Architecture has an immense charm: it is a vehicle of beauty, a symbol of an era, an emblem of human ingenuity. Buildings are the expression of ambitions and ideas and only from time to time, of the fundamental human need for shelter. Sometimes they are the spring that pushes us to choose a destination: think of icons like the Guggenheim in Bilbao or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Other times, such as the golden Georgian houses of Bath in England or the silvery boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris, are the very essence of a place. Often we dwell on the most iconic, emblems of a past that we could not see, but today we are going to explore the most extraordinary architecture of the twenty-first century, often hidden in the most unexpected places.
1 PARKROYAL on Pickering, Singapore
It must be one of the largest “planters” in the world. Covered with tropical plants – which grow on balconies and terraces inspired by rice fields and geological formations – this hotel is a verdant spot in the urban fabric of Singapore.
Every room faces the green and among the plants there are stones, lianas and water mirrors able to satisfy the Tarzan that is in you. Stretch yourself out with a 300-meter walk in a garden on the fifth floor and relax in the back between the infinity pool and the huts for relaxation. The perfect union between city and country.
2 Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Yinchuan, China
It was opened in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR) as a museum specializing in Sino-Islamic art (Yinchuan was a stop along the historic Silk Road). The MOCAperò especially amazes for its architecture: a flowing form that recalls the Yellow River. It represents a stream but also a bridge between the Arab and Chinese worlds, which stands as a superb and vigorous synthesis of natural and geopolitical forces.
3 Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Doha, Qatar
It looks like a giant insect, or a vehicle of the future, but the Faculty of Islamic Studies of Qatar, in the Education City of Doha, is an innovative university center, which fuses faith, knowledge and modernity. Now that Qatar is a world cultural center thanks to His Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, this building expresses its educational mission already from the structure. It stands on five large columns that represent the five pillars of Islam: the Arabic calligraphies that decorate the surfaces pass on the message in an almost sci-fi way.
4 Sancaklar Mosque, İstanbul, Turkey
This modernist mosque is a low-rise building that seems to bear the imprint of Frank Lloyd Wright. Similar to a cave in which to gather in prayer, it is characterized by a series of cracks that almost dragged the visitor into the bowels of the earth. The troglodyte effect is mitigated, on the outside, by the gray stone terraces which, following the slope of the ground, create harmony between artificial and natural and, according to the architects, evoke the true “essence of religious space”.
5 Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Center (ACAC), Azores, Portugal
Although the Azores are a drop of greenery in the ocean, they are home to an iconic arts center. The ACAC is built around a former alcohol and tobacco factory: its minimalist and severe character is amplified by the use of gray basalt, which echoes the surrounding volcanic landscape. Inside there are also laboratories and lodgings for resident artists.
6 Viaduc de Millau, France
The suspension bridges have something that thrills, and Viaduc de Millau is literally suspended above the limestone gorge of the Tarn river. So high that it sometimes overlooks clouds, it is the bridge of records: one of the highest cable-stayed bridges in the world, the highest viaduct in Europe and the highest structure in France. Designed to lighten traffic with Spain, it was built in seventeen years. No wonder a commemorative stamp has been issued. The toll is € 7.50, and the landscape is so enchanting that you want to linger.
7 Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan
From the remote Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani oil power wants to dazzle more than the other Gulf states. Here the architect Hadid won the competition for the cultural center directed by the presidential family Aliyev, and this is an incredible result. The best perspective is from the south side, where the structure rises like the curve of a graph – one of the distinctive forms of Hadid’s biomorphic architecture. Inside, the white staircases and fluid lines create a sort of enveloping paradise, which somehow dominates the exhibitions.
8 Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain
You could call it art, rather than architecture. But the Parasol, designed to upgrade the Plaza de la Encarnación in Seville, is a real building, as well as being the largest wooden structure in the world (150 x 70 meters). After controversy, lengthy work and double the cost, it has earned the inevitable nickname of Las Setas (“The Mushrooms”). To cover a market, provide shade, accommodate exhibition space and offer a panoramic walkway, however, this “sunshade” in Finnish birch wood is spectacular.
9 Central Concert Hall, Astana, Kazakhstan
A building conceived as a flower, but more similar to a carnivorous plant, whose concentric “leaves” wrap around a mouth waiting for the prey. Having said that, it is a monumental work: another mega icon of the much-vaunted republic of Central Asia, inaugurated a few years ago to bring a breath of fresh air of culture to the steppe. Inside there is an enormous concert hall and a covered square that welcomes the citizens of Astana all year round, with a wide choice of restaurants, shops and bars.
10 Balancing Barn Suffolk, England
Built for Living Architecture, an innovative agency of holiday homes in the name of contemporary architecture, the so-called “hayloft in the balance” is extraordinary because it stretches for fifteen meters cantilevered. It is as safe as the houses it houses, but it seems to be in a precarious balance, so much so that at the extreme a graceful swing has been hung, as if to amplify the impression of oscillation. The metal cladding of the building, near a nature reserve, contrasts pleasantly with the surrounding landscape.
11 Casa Terracota, Villa de Leyva, Colombia
This huge piece of terracotta is the work of a lifetime of environmentalist Mendoza, who built it by hand in a mountain village in Colombia, cooking clay in the sun and recycling waste materials to make many of the finishes. Inside, the theme is repeated with tables and terracotta tools. Thanks to its panoramic position, Mendoza wanted to create harmony between earth and community and “transform the soil into an inhabitable architecture”. He will not mind, then, the nickname of “house of the Flintstones”.
12 Rumah Miring (Inclined House) Jakarta, Indonesia
Who said that a house should be straight from top to bottom? This beautiful house in an exclusive residential district of Jakarta has been described by its architect as “against the establishment” and is the answer to the luxury villas of the neighbors, mostly classically elegant. With its inclined steel skeleton and profusion of glass on three floors, it manages to combine a sense of playfulness with high-tech luxury. For the owner, gallery owner Christiana Gouw, it is the “triumph of individual freedom”.
13 National Library of Belarus, Minsk, Belarus
It is the pride of the most enigmatic nation in Europe, and means a lot to the Belarusians. More than just a collection of books, this library is in fact a national emblem, the importance of which is underlined by the diamond shape – or, to be more precise, of rhombicuboctahedron. Inside you will find reading rooms, a book museum and a viewpoint. Outside, the bibliophilia is expressed architecturally in the open book entrance and in the statue of Francisk Skorina, the historic Belarusian hero of publishing.
14 Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai, China
Wanted by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei, this is the first private art museum in China. The architects have incorporated part of an old coal transport pier into the building. Under the “umbrella” vaults, the mix of old rough surfaces and new shiny walls has really succeeded. As in many contemporary art galleries, the exhibition route is not linear. You can move freely in imposing spaces and be fascinated by contrasts.
15 Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, Los Angeles, United States
Today, few new cathedrals are being built. This, designed by Spanish archistar Rafael Moneo, is even known as the only “postmodern” in the world. It’s a bit angular, and it’s in a classic corner of LA, near the Hollywood Freeway. The end result, however, is a convincing Catholic church. The themes that inspire the project are “Light” (divine) and “Journey” (of faith). It also preserves the relics of Saint Viviana, a 3rd century martyr, next to the tomb of a more modern icon, Gregory Peck.