The World's Top Architecture Museums

by Jonathan Lerner

Spending so much of our lives inside them, and surrounded by them, we often take buildings for granted. But architecture can help us understand history and grapple with the future. The following fascinating museums are dedicated to buildings, cities and landscapes -- the places where we live.

Skyscraper Museum, New York

Even the most jaded Manhattanite can't resist staring upward sometimes. The city is a vertical metropolis, and it has a museum dedicated to that subject. New York City's Skyscraper Museum explores the design, technology and culture of tall buildings. Permanent displays include miniature models of Downtown and Midtown Manhattan, historical photos of skyscrapers under construction and a section devoted to the Word Trade Center and rebuilding at Ground Zero. Through 2009 the exhibition "China Prophecy" examines booming Shanghai as a model for future urbanism. The museum offers frequent free talks by architects and authors.

39 Battery Place. Tel. 212-968-1961. Admission: $5, $2.50 for students and seniors. Open 12 to 6 p.m., Wed. to Sun.

National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.

It's fitting that Washington, D.C.'s National Building Museum created by Congress should concern itself as much with the future of our built environment as with its past. Exhibitions have addressed new visions for affordable housing, sustainable buildings and cities, concepts for rebuilding New Orleans -- as well as the work of master architects like Wright and Saarinen and other historic themes. Through 2011, "Washington: Symbol and City" reveals the tension between the capital's role as national landmark and metaphor, and its everyday functioning as a place where regular people live. The "Building Zone" is a hands-on exploration space for kids up to 6 years old. The museum occupies one of D.C.'s most spectacular 19th-century structures, modeled after a 16th-century Roman palace designed by Michelangelo.

401 F St., NW. Tel. 202-272-2448. Admission: free, $5 donation suggested. Open Mon. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Canadian Centre For Architecture, Montreal

The provocative exhibitions here change often and range widely. Recent ones have explored the history of skylights, actions individuals can take to affect the city, and the architectural innovations spurred by the 1973 oil crisis. The Centre for Architecture occupies a striking post-modern building that wraps around an important 19th-century mansion. It sits in a garden that evokes historical periods of landscape design. Tours of the building (and garden, in summer) are offered daily. On Thursday evenings, there are lectures, screenings and gallery talks.

1920 rue Baile. Tel. 514-939-7000. Admission: CAD $10 (about US $8.60), $7 (about US $6) for seniors, students and free for children. Open Wed. to Sun., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thu. until 9 p.m.

Architecture+Design Museum, Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a fertile incubator of modernism, in both its urban form and its buildings. And this ultra-creative California metropolis -- its evolution, seminal architects, and possible futures -- are frequent topics for exhibitions here. Graphic and product design are also explored. Exhibitions change frequently. (The museum is closed until inaugurating its new space in September 2009.)

6032 Wilshire Blvd. Tel. 323-932-9393. Admission: $5, students and seniors $2.50, free for children. Open Tue. to Fri., 10 a.m to 6 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Heinz Architectural Center, Pittsburgh

This section of the Carnegie Museum of Art has an extensive collection of architectural drawings, prints and models from which its changing exhibitions are drawn. The museum also incorporates the monumental Hall of Architecture, opened in 1907, where more than 140 plaster casts of doorways, columns and other architectural details are displayed. These casts were taken from significant buildings dating from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance.

4400 Forbes Ave. Tel. 412-622-3131. Admission: $15,seniors $12, students and children $11. Open Tue. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thu. until 8 p.m., Sun. 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

International Architecture Museums

The Alvar Aalto Museum

Jyväskylä, Finland, is devoted to the buildings and furniture of this seminal modernist designer.

The MeijiMura Museum

Inayuma, Japan is an open-air museum dedicated to the architecture and design of the prolific Meiji period (1868-1912).

The Lighthouse, Scotland's Center for Architecture

Design and the City, Glasgow, is housed in an 1895 Charles Rennie Mackintosh landmark. Its tower gives panoramic views of the city, while its exhibitions and programs showcase current and historic trends in architecture and urbanism.

The Netherlands Architecture Institute

Rotterdam, located in one of the world's most architecturally innovative cities, explores both Dutch and international work.