web so that thousands of sharp beams illuminate the spaces below. The single, sculptural gesture of the dome allows the museum below to be functional and flexible, without constricting it as some of the more sculptural architectural shells tend to do. If, however, Saadiyat Island is to become the global cultural hub that the wealthy Gulf State intends, there is still a long way to go. Work, for instance, on Mr Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim has made no progress at all since 2011. Nevertheless, this looks a lovely design and a serious mark of intent. As the structure outside of France to bear the Louvre’s name, it won’t suffer the fate of some new museums that find themselves with a stunning building and not a great deal to fill it with.

What to pack

  • Officine Generale Olive Garment-Dyed Cotton Unstructured Blazer

  • Paul Smith Slim-Fit Grandad-Collar Slub Cotton Shirt

Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town

  • Photograph by Mr Iwan Baan, courtesy of ZEITZ MOCAA

The latest blockbuster from designer Mr Thomas Heatherwick is an ingenious re-use of a huge grain silo on Cape Town’s V&A waterfront. With no single space to exploit (as at, say, Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall), Mr Heatherwick hit on the idea of carving out the bottom of the silos, creating an enormous void in a shape inspired by one of the grains the space originally stored. The result is a remarkable effect that looms above the visitors. There’s an almost-alien feel to the distorted forms through which light enters the newly created atrium from above, a sense that you’re in the intestines of some great beast. A hotel, The Silo, has been squeezed into the building’s tower, its convex windows bulging out of the openings as if this once-industrial complex could barely contain all the luxury and culture now rammed into it.

Mr Heatherwick has experienced mixed fortunes recently, with the abandonment of his parallel parks, London’s Garden Bridge and Pier 55 in New York, but this striking design (created for a surprisingly modest budget) puts him back at the top.

What to pack

  • Folk Rivet Slub Cotton Overshirt

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Yves Saint Laurent Museum, Marrakech

  • Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech Façade. Photograph by Mr Nicolas Mathéus, courtesy of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech and the Fondation Jardin Majorelle

The fashion designer and his partner Mr Pierre Bergé (who died in September) first came to Marrakech in the 1960s and on 19 October a handsome new museum will open in the Moroccan city dedicated to Mr Saint Laurent’s collection and archive. It launches in parallel with his Paris atelier at 5 avenue Marceau, an elegant Second Empire “hôtel particulier” (translation: nice standalone house) which has been dramatically reimagined by stage designer Ms Nathalie Crinière and Mr Jacques Grange, whose name you might not know but who has become the decorator of choice for French high society, haute couture and Hollywood royalty.

The Marrakech building however is entirely new, a low-lying, Art Deco-inflected work by Paris-based architects Studio KO (who designed the interiors of London’s Chiltern Firehouse hotel). It looks a little like a 1930s cinema, with its blind, curving, pink stone and concrete-clad walls: an elegant and occasionally rather surprising combination of materials which cocoons the precious exhibits of Mr Saint Laurent’s work in a solid carapace. There isn’t much surprising about a fashion museum to one of the 20th century’s greatest couturiers in a posh Paris house, but to find a partner with far more design and originality in Marrakech is fascinating and genuinely unexpected.

What to pack

  • Camoshita Slim-Fit Camp-Collar Striped Voile Shirt

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Design Society, Shenzhen

  • Photograph courtesy of Design Society

London’s V&A has been on a roll. Opening its new ceramic-tiled, Amanda Levete-designed Sackler Courtyard earlier this year and the cavernous exhibition space below, it has hugely expanded its capacity and is now spreading to Scotland and, further afield, to Shenzhen. The Dundee design, currently under construction, is the work of Mr Kengo Kuma; the Shenzhen collaboration is by another Japanese architect, Mr Fumihiko Maki.

Situated in the Sea World Culture And Arts Centre (which makes it sound as if it should be accompanied by synchronised-swimming dolphins), the new institution has been built by developer China Merchants Group, in association with the V&A. This isn’t a conventional museum, but more of an arts platform for an evolving programme – something different from its London parent institution. The building is also very different from South Kensington’s complex classical mass; a clean, clear-white edifice with a large roof terrace, it is a very contemporary, though relatively restrained piece of architecture. It also has this region stitched up for a few years until the arrival of the vast M+ Museum in nearby Hong Kong, designed by Herzog & De Meuron (architects of the Tate Modern’s recent extension), which will feature an extensive design component.

What to pack

  • Neighborhood Bolt Printed Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt

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EMST, Athens

  • Photograph by Ms Stephie Grape, courtesy of EMST, Athens

Greece has suffered a torrid decade of severe austerity, political turmoil and public protest. So it isn’t surprising that the opening of its new contemporary art museum has taken on the temporal dimensions of mythical time. The building housing the museum once accommodated a vast brewery, established by a German emigré in the mid-19th century but only taking on its strikingly modernistic current form after a rebuilding by Greek architect Mr Takis Zenetos dating from 1957. This stunning, straight ribbon of pure white modernism cuts brutally across the picturesque hillside houses so characteristic of the city. With its abstract, disruptive form and industrial-scale spaces it could hardly be better suited for a modern art museum. Unfortunately, a part of the original modernist building was demolished to make way for a subway station in the 1990s, reducing its former epic impact on the cityscape.

Nevertheless, the architects of the building’s most recent iteration, 3SK Stylianidis Architects, Ioannis Mouzakis & Associate Architects and Tim Ronalds Architects have together done a stylish job in difficult conditions, creating the housing for an institution that hopes to heal some of the wounds inflicted on Greek society through the development of a hugely significant new public space.

What to pack

  • Prada Slim-Fit Stretch Cotton-Blend Poplin Shirt

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Lego House, Billund, Denmark

  • Photograph courtesy of LEGO House

At the moment, Lego could do with some good news. After a year that saw profits at the plastic toymaker tumble and mass lay-offs at its production plants, Danish “superstarchitect” Mr Bjarke Ingels’ injection of fun might be just what it needs.

Designed, perhaps unsurprisingly, to resemble a Lego construction, the building is made of stacked-up white blocks, their brightly coloured roofs reflecting the plastic bricks. The rectangular white brick over the centre is even formed in the shape of a Lego brick with eight cylindrical studs as ceiling lights. One terrace will appear as a climbable cascade of Lego pieces, a crumbling corner of a child’s construction. Like the silly, feel-good story broadcasters like to end the news on, the Lego House is a self-indulgent but witty gag that may well prove a hugely popular success. 

What to pack

  • visvim 101 Selvedge Denim Jacket

  • The Elder Statesman Oversized Printed Cashmere and Silk-Blend T-Shirt

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

  • Photograph courtesy of St Ives TV

When the old Tate St Ives opened in 1993, it seemed absurdly overscaled, a big postmodern monument, its circular portico echoing the form of the gas holders that once occupied the remarkable cliffside site. But its size became a self-fulfilling prophecy, eventually attracting more than 200,000 visitors a year to the small Cornish fishing town. Originally designed to house the small-scale canvases, sculptures and ceramics of the popular St Ives artists, the size of the contemporary art it hoped to accommodate hypertrophied and a new building was needed.

That extension has just opened. And it is superb. Designed by Canadian-born, London-based architect Mr Jamie Fobert, the major contribution is a huge new gallery. With a ceiling of deep concrete beams and refreshingly cool Atlantic light flooding in from six huge chambers or skylights above, it is one of Britain’s finest new art spaces. From the outside, the impact has been kept low – this is deliberately not an icon. But it does have an identity, largely supplied by its walls clad in blue-green ceramics which meticulously mimic the colours of the sea. It is also a building that takes full advantage of its site – and one that visitors can clamber on top of. There is an almost-secret garden on its roof, in which you can wander between the skylights and take in the view of one of Britain’s most beautiful beaches.

What to pack

  • Albam Fleece Jacket

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