A hot orange wave catches my eye as I walk into the new exhibit at UMMA. It’s a study for the roof of the Paul Klee Centre in Switzerland. Like most of the buildings featured in this exhibit of 21st-century museum architecture, this one started with a fantastical model—playful, bright, ambitious, a little crazy—and ended as a finished building—real, big, and even more amazing than its origins.

After my detour at the wave, I return to the exhibit’s official starting point, a photo of what will become the Denver Art Museum, and look around for the building’s prospective comple-tion date. The edifice is a pile of massive triangles balanced at impossible angles, gleaming in impossible, Photoshopped sunlight. I’m thinking this thing could never hold up, but then I see the construction dates: 2003–2006. I’m stunned: this thing exists? A video shows the architect Daniel Libeskind talking about the project. “All the world’s a stage,” he quotes. And all the men and women merely characters in a sci-fi novel, I think.

My suspicions are confirmed by Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz, which looks like some sort of deep-sea creature, or a giant pool floaty with a bunch of air holes, plopped in the middle of a neighborhood with aged trees and old brick buildings. The air holes—termed “nozzles”—are actually north-facing skylights that stick out through the “skin” of the museum’s curved blue acrylic frame. In Graz, the Kunsthaus is known as “the friendly alien,” and it strikes me as nearly plausible that it woke up one morning to find it wasn’t in outer space but in central Europe and quite happy to be there. (It’s easier to get my head around this explanation than to try to understand the physics.)

For some reason, the models kept conjuring images of food. The Chichu Art Museum (Japan) was built into the side of a hill overlooking the ocean, but the model makes me think of cave dwellings that have been exposed by some giant cutting into his mountain of cake. A model of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart reminds me of oversized stacks of half-eaten pancakes. Maybe it’s lunchtime, or maybe the aesthetic of this exhibit is just delectable: an entire gallery of creative seeds that have (almost all) grown into lush creations, ripe for the picking.

The grandeur of this gallery echoes the grandeur of these architectural feats. Its super-high ceilings—extended nine feet in the recent renovation of the museum’s original 1910 structure—make me anxious to see the rest of the building and UMMA’s sleek new extension, a modern box-like structure that doesn’t succumb to the rampant futurism of most of the other buildings featured in the exhibit. I leave it up to other viewers, who may see the exhibit through May 3, to decide whether that’s a disappointment or a relief.