World's Coolest Buildings
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."
30 St. Mary Axe, London
Why It’s Cool: In recent years, London kept a somewhat low architectural profile, but the buildings it did add—like this glittering office tower, nicknamed “the Gherkin” for its cucumber dimensions—exude panache. Diagonally striped bands of two shades of blue run almost the length of St. Mary’s 41 stories, which taper to a point. The triangular panes, of some 260,000 square feet of glass, form a captivating one-of-a-kind mosaic. And workers can crank them open for breezes, which wins this edifice points for greenness, too.
How to Visit: The spire’s white-tablecloth eatery is open only to those who work onsite. However, anyone can drink a toast to architecture in the first-floor bar.
Auditório Ibirapuera, Sao Paolo, Brazil
Architect: Oscar Niemeyer
Why It’s Cool: The United Nations co-designer conceived the Auditório Ibirapuera in 1951 for Sao Paolo’s 400th anniversary, but it wasn’t completed until 2005, after $12.8 million in funding materialized. (Fortunately, Niemeyer lived to see it—he’s now 101 years old.) Still, modernity hasn’t tempered the building’s offbeat, utopian spirit. With a doorstop shape and a wiggling tongue of a red-metal marquee, the venue also features a 60-foot-wide backstage panel that can open to allow for free outdoor concerts.
How to Visit: Enjoy the exterior from a blanket in the park, or buy a ticket to get a peek inside.
Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan
Architect: C.Y. Lee and Partners Architects
Why It’s Cool: For years, Taiwan, like much of eastern Asia, shunned skyscrapers over worries that earthquakes or typhoons might topple them. But new, high-grade mineral-flecked concrete that allows buildings to grow tall without sacrificing strength was put to ample use in this 2004 dart. At 1,667 feet, Taipei 101 is the planet’s tallest building—and will stay that way until Burj Dubai debuts later in 2009.
How to Visit: Shops fill the lower levels, but the views are the reason to come. Take the elevators—the world’s fastest—to the 89th floor to see a Volkswagen Beetle-size pendulum that keeps the building from shaking.
The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City
Architect: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/Sanaa
Why It’s Cool: Before the current bust, New York’s building binge was perhaps unequaled among Western cities. Breaking a tradition of using local talent, the city also signed up architects from overseas to freshen its look, such as this Japanese team, whose metallic 174-foot stack of six off-center boxes has no obvious peer. Inside the New Museum, tiny galleries eschew windows to maximize wall space, allowing for more art. And the brick-and-terracotta neighborhood visible from a seventh-floor terrace emphasizes the building’s fish-out-of-water status.
How to Visit: Tickets are $12; lolling in the lobby is free.
Turning Torso, Malmo, Sweden
Architect: Santiago Calatrava
Why It’s Cool: Frank Lloyd Wright used some guesswork to make sure Fallingwater didn’t fall; today, computers do the heavy lifting. They also permit farfetched forms that may have once worked only on paper, such as this 2005 building, which makes a genre-defying 90-degree clockwise rotation as it rises. Like many recent horizon-altering structures, Turning Torso combines a mix of uses, which has been a sure way for development to get funded; in fact, the 656-foot high-rise, which is Scandinavia’s tallest, tucks offices on floors one through 10, and apartments above them, allowing in-house commutes.
How to Visit: There no tours, but 30-person talks take place on the 7th floor (free, with reservations). The next-door shopping mall has an interactive exhibit on the tower, plus restaurants.
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar
Architect: I.M. Pei
Why It’s Cool: Packed with 1,200 years of sextants, silk carpets, and elaborately detailed pitchers, the Museum of Islamic Art dedicates only 10 percent of its space to galleries. Much else is left open, like a soaring 164-foot central atrium topped with a tiny round skylight that evokes the Cairo mosque on which the stone building was modeled. Alongside Doha’s partly built high-rises in a development-crazed region, the museum’s clean, elemental masses—which evoke an earlier Middle East—can seem quaint.
How to Visit: Open daily at 10:30. Tickets are free.
Jewish Museum Berlin, Germany
Architect: Daniel Libeskind
Why It’s Cool: Despite an understandably grim Holocaust focus, the Jewish Museum Berlin’s 2001 addition has the logic of a carnival fun house. There are twisting halls, angled floors, and rooms whose windows are diagonal slits. Outside in the “Garden of Exile,” 49 olive-tree-topped columns tilt 12 degrees sideways by the addition’s sharply pointed walls, which from above suggest pieces of a Star of David. Disorientation is the desired effect, according to Libeskind, to echo what World War II–era Jews felt before being shipped to death camps.
How to Visit: Open daily at 10 a.m.; admission is $6 for adults.
de Young Museum, San Francisco
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron
Why It’s Cool: Some architects try metal cladding, but these two nail it. At the four-year-old de Young, they skip traditional glass and steel for 950,000 pounds of perforated copper, which fog hasn’t yet turned green. The brown hue of the chunky nine-story tower, which rises from palms in Golden Gate Park, suggests a Mayan temple. Rooms, too, buck convention, with plenty of non-linear surfaces for Hudson River School landscapes. And ferns brush courtyard windows, which underscores the lush setting.
How to Visit: Open Tuesday through Sunday; tickets are $10.
China Central Television Headquarters, Beijing
Architect: Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren
Why It’s Cool: No two layouts of its 55 floors are the same. Only the Pentagon is a larger office building. Even in a country pushing architectural boundaries, this squared-off doughnut seems dizzyingly unique. And next fall, visitors could stand on glass discs in a cantilevered floor and stare down 500 unencumbered feet to the street (though a February fire at the Mandarin Oriental hotel next door could push back the already-delayed opening). “Amidst all the skyscrapers there, it’s relatively low,” said Koolhaas in 2006. “It will feel accessible.”
How to Visit: 11 Fuxing Road; under construction, but much to see from the streets. Tours may kick off when it opens.
BMW Central Building, Leipzig, Germany
Architect: Zaha Hadid
Why It’s Cool: Modernism is a trend that shows no sign of ebbing—what else are those ubiquitous glass-walled apartments but takes on Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House?Current designers also still seem keen on creating factories like the BMW Central Building, whose mass-produced goods embody Modernism’s underlying aesthetic. But Hadid’s confection, which knits together three outlying workshops, seems less mechanical than organic. Grooves ridge the skin along smoothly contoured edges. Tear-shaped concrete piers below resemble bones. And the overhead conveyor belts hurriedly hauling car frames could be blood vessels.
How to Visit: By appointment, Mon.–Fri., and occasionally Sat.; $154 for a 30-person group.
Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain
Architect: Frank Gehry
Why It’s Cool: The first glimpse of Guggenheim Bilbao’s rippling titanium walls in 1997 was a game-changer. Never again would paintings be displayed in humdrum hallways. Indeed, museums from Denver to Davenport, Iowa, have tried to whip up a “Bilbao effect” so their own retooled buildings might become instant landmarks. Bilbao also spawned the term “star-chitect,” as Gehry became an overnight object of hero worship. Ever since, developers of condos, offices and power plants have rushed to hire star-chitects, so their high-wattage imprimatur could sell products.
How to Visit: Open Tuesday to Sunday; tickets are $10.
Caltrans 7 District Headquarters Replacement Building, Los Angeles
Architect: Thom Mayne/Morphosis
Why It’s Cool: Despite both a cumbersome name and less-than-glamorous function—bureaucrats plan freeway repairs in 13 stories of offices—Mayne’s silvery hulk feels airy and fantastic. Eco-friendliness explains some of the cutting-edge appeal: The southern wall is covered by photovoltaic cells that transform sunlight into electricity. And the western side boasts double-thickness glass that keeps interiors cooler than single panes could, thus obviating the need for much air-conditioning.
How to Visit: The public can’t go upstairs, but there is a ground-floor restaurant, Begin’s Cafe (213/620-9565; www.beginscafe.com), which offers sandwiches on reusable dishware instead of throwaway plates.