World's Most Beautiful Buildings
A hundred years ago, naming the world’s most beautiful buildings was easy: the Parthenon. Sure. The Taj Mahal. Absolutely. Hagia Sophia. No argument. But now, in part because the whole notion was chewed up and spit out by those troublemaking Modernists, we’re just learning to think about architecture in terms of beauty again. It’s open season.
We readily admit our choices for the world’s most beautiful buildings are questionable. They include Gaudí’s controversial Sagrada Família cathedral (arguably a top sight) in Barcelona—a building that teeters on the boundary between love and hate. We see that edge as the exact place where beauty happens. Beautiful is not the same as pretty; it’s a strong word, suggesting big emotions.
Beauty also elicits reaction, like the goose bumps you get when you see another of the world’s most beautiful buildings: the tremendous curl of the Akron Boys and Girls Club II roof rising from its flat, dusty small town Alabama surroundings. Or the dumb “Wow!” you might utter when you first step into the soaring atrium lobby of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. The 60-story sail-shaped hotel is one of the most talked about properties on the planet because of its sheer size and unique architectural vision. It’s no surprise the hotel is a national icon, a source of local pride that also lures thousands of travelers to the Middle East’s most forward-looking city each year.
Yes, certain themes are evident in our choices of the world’s most beautiful buildings. We love buildings surrounded by water; the interaction between water and daylight is always magical. (Why do you think the Lincoln Memorial has a reflecting pool at its doorstep?) And we are head over heels for flamboyant uses of pattern and color. The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, for example, is positively psychedelic.
So are we consistent? Nope. But however capricious our choices may seem, we don’t take beauty lightly. After all, the ongoing search for beauty is what travel is all about. It’s certainly the best reason we know to leave the house.
Sagrada Família, Barcelona
Visionary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí spent more than 40 years of his life on this glorious, chaotically complex, and still unfinished Gothic-Art Nouveau cathedral. After his untimely death in 1926 (he was hit by a streetcar), his associates continued his sculptural masterwork, and despite the fact that the original drawings were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, construction continues today. Completion is scheduled for sometime between 2017 and 2026.
Authenticity Alert: The east-facing Nativity façade was the only one completed by Gaudí himself.
Burj Al Arab, Dubai, UAE
This 60-story sail-shaped hotel, which sits on its own private island, was designed to be a national icon. But the interior is where the beauty lies: a nearly 600-foot-tall atrium—the world’s tallest. The undersides of tier after tier of semicircular balconies reveal a spectrum of colors. And the tower’s powerful diagonal braces, like the flying buttresses of the past, inspire awe.
Insider Tip: Non-guests can gain access to the Burj Al Arab’s private island by booking a meal at one of its restaurants; try afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar or a buffet lunch at Junsui.
Institute for Sound and Vision, Hilversum, The Netherlands
The work of Jaap Drupsteen, the graphic artist responsible for the building-size media collage, used to be everywhere in the Netherlands. This building is his comeback. Along with architecture firm Neutelings Riedijk, he covered the façade of the massive media archive and museum with images from Dutch television, abstracted into a giant four-sided mural and baked directly onto cast glass. The effect is stunning inside and out.
Experiential Beauty: Tour the history of Dutch broadcasting, or simply gaze up at the stained glass from a table at the atrium’s Grand Café.
The Golden Temple,Amritsar, India
This most sacred Sikh shrine sits in the middle of what was once a wooded lake. The Buddha came here to meditate, and so did Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, some 2,000 years later. The Harimandir, or “Temple of God,” was built and destroyed many times before the current version was erected in the late 1700s. The radiance of this gilded building, a mixture of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles, is amplified by reflections in the surrounding water and the devotional music that emanates from the temple day and night.
Night Owls Welcome: The temple is open 20 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and is illuminated (and especially lovely) at night.
National Congress Hall,Brasilia, Brazil
Brasilia probably works better as a Modernist sculpture garden than as a city, but if there is one piece of it that best represents the whole, it’s Congress Hall. Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s colonnaded marvel, with its grand sci-fi entrance ramp, skinny twin towers, and two bowl-shaped meeting halls (one for the Chamber of Deputies and one for the Federal Senate), treats the business of government as a monumental work of art.
Not Just Skin Deep: Go inside and check out the Green Hall (named for the color of the carpet and the Brazilian flag), with its collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative screens by renowned Brazilian artists.
The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
The Frank Gehry–designed, titanium-clad phenomenon that upstaged the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright transformed the way the world understands architecture, art museums, and the strategies for reviving depressed industrial cities. Today, the shiny undulating museum doesn’t look as shocking as it once did, but it does embody a certain kind of late 20th-century thinking—the thrill of formal complexity and high art.
Small Is Beautiful: Alternatively, we could make a case for Frank Gehry’s first major building, the diminutive white Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
The Chrysler Building, New York City
Designed by architect William van Alen, the Chrysler’s shiny, filigreed Art Deco spire is the most indispensable piece of the New York City skyline, perfectly balancing the primal thrust of the classic American skyscraper with the desire for a little bling. (It was the world’s tallest for less than a year in 1931 before that zeppelin-masted tower eight blocks south took the spotlight.) Day or night, its stainless-steel crown still dazzles like nothing else.
Icon Alert: This is possibly the only building in the world that is decorated with automotive hood ornaments: the big eagles on the 61st floor were copied from a 1929 Chrysler.
Mont St. Michel,Normandy, France
Though not as lavish as some landlocked cathedrals, this abbey is certainly the most dramatically situated, enjoying prime real estate just off the coast of Normandy. The first abbey was built in 709, with construction continuing for hundreds of years. Spurning the safety of the causeway (built in 1879 and currently being reconstructed), pilgrims still scamper across the sands at low tide to reach the Mont, and risk being overtaken by fast-moving waters.
Dining Tip: Try the agneau de pré-salé, a local specialty made from meat from the lambs that graze on the nearby salt meadows.
ICMC at Brandenburg Technical University, Cottbus, Germany
While many architects prefer the smoothest, clearest glass, Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron specializes in texture. This technologically sophisticated university library, in an obscure corner of Eastern Germany, is clad in frosted glass—and embossed with letters from the world’s alphabets. Shaped like an amoeba, with its central spiral staircase in bright magenta and green, the seven-story building looks like a carnival ride.
Relativity Theory: The free-form building looks especially impressive because it’s surrounded by long, dull, rectilinear buildings of the sort the East Germans were known for.
Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Bloch Building, Kansas City, MO
Unlike many modern additions to historic museums, Steven Holl’s 21st-century companion doesn’t overwhelm the 1933 Beaux Arts original. His string of iridescent frosted-glass boxes pop out of the grassy lawn—they are absolutely magical at dusk when they begin to glow—and filter sunlight into a series of dramatic underground galleries.
Special Attraction: Check out the Noguchi Sculpture Court, a minimalist space created by the famed Japanese-American artist that cleverly blurs the line between indoors and out.
Gresham Palace, Budapest,Hungary
A $125 million restoration brought this 1906 gem by Art Nouveau architect Zsigmond Quittner back to life. Originally built as a status symbol for the Gresham Life Assurance Company of London, it was battered by WWII and abused by the Communists. Now it’s a Four Seasons Hotel, and a reconstruction of the dazzling, glass-covered shopping arcade—once a destination for Budapest’s elite—serves as the hotel lobby.
Serious Pastry: The Gresham has a new restaurant modeled on the café where the local intelligentsia used to argue over coffee and pastry.
Christian Dior Store, Omotesando, Tokyo
Omotesando is a shopping strip more famous for its architecture than for the designer merchandise sold there. Herzog & de Meuron did Prada, Toyo Ito did Tod’s, and Tadao Ando designed the local mall. But our favorite is SANAA’s diaphanous showcase for Dior. In a district where every building is a spectacle, the Pritzker Prize–winning firm built a deceptively simple box of light. The effect is magical, especially at night.
Weird Beauty: Don’t forget to check out Gyre by the Dutch firm MVRDV, just down the street.
Hearst Tower, New York City
Most contemporary skyscrapers—Burj Khalifa or the Petronas Towers—work best from a distance, but the amazing thing about the Hearst Tower on West 57th Street is that it’s most beautiful up close. The distinctive triangular panels from which architect Norman Foster formed the façade are highly efficient, using 20 percent less steel than more conventional buildings, but that’s almost irrelevant. The important thing is that the triangular motif makes the modest 42-story tower more spectacular than skyscrapers two or three times its height.
Magic Revealed: In the lobby, you can see how the steel structure supports the tower that appears to float above its six-story Art Deco base.
Therme Vals, Vals, Switzerland
This extraordinary bathhouse, mostly underground, contains a network of thermal pools situated between walls assembled from some 6,000 layered slabs of local stone, Valser gneiss, cut to architect Peter Zumthor’s precise specification. The grassy roof is punctuated here and there by thin skylights, softly lighting the bathing areas below. The overall effect is the rarest thing in architecture: true timelessness.
Back in the Real World: The adjacent hotel complex is a holdover from the 1960s, but Zumthor has spruced up the dining facilities. Try drinks in the Blue Lounge.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan
Precariously situated on a rock outcropping some 2,600 feet above the Paro Valley (which is itself about 7,000 feet above sea level), Paro Taktsang—or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery—is a breathtaking sight. Dating from 1692, the complex is built around a cave where the Indian Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated in the 8th century. This remote agglomeration of rock formation and man-made monastery is one of Bhutan’s most sacred shrines.
Pilgrimage: Guru Rinpoche is said to have arrived on the back of a flying tiger; today visitors generally reach the monastery via a climb of several hours. It’s not for the acrophobic.
New NorwegianOpera and Ballet, Oslo, Norway
There’s something about the way this opera house appears to rise out of the sea—think glacier—that transforms a building that’s all elbows into a thing of beauty. Instead of standing high above the harbor, the New Norwegian slopes gently down to the water’s edge, turning the building’s roof into a public space. The trailblazing architects at Snohetta call it a “carpet,” but to us it looks like a beach.
High Meets Low: After consulting with skateboarders, the architects covered key rooftop areas with bumpy marble to keep riders away, but left many smooth surfaces for boarding pleasure.
Great Mosque, Djenne, Mali
In sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest city, Djenne, you’ll find a monumental mosque built from mud bricks (and held together with more mud) by the Dogons, an African people who use mud as ancient Romans used marble. Mosques have been built on this site, the center of what was once a prosperous trading city, since the 13th century A.D.; the present Great Mosque, overlooking the market square, dates from 1906. Each spring, local masons maintain the mosque by applying a new layer of mud.
Ornament: Each of the mosque’s towers is topped with the local form of architectural decoration, an ostrich egg, symbolizing fertility or good fortune.
Catherine Palace, Outside St. Petersburg,Russia
Named for Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, this way-way-over-the-top 18th-century palace, with its distinctive blue façade, was built mostly by her spendthrift daughter, Empress Elizabeth. While most visitors come to see the Amber Room, a contemporary reproduction of the lavish chamber that was disassembled and carted away by the Nazis, the airy, classically inspired wing designed by Catherine II’s favorite architect, Charles Cameron, is much lovelier.
Tsarist Fun: Visit in the winter if you want to tour the grounds on a horse-drawn sleigh.
The Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany
The ur-Modernist building, designed by Walter Gropius and completed in 1926, features one of the earliest versions of the now-commonplace glass curtain wall. The crazy thing about the Bauhaus is that, for all the school’s well-known philosophizing about industrial methods, its own building was lovingly handmade, something that becomes obvious if you set foot inside.
More Modernism: The Bauhaus building is open to the public for exhibitions and events, and when in Dessau, you can also visit Bauhaus treasures such as the Master’s Houses and the Restaurant Kornhaus.
Akron Boys and Girls Club II, Akron, AL
Built by The Rural Studio, which famously teaches its architecture students to build structures made from scavenged materials for impoverished clients, this club features a big recreation area. Sheltered by a rolling wave of a roof, it’s supported by an ingenious early-1900s structural technique called lamella, with a high-tech-looking triangular frame fashioned from low-tech wood.
More Beauty: Also check out the student-built firehouse in downtown Newbern, AL, as well as the memorial to the school’s founder, Samuel Mockbee, behind the big red barn the school uses for its design studio.
Wat Rong Khun, ChiangRai, Thailand
Honestly, we can’t decide whether this contemporary Buddhist temple—construction began in 1997 and is ongoing—is overwhelmingly beautiful or fantastically ugly. Either way, it’s supremely eye-catching. Unlike most Thai shrines, this epic project by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat is devoid of color. Its crazily ornate sculptures and mosaics are white, white, white—a symbol of purity—and deep inside sits a golden Buddha.
New Gods: Along with statues of Buddha and ancient mythological figures, there are also representations of more contemporary seekers, such as Neo from The Matrix and Spider-Man.
Hand-Made School, Rudrapur, Bangladesh
This prize-winning village school, designed by a pair of young German architects—Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag—and built using local materials and methods, looks like something Norman Foster would make…if his clients favored mud and bamboo. It’s a remarkably elegant building—especially the bamboo roof structure—made from cheap, low-tech materials. And little gestures, like the colorful curtains hanging in every doorway, highlight the schoolhouse’s simple beauty.
Road Trip: Rudrapur is a solid 230 miles from Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, a 10-hour drive. But the countryside is reputed to be “verdant.”