World's Coolest Futuristic Buildings
Zooming around with jet packs and living in rocket-shaped buildings seemed our destiny during the space age-obsessed 1950s and '60s. With civilian space travel now nearly a reality, how do today's starry-eyed architects see the future?
Well, it turns out a survey of morphing city skylines reveals abstract structures inspired by nature or cultural symbols and engineered to reach higher, glow brighter, curve, and swoop.
These futuristic buildings are not only visually arresting, they offer novel solutions to the challenges that lie ahead, such as harvesting water from clouds (as Dubai's vertigo-inducing, 2,716.5-feet-high Burj Khalifa does), creating high-rise rooftop forests, and offering perks like charging stations for electric cars.
Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award, believes that the best buildings balance innovation and beauty with time-tested architectural principles. "First, it needs to be well constructed and function well, but it must also delight," she says. "The delight aspect is the most difficult to pin down, but perhaps the most important."
Consider New Mexico's Spaceport America, a surreal Foster + Partners construction that will soon be the take-off point for Virgin Galactic's civilian space odysseys. Or Zaha Hadid's Galaxy Soho Building, a series of white domed structures connected by skybridges that feels refreshingly fluid amid the imposing architecture that dominates Beijing.
Other buildings that caught our eye are literally futuristic, with launch dates still a year (or a few) away. Yet projects like Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island Cultural District are already generating buzz. And that’s part of the point, as cities jockey for influence in the 21st century and strive to appeal to both locals and visitors.
While these buildings instantly crave icon status, Thorne maintains a dose of skepticism. "Many of the advances in architecture come slowly," she says. "Architects who see themselves as marathoners rather than sprinters will create the most forward-thinking and timeless buildings. The qualities of serving the inhabitants and society well, both today and in an unknown future, are worthwhile goals."
These cool buildings give us a glimpse of what our future holds—for the moment, at least. If only someone could get to work on those jet packs.
Tjuvholmen Icon Building, Oslo
Renzo Piano designed this arts and culture center which debuted in 2012 along a disused harbor southwest of Oslo’s city center. Bridges link three buildings—a museum, office space, and culture center—across canals formed from reclaimed land, and a sculpture park gently slopes toward the sea. The entire project is developed along a new promenade that starts at Aker Brygge and ends on the sea at a floating dock, providing unbroken visual contact with the water. It looks, from above, like a docked spaceship, with a curved roof that dips down to meet the parklands.
Palazzo Lombardia, Milan
Milan's Garibaldi-Repubblica district got an infusion of 21st-century cool when this ecofriendly curvilinear office tower was completed in 2011. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the 525-foot-high building connects light-filled office space with outdoor areas. The largest of the public spaces, Piazza Città di Lombardia, is covered by a roof composed of transparent “pillows” made from ETFE film (a fluorine based plastic), while other high tech/environmentally sensitive features include green roofs, active climate walls—two layers of separated glass containing rotating vertical blades to provide shade while maximizing transparency—and a geothermal heating system.
Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas
Opened in December 2012, this 180,000-square-foot facility, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, is itself a feat of scientific ingenuity. His firm Morphosis Architects set a goal of creating an attractive urban environment that also adheres to green principles. Hence features like a 54-foot, continuous-flow escalator contained in a glass-enclosed, tubelike structure that extends outside the building—along with landscaping (courtesy of Talley Associates) that includes a roofscape planted with drought-tolerant species, an interactive water feature, and a “Leap Frog Forest” of glowing amphibians.
Galaxy Soho Building, Beijing
Given China’s reputation for bold and speedy construction, it’s no surprise that 2012 marked the arrival of this cool new building in the capital city of Beijing. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid—the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize—this 18-story office, retail, and entertainment complex consists of four domed structures connected by bridges and platforms, crafted from aluminum, stone, glass and stainless steel. Inspired by nature, the flowing lines and organic forms create a lusciously harmonious effect.
The Crystal, London
This dynamic, low-rise glass building—touted as one of the world’s greenest at its 2012 unveiling—hosts the largest exhibition on urban sustainability. Set in the Royal Victoria Docks, the heart of London's new Green Enterprise District, the building is inspired by crystalline forms, a reference both to “a multi-faceted urban world” and the Crystal Palace built for London's Great Exhibition in 1851, which showcased the latest technology from the Industrial Revolution. The Crystal’s present-day innovations include rainwater harvesting, black water treatment, solar heating, and charging stations for electric cars.
Burj Khalifa, Dubai
The world’s tallest building opened in early 2010 and remains one of the most talked-about structures. Why? Not only is the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building (2,716.5 feet), it’s also the tallest free-standing structure, with the highest number of stories, the highest occupied floor, the highest outdoor observation deck, and an elevator with the longest travel distance in the world. Then there’s the show-stopping architecture: a tower comprising three elements arranged around a central core, inspired by the spider lily and courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with consulting designer Adrian Smith. A Y-shaped floor plan shows off views of the Persian Gulf, and when seen from above, the building echoes the onion dome motif prevalent in Islamic architecture.
Ordos Museum, China
The copper-toned metal exterior and undulating shape of the Ordos Museum reflect the surrounding Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia. It’s the brainchild of the Beijing-based architectural firm MAD, known for fluid designs and imaginative urban solutions. The company intended the large-scale museum as “the irregular nucleus” for Ordos, a newly developed town that, as of 2011, already has its first architectural icon.
W57 Pyramid, New York City
Bjarke Ingels, head architect at the Danish firm BIG, has taken on his first North American project: W57 Pyramid, a 600-unit residential building between 10th and 11th avenues. Changing according to the vantage point, it appears as a kind of squashed pyramid from the West Side Highway side, and as a slender spire from West 58th Street. The high-rise is designed around an outdoor green space, and each apartment has natural daylight. Or as Ingels puts it: “The building is conceived as a crossbreed between the Copenhagen courtyard and the New York skyscraper—the communal intimacy of the central urban oasis meets the efficiency, density, and panoramic views of the tall tower in a new hybrid typology.”
Launch Date: 2015
The National Museum of Qatar, Doha
Qataris have high hopes for their tiny nation-state’s future as a cultural destination, with the National Museum of Qatar as its crown jewel. The original museum opened in 1975 in a restored palace built by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani; French architect Jean Nouvel is giving it a makeover inspired by the surrounding desert rose (crystallized sand that forms just below the desert surface). The series of buildings will consist of intersecting discs resembling petals, all clad with glass fiber-reinforced concrete panels, an effect both starkly geometric and lyrical.
Launch Date: 2014
Wine Museum, Lavaux, Switzerland
For sheer audacity, nothing beats these plans for a monument to the Lavaux wine-making region. Swiss firm Mauro Turin Architectes envisions cantilevering the museum from the side of a mountain overlooking the historic vineyards (some of which date back to the 11th century)—a feat of engineering those ancient vintners would surely never have imagined. Visitors will walk along a glass and steel walkway jutting from a rock in the mountainside, with glass sides creating unbroken views over the vineyards and out to Lake Geneva.
Launch Date: TBD
MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), Tasmania, Australia
Unlike most of the cool buildings on our list, this one hides largely out of sight. Entrepreneur and art collector David Walsh commissioned Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis to create a three-level structure in the cliffs around the Berriedale peninsula near Hobart. Part of the rationale for building so much of the museum underground was to preserve the two historically significant Roy Grounds Modernist houses on the property. But Walsh has also commented that he wanted a museum that "could sneak up on visitors rather than broadcast its presence.” The subterranean areas have no windows, and visitors descend a staircase, then work their way back toward the surface. Ingenious and unsettling, the physical setup is a logical precursor to viewing the avant-garde art, much of which concerns itself with themes of death and sex.
Spaceport America, New Mexico
This Foster + Partners-designed commercial spaceport in the New Mexico desert resembles, naturally, a spaceship. After all, this is the future launch site of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic tours of outer space—slated for blastoff in late 2013. Twelve flight tests have been hosted since 2006 at the vertical launch area, and public launches occur on a regular basis, including the annual student launch project. Once fully operational, the site will contain an airfield, launchpads, terminal/hangar facility, emergency response capabilities, utilities and roadways, along with tourism experiences. For now, visitors can join public bus tours to check out the spaceport.
Hermitage Plaza, Paris
When you think of innovative 21st-century architecture, Paris isn’t the first city that springs to mind. But these ambitious Foster + Partners–designed twin skyscrapers will challenge that perception once completed. They are on track to become the tallest buildings in the EU, topping out at 1,050 feet, and will provide the business district of the city, east of La Défense, with a riverfront park lined with shops and restaurants. The towers are also energy efficient, with high-tech insulation and solar shading.
Launch Date: 2017
Saadiyat Cultural District, Abu Dhabi
In the sky-high race for urban dominance, Dubai is leaving the rest of the world in the dust (or, rather, the sand). The Saadiyat Cultural District on Saadiyat Island is being engineered as a leading cultural district, thanks to five Pritzker Prize-winning architects. In the works: the Zayed National Museum, a Foster + Partners design of tilted steel towers inspired by the flight of a falcon; the Jean Nouvel–designed Louvre Abu Dhabi in a domed building perforated with a lattice design that filters sunlight; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, whose madcap look is pure Frank Gehry; and a Performing Arts Centre of swooping, sinuous lines from Zaha Hadid. The Louvre is slated to open first, and the entire island will eventually house about 145,000 people.
Launch Date: 2015 (the Louvre).
Bullitt Center, Seattle
Leave it to Seattle to come up with the world’s greenest office building: the 50,000-square-foot Bullitt Center, set to become a new prototype for urban sustainability thanks to rainwater collection, a green roof that filters the building’s gray water, and a pavement that allows water to infiltrate into the soil, reducing runoff into Puget Sound. While harnessing enough sunshine in cloudy Seattle to power a six-story building sounds daunting, the expansive roof covered with solar panels is up to the challenge—it also multitasks as a rainwater-capturing cistern. High ceilings and an external, glass-enclosed staircase mean tenants get to enjoy ample light and views, too. bullittcenter.org
Launch Date: 2013
The 5 Lagoons, Maldives
Developers may just have landed on a viable future for this picturesque but low-lying Indian Ocean archipelago, which is threatened by rising sea levels: floating resorts. A master plan called The 5 Lagoons, a joint venture between Netherlands-based developer Dutch Docklands and the Maldivian government, aims to create five floating wonderlands made up of resorts and golf courses linked by underwater tunnels. The first phase, The Ocean Flower, comprises 185 luxury homes along a flower-shaped quay in the prestigious North Male atoll. The best part: every villa has water views. dutchdocklands-maldives.com
Launch Date: 2013
Absolute World Towers, Canada
Another head-turning creation from the wonderfully nonconformist minds at Beijing-based architectural firm MAD, these twin residential towers (completed in 2012) are so curvaceous in design they’ve been nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe Towers. Located in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, the skyscrapers—518 and 589 feet tall, respectively—twist 209 degrees from the base to the top, and have already won accolades from Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a nonprofit group of architects and engineers who named them the best tall buildings in the Americas.
Al Bahar Towers, Abu Dhabi
An ingenious marriage of traditional ideas and hyper-contemporary design, these two commercial towers—site of the Abu Dhabi Investment Council—stand out even in a city as devoted to avant-garde architecture as this UAE capital. The exterior of the buildings riff on the idea of mashrabiya, wooden lattice screens traditionally used in Middle Eastern homes to help cool rooms, now updated for the 21st century using computer-controlled panels. As the sun moves, the vertical strips open and close, letting in light while cutting out heat and reducing the need for air-conditioning. At night, all the panels close so that the buildings’ facades can be seen in all their glory.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
This immersive, slightly trippy garden fantasyland, opened in 2011, is made up of various botanical attractions designed as sustainable public spaces. Highlights include the “Supertree Grove,” a forest of 16-story-high man-made structures covered with living plants and boasting photovoltaic cells that harvest solar energy (the trees are spectacularly illuminated at night), and the Flower Dome, the world’s largest column-less greenhouse—air is cooled at the lower occupied zones through chilled water pipes in ground slabs, while warm air is vented out the top. The conservatory is filled with blooms from all over the world, including a flower-filled field, and constructed from an intricate steel grid and 3,332 glass panels. gardensbythebay.com
Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland
The design for Cleveland’s new MOCA (which debuted in late 2012) comes courtesy of London-based Iranian architect Farshid Moussavi, whose brief was to create an eye-catching space for both artists and visitors. The gleaming structure rises 60 feet high from a hexagonal base, its exterior made up of mirror-finish black stainless-steel panels that change in appearance with shifting light and weather conditions. Inside is a spacious atrium, while outside a public plaza links MOCA with Uptown attractions and amenities, including the expanded Cleveland Institute of Art. mocacleveland.org
Ozone Restaurant, Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong
In this era of ever-more-outré architectural design, we can dine in haute interiors like those found at Ozone, a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong—on the top floor of the 118-story International Commerce Center. Indeed, Ozone opened in 2011 to great fanfare as the “highest bar in the world.” Kitted out by Tokyo design firm Wonderwall, the glamorous bar features a jagged honeycomb-inspired motif in the floors, ceiling, and furniture, crystal chandeliers that resemble dripping stalactites, and floor-to-ceiling windows that afford jaw-dropping views of glittering Victoria Harbour.
The London Bridge Tower, London
Nicknamed The Shard for its eight jagged vertical glass panels, this Renzo Piano–designed tower has offices, residential floors, and a Shangri-La hotel. Controversial since its completion in mid-2012, the 95-story skyscraper—built in an irregular pyramidal shape—is remaking the iconic London skyline. When it opens to the public later this year, visitors will be able to take in the city from the viewing gallery and open-air observation deck on the 72nd floor, situated at a dizzying height of 804 feet.
Launch Date: 2013 (public observation deck)
Sur Mesure, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Paris
This Michelin-starred Franco-Asian restaurant (whose names means “tailor made”) is a starkly beautiful white-on-white canvas that designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku claim pays homage to haute couture. Before its opening in 2011, artist Heidi Winge Ström was called in to layer draped fabric on the walls and ceiling, creating the effect of dining inside a cocoon or a bank of clouds. The beautiful blank canvas effect is all the better to focus attention on chef Thierry Marx’s dramatic, playful nine-course tasting menu. All that white puts us in mind of sci-fi movie visions of the future, too.
One Bligh Street, Sydney
Another feat of green urban design, this high-rise office building in Sydney’s Central Business District features a double-skin glass façade, a naturally ventilated central atrium, and computer-controlled shades that flood the building with natural light while maintaining comfortable temperatures. The building isn’t just green in name either: it features an outdoor "living wall" of plants as a backdrop to the ground-floor cafe, a leafy rooftop terrace with views of Sydney Harbour, and Australia’s largest vertical garden.
Twenty Five Lusk, San Francisco
Originally a 1917 meatpacking plant and smokehouse, this New American restaurant in SoMa reopened in 2012 after being made over by architect Cass Calder Smith. The result? A 9,800-square-foot, two-story space that manages the rare feat of mixing industrial aesthetics with warmth and coziness. Along with maintaining the structure’s original beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls, Smith added conversation-starting futuristic design elements, like the orbital stainless-steel fireplaces suspended from the ceiling. It’s a fitting environment in which to savor chef Matthew Dolan’s inventive high-low menu, which features dishes like Nantucket Bay scallops served with living pea greens, beurre fondue, and Perigord truffles.