Buildings: you spend most of your time in them unless you belong to a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea and climb trees for elemental protection.
Mankind’s most breathtaking endeavors have been in architecture. Paintings are pleasant, but they more seek to comment on the human condition than bedazzle their admirers. The gothic cathedral of Cologne in Germany, the mud clay mosque of Djenne in Mali, the Ming dynasty’s forbidden city in Beijing – these imposing structures were all raised to command respect. Never did an oil painting or a sculpture, however masterful yet paltry in comparison, remind man of his individual smallness and how much he can achieve in team.
Religious and imperial buildings are no longer the most important new structures. Resources are given to commercial spaces and palaces of enterprise mark the land. Many of the items on this list are places of business. But just because the impetus of their erection has changed, it does not make these buildings any less worthy of admiration. The art-deco flourishes of the Chrysler Building are just as wastefully ornamental as the gargoyles on Notre Dame, but just as mysterious and charismatic and compelling.
If you are curious, remain attentive, and see here the 50 most impressive buildings in the world.
50 One World Trade Center – New York, New York
The new World Trade Center is now the tallest building on the New York skyline, and, more than that, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere; it’s nearly 1800 feet (or roughly 1/3 of a mile) tall. It is meant to reassert downtown Manhattan as a preeminent business center and represent a new civic icon for the country. The building, constructed with very modern mirrored-panes, achieves its two goals.
49 Bubble House – Tourettes-Sur-Loup, France
This house is thirty-five years old and still is yet to be completed. But, the French ministry of culture has already deemed it a historic monument. It’s understandable – this house in the shape of pods is a statement on how futuristic architecture coexts with the organic landscape that often surrounds it. Built by Hungarian architect Antii Lovag, it’s meant to take most advantage of the view of volcanoes and seaside onto which it looks out.
48 Toilet-Shaped House – Suwon, South Korea
Sim Jae Duck, known as “Mr. Toilet” from his mayoral efforts to improve sanitation during the 2002 World Cup in Suwon City, built the world’s first toilet-shaped house in 2007, to draw more attention to the cause. In 2009, he passed away, and the house was turned into a museum, and then later a toilet-themed amusement park.
47 Space House – Signal Mountain, Tennessee
A product of Space Age architecture, this next item goes to the Space House in Tennessee. Ensconced in the middle of the woods, this house is in the shape of a flying saucer and is supported by six concrete beams to look like it’s hovering. It’s almost as though the designer created a UFO fantasy, with a mysterious shuttle alighting in some backwards pasture in Small Town, USA.
46 Crooked House – Sopot, Poland
Although this is technically part of a shopping complex, we’ve included it on this list, because of its appearance and also its name. The “Crooked House” has the melting, whirling feel of a Dali painting, or the fisheye lens effect of looking at something through a spaceship’s periscope. This indeterminate appearance, however, is crafted from stone, attesting to its creator’s mastery.
45 Arctia Headquarters – Helsinki, Finland
The new headquarters of Arctia Shipping, Ltd, in Finland, will now be in a floating office next to the ships it controls. Made of black steel reminiscent of the black hulls of the ships docked next to it, and with an interior of lacquered wood inspired by previous shipbuilding traditions, this office is a new take on the physical location of style in the business world.
44 The Capital – Mumbai, India
The Capital is a super large, modern building in Mumbai, the first generation of Asian designed, Asian conscious such things. It calls itself “Cybertecture,” an environmentally friendly structure that provides a safe, productive working space for all. Its design is attention grabbing, as the sunken, circular shape on the front side of the building is reminiscent of an operating video game console.
43 Bart Prince House – Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Bart Prince House in Albuquerque appropriately belongs to the architect by the same name. Built in 1983, this house is inspired by the astronautic aspirations of the Cold War. It also has several futuristic features, such as translucent water tubes and a passive solar heating system. Another funky-looking structure stands next door and is rumored to be Bart Prince’s personal studio.
42 Fuel Station + McDonald’s – Batumi, Georgia
Located in the newly urbanized seaside city of Batumi, in Georgia, this high-tech rest stop offers two divorced experiences. Although it’s a two-in-one, those eating in the restaurant are isolated from those fueling up by a giant cantilevered canopy covered in vegetation. Those fueling up get to admire to swooping lines of the architecture, as well as feel the thrill of the impending, as the whole structure hangs seemingly precariously above them.
41 Riverside 66 – Tianjin, China
Despite its old-timey sounding name, this building is futuristic. Every side of it is ground-to-sky glass, with one side dramatically swooping over the remaining parallelogram for visual effect. At 152,800 square meters, the building is 1.65 million square feet. The building, though, is six stories high. The project team leader said that the materials promote transparency and legibility, allowing the interior to interact with the surrounding environment.
40 The Piano House – Anhui, China
The name explains the concept. This house is China is shaped like a giant piano, with a transparent glass violin marking the entrance. The open top of the pianoforte works to cover the terrace. Note that the way the house is built makes the instruments unusable: the windows cut in the piano gut the reverberating chamber, and the vibrations of the violin’s strings might shatter the glass.
39 Lotus Temple – Delhi, India
This temple is one of only seven major Bahai houses of worship around the world. It was completed in 1986, and still today is modern and breathtaking. It is in the shape of a white lotus flower, giving it its name, and made entirely out of pure white marble (and extremely expensive material.) The blooming petals are surrounded by nine pools of water, which in the day are designed to catch the sunlight and at night are expertly illuminated with bulbs.
38 Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval – Hauterives, France
Ferdinand Cheval was just a middle-aged, rural postman when he began construction on this amazingly intricate palace in France, in 1879. Thirty-three years later, in 1912, he completed the structure. He inscribed the words “the work of one man” on the uninhabitable palace, where octopuses, hinds, caimans, elephants, birds, bears, pelicans, giants, fairies, and mythological creatures from all cultures are broken from stone.
37 Ryugyong Hotel – Pyongyang, North Korea
At 330 meters tall, this building in North Korea holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest unoccupied building in the world. That’s right: there’s no one in this yet-to-be-completed hotel. The project to build an imposing hotel in the North Korean capital as a symbol of power has been on hold for almost thirty years, leaving the building glittering and beautiful from the outside but with no practical function whatsoever.
36 The Kansas City Library – Kansas City, Missouri
What is called “The Community Bookshelf” is a feature that crowns the Kansas City Public Library in Missouri. Along the top of the building, there is a simulated bookshelf, made of signboard mylar, that displays 25’x9’ books that were chosen by the residents of the city. Some of the titles are Heller’s Catch-22, Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, all American classics.
35 Palace of the Parliament – Bucharest, Romania
This palace, built during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, is so big it can be seen from space. It is the world’s second largest administrative building, after the Pentagon, at 3.77 million square feet. One million Romanians were enlisted to work non-stop on the project, starting in 1978. The dictator was tried and executed in 1989, and Anca Ceausescu has said that had he seen the completed building, he would have crossed his Catholic heart.
34 Turning Torso – Malmö, Sweden
The Turning Torso is the tallest residential building in all of Sweden. Inspired by the Spanish architect’s studies on nature and the human body, this fifty-four story structure twists a full ninety degrees from the ground floor to the sky it scrapes. It’s also totally sustainable: the entire building is powered by renewable energy.
33 Crazy House – Da Lat, Vietnam
The Hang Nga guesthouse, designed by Dang Viet Nga, was opened in Da Lat in Vietnam in 1990. The house is designed to be odd looking, with its inspirations coming from Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, amongst others. Its general shape is that of a tree trunk and it has been called “a fairy tale house.”
32 Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Spain
Antonio Gaudi worked on this Cathedral for forty years before he died in 1926. Still today the Cathedral is not complete. The drawings for this Gothic Art Nouveau sculptural masterwork were destroyed during the Spanish civil war and had to be recreated. Construction continues today, and the final stone is predicted to be set between 2017 and 2026.
31 Burj Al Arab – Dubai, UAE
This building is 60 stories and shaped like the sail of a sailboat. It’s on its own private island, its awe-inspiring size and solitude meant to elevate it to a national icon. Inside is the world’s tallest atrium at 600 feet high, allowing the Middle Eastern sun to pour in and flood dozens of semicircular balconies.
30 Institute for Sound and Vision – Hilversum, The Netherlands
Designed by Jaap Drupsteen, this is a media collage made into a building. In order to create the visuals that crown the walls, Drupsteen took images from Dutch television, abstracted them, and then baked them onto cast glass. The effect it creates can be admired from both within and out the building, and it fits with the purpose of the building itself.
29 The Golden Temple – Amritsar, India
This is the most sacred Sikh shrine. It sits in the middle of a lake in India. The Buddha went there to meditate, followed by the Guru Nanak, founder of the faith, two thousand years later. This gilded “Temple of God” was built and destroyed several times, but this iteration has been standing since the late 1700s. The reflection it produces in the tranquil water makes it even more astonishing, an effect aided by the religious music floating from the temple day and night.
28 National Congress Hall – Brasilia, Brazil
This building treats government like a work of art. The governmental building is itself an art installation, or so it seems: the building is colonnaded, with a ramp entrance like a space shuttle on the moon, two skinny matching towers, and two bowl-shaped conference rooms (one upside down, one right side up) for the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate.
27 The Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain
This building is inspired by formal complexity and high art. It’s spooning, undulating, shiny, and possibly wasteful, but also shocking and seductive. The building is clad in titanium. Some lighting angles made it reflect gold, and some make it reflect an almost-bleached whiteness. Designed by Frank Gehry, this location of the Guggenheim upstaged the Frank Lloyd Wright designed one in New York.
26 The Chrysler Building – New York City, New York
The Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Allen, is one of the most famous buildings on the New York City skyline. It was briefly the world’s tallest building for a year in 1931. It’s possibly the only building in the world that’s decorated with automotive hood ornaments (Chrysler, after all…), for instance the big eagles on the 61st floor come from the 1929 Chrysler model.
25 Mont St. Michel – Normandy, France
This cluster of abbeys right off the Norman Coast was first started way back in the 700s. Construction continued for hundreds of years. There’s now a walkway across the water, built in the late 1800s and now being renovated, but when the Mont was first built, there was no way of getting across the low and wet ground. However, zealots still wait for low tide to cross in the traditional manner.
24 Brandenburg Technical University – Cottbus, Germany
This building is shaped like an amoeba. The outside is made of frosted glass, made to look grey, and embossed with letters of various global alphabets. The central staircase, however, is bright magenta and green. The building is especially noticeable because it contrasts with the surrounding long, dull, rectilinear buildings of traditional East German architecture.
23 Nelson-Atkins Museum’s Bloch Building – Kansas City, Missouri
This building was an addition to the 1933 original, the Beaux Arts in Kansas City. Steven Holl’s 21st century extension didn’t crowd out the old with the new and flashy. He designed a string of subdued frosted-glass boxes that pass the light to the basement, where it is used to creatively illumine unground galleries.
22 Gresham Palace – Budapest, Hungary
Art nouveau architect Zsigmond Quittner designed this palace in 1906. It was meant to represent the Gresham Life Assurance Company of London’s in the eastern European country. During WWII, it was damaged and then in the Communist period it was abused. Now, a $125 million restoration project has turned it into a Four Seasons, with the once-upon-a-time shopping arcade turned into the hotel lobby.
21 Christian Dior Store – Tokyo, Japan
Designed by the architecture firm SANAA, this building effortlessly makes itself remarkable amongst other ambitious buildings (the Herzog and de Meuron Prada store, the Tod’s by Toyo). It is no more than a diaphanous box of light. But the effect is impressive, especially at night when the lighting installation isn’t impeded by the sunshine. The name “Dior” appears very discretely at the top.
20 Hearst Tower – New York City, New York
At 42 stories tall, the Hearst Tower in New York is one of its more modest skyscrapers. But, it’s also one of its most unique. Not only does it sit on a six-story art deco base, but the triangular patterns of which the building is designed reduced the steel consumption required for a similar building by twenty percent. Hearst Tower, on West 57th street, is beautiful from a distance and up close.
19 Therme Vals – Vals, Switzerland
The walls of this Swiss bathhouse are made of 6,000 layered slabs of local stone, as designed by architect Peter Zumthor’s precise specifications. Since most of the structure is underground, the roof of the bathing areas below, containing natural thermal pools, is mostly grassy, giving a stunning harmonious effect and seeming timeless.
18 Tiger’s Nest Monastery – Bhutan
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is about 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s located on a rock outcropping thousands of feet over the Paro Valley, in Bhutan. It was built in 1692, around a cave where the Indian Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated in the 8th century, having arrived on a flying tiger.
17 Great Mosque – Djenne, Mali
Djenne is the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa. The temple was built there in 1906, made entirely from mud bricks held together with mud mortar. Local masons must reapply fresh mud every spring, to prevent the structure from falling. Each of the mosques temples is topped with an ostrich egg, a local symbol of fertility and good fortune.
16 Catherine Palace – St. Petersburg, Russia
The daughter of Catherine I, Empress Elizabeth, commissioned most of this palace, even though it is named for her mother (wife of Peter the Great). Most people know it for the Amber room, which has been recreated since the Nazis sacked it during the war, but apparently there is another wing, designed by Catherine’s favorite architect Charles Cameron, which is much nicer.
15 Wat Rong Khun – Chiang Rai, Thailand
This art exhibit in the style of a temple is new – construction began in 1997. Unlike most Buddhist houses of worship, it is colorless. The outside is entirely alabaster. Deep inside sits a giant gold Buddha. The artist whose project this is spent his own money on it, and given the tremendous size and detail of the exhibit, it is probably a staggering amount of dough.
14 30 St. Mary Axe – London
This place is nicknamed “The Gerkhin” for its resemblance to a cucumber. It also kind of looks like a bargain basement Faberge egg (not a read against this place, but Faberge eggs are crazy ornate). Although only people who work in this downtown office tower can eat at the white-tablecloth restaurant, anyone can go for a drink at the bar.
13 Petronas Towers – Kuala Lumpur
These towers in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur stand 170 meters, or 550 feet, off the ground. They held the title for the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004, attesting to the emergent power of South-East Asia. Their style is postmodern, and the main architects who worked on the project were Cesar Pelli and Achmad Murdijat.
12 Taipei 101 – Taipei, Taiwan
This skyscraper, 1670 feet tall, soars above the rest of the Taipei skyline. Built with high-grade, mineral-flecked concrete, it can withstand the Taiwanese monsoon season and occasional earthquakes. The damper sphere, between the 92nd and 87th floors steadies the building in gusts, and is the largest in the world. The building was the world’s tallest between 2004 and 2010.
11 Burj Khalifa – Dubai, UAE
The Burj Khalifa eclipsed Taipei 101 as the tallest skyscraper on earth in 2010. At 2722 feet tall, it is nearly 700 feet taller than its little brother (to give you an idea, the St. Mary Axe is only about 600 feet, so it’s basically a skyscraper stacked on top of the tallest skyscraper in the world.) The building has a neo-futurist style, which embraces the aesthetics of machines.
10 Kingdom Tower – Jeddah Saudi Arabia
Although yet to be completed, we thought this would an interesting last entry in our skyscrapers mini-series. This structure in Saudi Arabia is set to be the first kilometer high building in history (roughly 2/3 of a mile.) The building will cost 1.2 billion dollars, but the oil wealthy nation of Saudi Arabia easily has that to spend. Plus, business there relies on migrant workers who are paid very poorly.
9 The Palace of Versailles – Versailles, France
The Palace of Versailles officially became the seat of the French monarch in 1682. The king at the time, Louis XIV, was known for his grandiose taste. He wanted more and added most of Versailles as it is today: the ministries wing, the orange grove, the hall of mirrors, the gardens… As it stands, it’s one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, and represents the glory and the excesses of the French monarchy.
8 Museum of Islamic Art – Doha, Qatar
Only 10% of the space in this museum is dedicated to galleries – and that ten percent is packed with 1,200 years of cultural patrimony. Much else is left open, for instance the 164 foot central atrium. The architecture of the building evokes the Cairo mosque by which it was inspired, and an Arabian flare that has since abandoned Middle Eastern architecture.
7 Hearst Castle – San Simeon, California
William Randolph Hearst started construction on his castle in 1919. He called the estate the Enchanted House. Soon thereafter, there were 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools. Sitting on ranchland at the top of a hill, the Castle overlooks the village of San Simeon in California. Estimated at 165 million, the sprawling Heast Castle is one of the most expensive residential properties in the world.
6 Antilia – Mumbai, India
At $1B dollars, this is the most expensive piece of residential real estate in the world. At 400,000 square feet, it’s about eight times the size of the White House, in Washington D.C. Among other amenities, this house has a temple, a health level, a home theatre, and a one hundred and sixty eight car garage.
5 Lloyd’s Building – London, England
This building is also called “The Inside Out building,” because it looks as though what’s on the outside belongs on the inside. The building’s internal services, for instance the elevators, the stairs, the water pipes, are visible to the public. Despite not being very classically beautiful, the innovative structure is one of the most recognizable on the London skyline.
4 Hagia Sophia – Istanbul, Turkey
This building is not as breathtaking as some of the others on this list, but its attractiveness does become a lot more interesting when one finds out it was built in the year 306. It is a preeminent example of Byzantine architecture. Since then, it has crumbled and been rebuilt several times, and has been used as a church, a mosque, and then a museum, almost like a pamphlet in the history of the area.
3 The Cologne Cathedral – Cologne, Germany
The first stone for this cathedral was put down in 1248, when Archbishop Rainald Von Dassel brought the remains of the three wise men from conquered Milan back to the city on the Rhine. In 1880, the Cathedral was finally complete (600 years, one Renaissance later, and one Enlightenment later.) Covering more than 8000 square meters of space, this monumental church can hold more than 20,000 Catholics.
2 Crystal Cathedral – Garden Grove, California
Although the today’s ‘sexiest’ buildings aren’t generally houses of worship, there are some exceptions. The Crystal Cathedral in California, built in 1981, can seat up to 2700 people and is the largest glass building in the world. Furthermore, it has one of the largest musical instruments in the world, the Hazel Wright Memorial Organ. The Church is giant and glittering, commanding respect in the Californian sun.
1 Cathedral of our Lady of Aparecida – Aparecida, Brazil
Brazil is the largest center of Marian pilgrimage in the world. It also, for that matter, the world’s largest Catholic country. This church, built between 1946 and 1980 receives 10 million visitors per year. It fits between 45 and 70 thousands believers, spread out as it is over 12,000 square meters.