It’s no surprise that the crowds pushing through New York’s Soho neighborhood make it difficult to pause and admire the view. But plenty of pedestrians risk trampling—or worse, scorn—from harried locals to gawk at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Looming like a mysterious obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the boxy tower hovers above ho-hum brick walkups. With minimal windows, the building’s flat walls are dolled up with chain-mail mesh, and a subversive touch comes from what seems to be an oversized refrigerator magnet spelling out “Hell Yes!” in rainbow lettering. The building practically forces you do a double take.
Such is the charm of cool architecture, which may be influenced by its setting, but mostly transcends it. And as numerous blue-ribbon edifices popped up across the globe in recent years, there’s more of it to enjoy than ever. “The last decade has definitely been a fertile and inventive period,” says Carol Willis, an architectural historian who heads New York’s Skyscraper Museum, which she founded in 1997.
But mere images can’t do these buildings justice. As with any famous painting or photograph, cool architecture is best savored up close and personal, from multiple angles, in the flesh. Sometimes, these pilgrimages can include a journey inside the buildings, as most are open to the public. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, for example—whose genre-busting curvy forms kicked off this recent design Golden Age—presents a wealth of art.
The de Young Museum also begs for a thorough top-to-bottom exploration, if only to see the ninth-floor observation deck’s panorama of San Francisco, which renders the city’s landscape as if some type of living, breathing atlas.
Other buildings, though, mostly contain homes or businesses, and so must be appreciated from the street. But that perspective can enhance the viewing experience rather than diminish it. Take the Caltrans building in Los Angeles. Seen from the plaza of the Art Deco City Hall complex across the street, the avant-garde design of Thom Mayne’s sci-fi spaceship appears that much more striking. Similarly, to understand the audacity of the sculptural Turning Torso, from Santiago Calatrava, it might be helpful to behold it from the rough edge of the harbor in working-class Malmo, Sweden.
In many ways, it’s a wonder that skyscrapers like Turning Torso were ever built. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many declared the era of the skyscraper to be kaput. Yet that was before surging real estate values spurred civic and business leaders to embark on one of the most prolific building booms of the last 150 years. “There was a reassessment about whether the skyscraper should be the locus and identity of global business,” Willis says, “and the answer was a resounding yes.”
Technological advances spurred construction, too. Steel got lighter and stronger. Concrete, which hadn’t changed much since the Roman Empire, was also improved. Reaching the sky’s upper limits became not only easier to pull off, but the resulting structures were also more durable. That was critical for record breakers in height, like Taipei 101, which had to withstand powerful storms.
But it hasn’t been enough for cool buildings to be tall. They now need to be attractive as well, since the public palate for architecture has grown increasingly sophisticated. In fact, some German carmakers even enlisted the help of Zaha Hadid, a winner of the prestigious Pritzker prize, to create a factory.
The boom is clearly now over, though the skylines it redefined endure. Because of that, these iconic buildings should continue to turn heads for longtime residents or first-time visitors for years to come. They also may be useful signposts.
“Seeing a distinctive skyline is like an establishing shot in a movie,” Willis says. “It tells you where you are.”