Modern architecture is undoubtedly a good reason to travel. Thing is, everybody knows the usual suspects.
Even if you’re not an architecture buff, you’ll have come across certain buildings which every tourism office bandies about. For example, you’re bound to find the world’s tallest building in Dubai (the Burj Khalifa) and/or a handful of magnificent Gehry buildings that are magnificent, on the Instagram accounts of every other world traveler. In addition to the well-known buildings, there are some nobody has ever heard of, but are worthy destinations in their own right. So, get your architecture hat on, and search out these gems.
Heydar Aliyev Centre
WHERE: Baku, Azerbaijan
It’s a structure that defies traditional building logic. Instead of straight horizontal and vertical lines, the Heyday Aliyev Centre in Baku is all smooth waves and curves. Different from every angle, even the surrounding park land and the entrance to the underground delivery entrance has been designed to match. The inside (which holds several art exhibition spaces, an auditorium, and conference halls) matches the outside in that it’s flowing and inimitable in every direction. There are some choice pieces of art—such as the convex mirror, titled “Parabolic Twist,” by Anish Kapoor—dotted throughout the ground floor. Designed by the grand dame of architects Zaha Hadid, the building was finished in 2013 and promptly won some of architecture’s highest accolades.
M by Montcalm Shoreditch
WHERE: London, U.K.
When you walk out of Old Street tube station in Shoreditch, you spot at a crossroad ahead of you an optical illusion: a pointy grey building that looks like it was pencil sketched into the space between other buildings. The M by Montcalm Shoreditch Hotel by architects Squire and Partners was reportedly built with hypnotic optical vision in mind, especially as it sits opposite the well-known Moorfield Eye Hospital. According to the architects’ website, they took inspiration from the 1980s artworks of Bridget Riley, who is famous for mind-boggling swirling patterns and optical illusion artworks. The silvery facade of the building on which all windows are at an angle is covered in a glazed cladding adding to the near hallucinogenic quality.
Harpa Concert and Conference Hall
WHERE: Reykjavik, Island
Iceland is nothing if not famous for its out-of-this-world, primeval landscapes and, yet, the very modern building by the old fishing harbor in Reykjavik seems to fit right in. Maybe it has to do with the design of the Harpa Concert Hall’s being inspired by the basalt columns found along Iceland’s coasts, such as on Reynisfjara Black Beach (on the south coast). These hexagonal columns formed by lava have been re-imagined in the metal latticework covering the glass façade of the building—sometimes reflecting light, at others letting it through; this allows for a strange sensation when trying to figure out where the building starts and ends. Henning-Larsen Architects completed the hall in 2011 with a stunning interior to match. The seemingly off-kilter staircases add to the design, and the grand lobby with its several stories-high atrium is a photographer’s dream. Oh, and the design-led souvenir shop on the ground floor is superb.
Stazione Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana
WHERE: Reggio Emilia, Italy
Typically, train stations by definition are large, impressive spaces, but this one is something quite special. The relatively-unknown city of Reggio Emilia on the crossroads between Milan, Genoa, San Marino, and Bologna decided to go super-modern when building a station for the high-speed train link passing through it. Architects with Santiago Calatrava came up with a 483-meter long, 25.4 meter-wide futuristic white undulation made up of steel and glass. It sits in the middle of a completely flat landscape, forming a three-dimensional wave, which allows light to spill through the roof and into the station. A splash of color is only added when the red trains rush through the station. Worth a stop-over, for sure.
WHERE: Outside Paris, France
A suburb of Paris, Noisy-le-Grand has become known for its futuristic housing projects built in the 1980s from concrete and on a seriously grand scale. Akin to Le Corbusier’s approach to architecture (who built and promoted residences which resembled villages), the developments were supposed to offer their residents all they needed, from jobs to recreation to places to live and relax and, additionally, appealing architecture. Amazing, different, huge? Yes. Appealing? Certainly to the filmmakers who used these locations in dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Brazil. The scale is certainly astounding. Neo-classical Les Espaces d’Abraxas by Ricardo Bofill, the huge round edifices nicknamed the Camemberts, and the Les Aré nes de Picasso by Manuel Nunez-Yanowsky are all worth the quick suburban train ride from Paris.
WHERE: Rotterdam, Netherlands
As is befitting for a port city making its living from trade, there is a fantastic market hall in Rotterdam. The shape and size of an aircraft hangar, the hall doubles as an apartment block and fresh produce market with some gigantic art thrown into the mix. Even though the hall looks to be open at both ends, it’s protected by large glass panels, making it an indoor market. Inside, the walls are covered in paintings of some of the fresh produce available at the 100 plus stalls below. And the stalls sell you anything from vegetables and fruit to snacks and drinks. Conceived by architecture firm MVRDV, this multifunctional building is amazing to look at and is reported to be the first covered market in the Netherlands.
Norddeutsche Landesbank Building
WHERE: Hannover, Germany
Spanning an entire city block, this is a bank building that takes on a different perspective at every turn. At street level, you barely notice that there is anything out of the ordinary above you; it’s a typical office building, mimicking normality on the ground. There are some twirls and wave-like entrances, but apart from a lot of glass cladding, it’s an office block. However, step away and look at the building from a distance and you’ll see a 70 meter-high, 75,000 square-meter behemoth whose different floors jut out at impossible angles. Behnisch Architects also managed to add shops, a serene courtyard, restaurants, and leisure venues into the mix, so the block is truly part of the city.
WHERE: Guangzhou, China
Hailed as a star on the international opera house-scene, this spaceship-like building looks quite literally fantastic. A sprawling white stone and glass building, as exciting inside as it is outside, it was dreamed up by the late architect supreme Zaha Hadid and cost more than $200 million to build. Not only does this opera house not have a resident opera company, but, with cracks appearing and leaks allowing water inside, it looks as if it is slowly falling to pieces. Whether shoddy building work is to blame, or whether the architects pushed the design over the limit of what is workable, the building remains defiantly magnificent. Just go before it potentially disintegrates.
WHERE: Marseille, France
Quite literally bridging old and new, the Mucem Museum in Marseilles sits at the entrance to the old harbor and encompasses the ancient fort that once protected the entrance, which you can reach via a bridge that looks like a gigantic steel girder. While the fort is indeed a sight, the modern architecture of the museum itself is so fabulous that it tends to take center stage. There is also a great little café on the roof terrace which offers great photo opportunities.
Le Volcan Cultural Centre
WHERE: Le Havre, France
Le Havre is, well…the clue is in the name of the city itself: it’s a harbor. The architecture around the inner harbor basins is mostly post-war and recalls a tempestuous history with the need to completely rebuild after WWII. When you walk from the seafront past the church of St-Joseph (which resembles a Brutalist lighthouse) and reach more modern apartment buildings by the harbor basin, you are suddenly confronted with a white volcano. Conceived in the early 1980s by Oscar Niemeyer of Brasilia-fame, this strange creation seems to emerge gradually from the ground. Appropriately, most of this Culture Center’s venues are underground, such as a 1,200-seat auditorium in the crater’s mouth. There is a perfectly-placed footbridge across the harbor basin from where you can take good photos of Le Volcan; it features a nearby church complete with a nice water reflection.
WHERE: Valencia, Spain
With its resemblance to a Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish, the Agora holds court over the surrounding City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. A multifunctional space that can hold up to 6,500 people for all kinds of events, being in the main space inside feels like being inside a giant whale skeleton. Rib-like structures bend to hold the surrounding roof, and when light streams in through windows set between the slats, the venue is turned into an ethereal space reminiscent of Santiago Calatrava’s other amazing building mentioned on this list, the railway station in Reggio Emilia.
Cité du Vin
WHERE: Bordeaux, France
Is it a cork? Is it a bottle? Is it a wine glass? The Cité du Vin (“The City of Wine”) in Bordeaux’s unusual building is none of the above, apparently. “This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city,” architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières from XTU said at a press conference for the building’s opening. So, there you are. Art. And indeed, it is–a shimmering shape open to the sky, with another shimmering bean-like building on the ground. Golden hour in late afternoon brings out the best of the construction; it gleams in the light, making for a magnificent reminder that wine-hour is underway.
The Bund Finance Centre
WHERE: Shanghai, China
Have you ever heard the expression, “kinetic architecture?” Sitting at the end (or start of, depending on your viewpoint) of the Bund in Shanghai, the Finance Center is a building that shapeshifts according to what the space inside calls for. The outside walls are made up of three layers of gigantic bronze bamboo sticks that move around the building, opening up the space behind. Nearly glowing in the light and just as magical inside and out, the space is used not just as a financial center, but as a venue for art exhibitions, theater, conferences, and leisure. Designed by Foster + Partners, this moving building might sit low between tall skyscrapers, but it is a veritable gem that absolutely stands out.
Oslo Opera House
WHERE: Oslo, Norway
Oslo is a great mix of historic buildings and cutting-edge new architecture, with a highlight being the Opera House by the fjord. A large white stone and glass building, the roof angles all the way to the ground with a glass square sticking out of it. Inside, a circular walkway to the upper floors is covered in wood, adding warmth to the cool glass. The fun bit about this modern structure is not only the architecture, but the simple fact that you are allowed—no, encouraged—to walk up the roof to the top, sit down with your lunch, and enjoy the rather spectacular views.
Nanyang Technological University
The Nanyang Technological University campus on the southwestern outskirts of Singapore has two buildings worth seeing. There is the School of Art, Design, and Media building–a Pretzel-knot made up of three interlinking curves, a mix of glass walls surrounding an almond-shaped courtyard, and green grass above. And then there is the Learning Hub, or “The Hive.” The Hive looks like a weird cross between a fungal form and a wasp’s nest. The concrete structure is made up of 12 curved towers around a central atrium, again with a garden on top. The learning rooms inside are all rounded and merging into one another, reportedly encouraging the exchange of knowledge between students.