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World's Most Beautiful Buildings

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Sydney Opera House in front of the Taj Mahal.
Don't clap too hard - it's a very old building.
John Osborne, The Entertainer (1957)

Yes, but it's so old and beautiful, we can't help it! Only joking - we don't really clap at buildings (we clap in them), but we do applaud them. And it's not just the old buildings we find most beautiful; the silvery beauty of the curvaceous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for example, is modern and yet much loved. Certain buildings inspire in us a whole range of feelings and emotions. It might be a religious building - a towering spire reaching to the heavens or an immaculate marble mosque - or it could be a very old building, a reminder of times lost to the mists of antiquity.

A beautiful building may be beautiful for many different reasons. Here are just a few buildings around the world that caught the collective eye of the h2g2 Community:

London, England UK

Christchurch, Spitalfields

Christchurch, Spitalfields near Liverpool Street in London is not necessarily beautiful but it's stunning nonetheless. It was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor and consecrated in July 1729. The building was almost derelict at the time when the Friends of Christchurch managed to get funding from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore it.

It is such a forbidding building; its proportions and symmetry make it soar upwards from the ground to the spire. Hawksmoor had a very eclectic approach to architecture and in this case you have a brooch spire which is normally seen on Medieval churches rising from a Doric portico. The effect is stunning.

Stand near it and the church seems to tower over you like some brooding and malign presence; stand at the bottom of Brushfield Street with Spitalfields Market on your left and your eye is drawn uncontrollably to the church. You simply can't look at anything else.

The Millennium Dome

Somebody likes it...

OK, now I might be derided for this and although I admit it probably isn't beautiful in an obvious sense, the Millennium Dome is one of my favourite contemporary buildings. The structure is sublime and seemingly so simplistic; the space it encloses is like none other I've ever visited and although the concept was flawed and it was generally mocked - to pull down such an incredible construction would be a travesty.

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station is a fabulous art deco style building in the centre of London. It resembles a huge snooker table turned on it's back, the legs being the four huge original steam towers. It has to be said, that while being one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, it has to be one of the most unusually ugly and yet attractive buildings. Its charm lies in its size and in the way that it is totally, unrepentantly a functional monster.

Battersea Power Station supplied power to London between 1937 and 1980. It was designed by the British architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The Station was shown on the cover of the Pink Floyd Animals album; the cover showed a huge inflatable pink pig floating way above the power station.

The Power Station can best be seen from the other side of the river Thames, looking across from the Embankment.

It's a real shame that most of it is just a derelict shell following the aborted plan to turn it into a theme park in the late 1980s. Although I believe that the original control room is still preserved intact (it was listed for its interior).
It was always a very impressive sight when working in the yard next to it, even more so when it was still in use with great clouds of steam coming from the chimneys. Mention of the Pink Floyd's 'Animals' album can't be allowed to pass without reminding everyone that the pig balloon broke free of its moorings and caused the normal flight approach route to Heathrow airport to be closed.


The Taj Mahal, Agra

The Taj Mahal in Agra is one of the most incredible buildings in the world. If you think it looks good in photographs then to behold it in the flesh is just awe-inspiring. The bright white marble, the immaculate symmetry... The stories behind the construction, from the fact that it was built for love through to the 'fact' that Shah Jahan cut off all the main craftsmen's hands so that they could never create anything as beautiful, all adds to the mystery.

It is said that a black marble replica was intended for the opposite side of the river - to even think about what this may have looked like is astounding. It must win hands down.

The Baha'i House of Worship, Delhi

The Baha'i House of Worship in Delhi is also something else. It's shaped like a giant Lotus Flower and is one of the most serenely peaceful buildings one could ever wish to walk inside. It's amazing to look at (not dis-similar to the Sydney Opera House) and is as radiant as the Taj.

Newcastle Civic Centre

A love of a building for the very best of personal reasons...

The administrative centre of my beloved city, HRH Charlie might describe the Civic Centre as 'a monstrous carbuncle', but it has a unique place in my heart. The style of the building is unconventional (or was intended to be, in its day), ranging from grey, blockish, 1960's austerity (the majority of the structure) to bizarre subaquatic motifs (check out the sea-horses on the bell-tower). It is, however, highly distinctive. You can love it or hate it, but you can't ignore it. Personally, I love it. I got married there.

Belsay Hall Castle, Northumberland

English Heritage - an organisation primarily famous for looking after Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall, looks after a property that was built (part of it at least) within the last couple of hundred years - Belsay Hall Castle and gardens, near Morpeth in Northumberland. It's got so much: a wonderfully atmospheric ruined castle; an adventure playground of a quarry garden which contrasts beautifully with the formal gardens; and the hall itself. This was built in the 1800s, using the stone from their quarry (hence the quarry garden). From the outside it looks like a Greek temple; inside it is completely bare, a perfect palette on which to let your imagination run riot.

Salisbury Cathedral, UK

Salisbury Cathedral is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind in the world. Even as you circle the outskirts of New Sarum it commands the skyline with it's graceful yet imposing spire (highest point: 404 feet). The builders were obviously daring types of fellows because the whole thing rests on four feet of foundations, which in turn is sunk into the boggy Avon floodplain. Having left its future to chance, the cathedral has managed to survive extremely well thanks to the later addition of steel supports, and a recent and costly restoration project. Constable's famous picture speaks for itself.

Washington DC, USA

Old Executive Office Building

Also known as the Eisenhower Office Building, the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB...everything in DC has an acronym) is located right next to the White House at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC. You can't miss it. Mark Twain called it the ugliest building in American and Harry Truman said it is the greatest monstrosity in America. There is no accounting for taste because this building is beautiful. Alfred Bult Mullet designed it in the French Second Empire style. Construction started in 1871 and it took 17 years to complete. Mr Mullet was never paid for his work, sued the government for $160,000, lost, and committed suicide in 1890.

The building is so conspicuously lavish in a city that does not have particularly lavish buildings. There are lots of other elegant and eclectic buildings around, but the first time you see the OEOB, you'll be stunned by its grandness. Try taking a dozen or so photos of the building and daydream about living in one of the top dormers...

Union Station

Union Station went through a quite celebrated restoration a decade or so ago, and the result is that Washington has a fitting gateway for anyone arriving by rail as well as a beautiful building that is an attraction in its own right. The station is located just two blocks from the Capitol building.

In a city full of monuments, Union Station is perhaps a monument to times when rail was the dominant method of travel. The white fa¸ade with its row of arches seems right at home with the equally notable buildings in its vicinity, though it manages to look better than most of the institutional buildings in town. The landscaping opposite its front entrance is rare for a station in the middle of a city.

Perhaps more impressive is what's inside. The station now sports two levels of shopping and dining within its main hall, and yet it's done in such a way that nothing is lost from the soaring heights of the grand interior. It blends so well that you'd think the station was made this way from the beginning. And unlike some other station conversions in the US, the trains still arrive and depart many times a day. Commuter trains from the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia, as well as Amtrak, use the station, and the red line of Washington's excellent Metro subway system also stops here.

Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, England

Little Morton Hall in Cheshire, England is a great favourite with many folk. Its magnificent Tudor, timber-framed house surrounded by a moat, which it appears to be about to topple into. An architect's report concluded that there was no logical reason why it was still standing. The inside is largely unfurnished, with large open rooms which children can run around, giving it a lively atmosphere and a real feel of Elizabethan times.

To get there, take bus 77 north of Stoke-on-Trent. Entrance £4.40 at the time of writing. It's great to visit in the weekends before Christmas when the fire's lit, and the halls are decked in Elizabethan style holly.

The reason I like it is simply because it's close to my hometown, and I have memories of dozens of visits. The National Trust owns the Hall, and other buildings all around England, some national treasures, others much smaller but clearly much loved by locals such as Long Credon Courthouse (Buckinghamshire) and Old Town Hall, Newton (Isle of Wight).

The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

The Kremlin in Moscow is located right in the city centre of the Russian capital, on the banks of the Moskva River, right next to Basilius Cathedral (the colourful onion-roofed church on Red Square), Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square and the GUM (a huge and unfortunately slightly decrepit shopping mall). In fact, the Kremlin is the seat of the Russian government, and by definition, the centre of the city (Kremlin is a general word meaning something like 'The city centre fortress' - there are many Kremlins in other cities too). It was originally conceived as a fortress, so it is more a building complex than a single building, defended by a huge red brick wall. Many parts of the Kremlin are open to public (entrance fees vary according to the visitor's nationality - former Soviet Union residents pay a fraction of the normal tourist price which is about 10-50 American bucks, depending on the parts of the Kremlin you would want to visit).

The Kremlin accommodates many museums: The Russian diamond fund (with impressive gems on exhibition), a museum of Czar memorabilia (basically crowns, gowns and gold-dishes), a museum for ancient weaponry and a museum of orthodox clerical items like unthinkably valuable icons and golden ceremonial-service-dishes. In essence lots and lots of golden stuff. The Kremlin also accommodates many churches, in which the czars (like Ivan the Terrible) are buried. When walking in the Kremlin you are constantly made aware of the gigantic Russian soul. The Kremlin is concentrated Russian history, and a perfect start for anyone interested in Russia's past.

Last but not least, Western tourists can feel the James Bond aura, since many parts are still decorated in the good old Soviet style (ie, the hammer, the sickle and red stars).

Be careful: since the Kremlin is the seat of the Russian government there are lots of military people in there taking care for you not to smoke or cross the street on unmarked places. They whistle out loud when you do that. And it's not really tourist-friendly, so one would probably need a guide. Anyhow, the Kremlin is just majestic.

New York

Rose Center for Earth and Space, New York, NY, USA

The Rose Center for Earth and Space is part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is home to the New Hayden Planetarium (the most advanced in the world) as well as other exhibits and programmes. But we're talking about the building here, not necessarily what's in it. And this one is striking. Maybe shocking, particularly given that it's surrounded by much more traditional older buildings. One look and you know its purpose, which has been true of planetariums (planetaria?) before, of course, but never quite like this. You see, the building is a clear glass cube with a large sphere suspended in the middle inside.

The interior of the sphere is part of the building's space (the planetarium and its one-of-a-kind projector are inside it). Most of the sphere is above the highest floor level, thus creating an effect something like a planet inside a glass box. Another floor level is entirely beneath the sphere, and a walkway between levels spirals down around the bottom of the sphere, with exhibits all along it.

Instead of creating a building that simply serves the purpose of an exhibit hall and planetarium, the creators of the Rose Center have given us a building which celebrates and broadcasts its purpose in the most complete way possible.

The Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, Manhattan

For sheer 'breathtakingness', the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Manhattan - a 'house of prayer for all nations' - rivals anything I have ever seen, felt or experienced.

Begun in 1892, it remains unfinished to this day, and this 'ongoing' quality - picking up bits of the contemporary world as it goes along - means that it is constantly alive and renewing itself. And this is in addition to the juxtaposition of such inspiring majesty surrounded by a 21st Century urban neighbourhood. The energy crackles, and atheists start to doubt...

The original Romanesque/Byzantine design, already under construction, was modified into a Gothic theme in 1911 with a new architecture firm, and work continued on what is to be the largest cathedral in the world. On 30 November, 1941, the full length of the Cathedral was opened.

With the attack on Pearl Harbour the next week, all construction stopped until 1982. The Pearl Harbour Arch, as it is called, shows incomplete masonry where a stone carver did not return to his work. Work continued until 1998, but has again stopped for the foreseeable future. Nowadays, St John's is home to many, many artists, arts organisations and events, including Paul Winter's annual 'Winter Solstice Concert'. Tours and events throughout the year vary in admission fees, if any.

Some Other New York City Buildings

The following Researcher has chosen three 'beautiful' New York City buildings to enthuse over:

Down near city hall is the Woolworth Building, one of the best early achievements in skyscrapers (Manhattan's favourite architectural form). At 60 storeys, this Gothic-styled tower doesn't seem so shocking next to the towers of the World Trade Center and other buildings, but in 1913 it must have been amazing to see. It's now mostly apartments, but it has a beautiful mosaic lobby that's worth checking out.
While others may love the Empire State Building, I think the Chrysler Building is more beautiful and distinctive. It was built in 1930 and has a very '20s flair to it with a deco metal stepped dome on the top that extends several stories. For a few months, it was the world's tallest building (77 storeys) until the Empire State Building was completed. What is especially fascinating is that there was a race for the heights between it and the Bank of Manhattan tower near Wall Street. The BM people thought they had won the race until the dome was hoisted from inside and the spire erected in about 90 minutes. That must have been a surprise. It's a nice bit of deco charm in the skyline and looks especially cool at night.
Finally, I have to suggest the New York Public Library (not a skyscraper). A nice little edifice with two distinctive lions in front, it has served a noble purpose since the library was finished in 1910 to be a resource for all New Yorkers to use, not just the rich and academic. As a result, the building is built like a temple to learning, not unlike the Library of Congress main reading room or the Boston Public Library (two other great buildings).

St Elizabeth's Cathedral, Kosice, Slovakia

Begun in 1378 and finished in 1508, St Elizabeth's Cathedral, built in high gothic style, has withstood foreign siege and other grave misfortunes to become the centrepiece of Kosice's major renovation project. Restoration of the cathedral began in 1978. In the summer of 2000 it was lovely, even with scaffolding inside and out.

Kosice is the second largest city in Slovakia. It is located in the eastern part of the state and is one of its most beautiful cities.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool, UK

Known locally as 'Paddy's Wigwam', the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool is a much-maligned building. Many people think it is a hideous monstrosity, being ultra-modern and made of concrete, but it is absolutely stunning. The circular design is actually quite graceful, and the whole thing is topped by a magnificent crown of stained glass and metal rods.

Even those who hate the exterior usually love the interior. The circular design means that the central altar is easily accessible, even when the cathedral is packed. The central crown means that when the sun shines, the altar is bathed in gorgeous deep blue light from the stained glass, and the view from the altar up the crown is awesome. Mass in the Cathedral is truly an amazing experience (although the sheer beauty of the place is rather distracting).

In addition to all this, the Cathedral also has some great crypts, which were part of what was going to be a much larger cathedral (sadly abandoned due to lack of funds). All in all, although just about everyone else who has ever seen the cathedral may disagree, the Metropolitan Cathedral (at least, the interior), is truly a beautiful place.

Some Other Notable Buildings in Liverpool, UK

Liverpool has the highest number of listed buildings in the UK outside of London.

  • Anglican Cathedral - a huge red sandstone neo-gothic structure, and the largest church in the country. Faces the Catholic Cathedral along Hope Street (on which are many other fine buildings). You haven't lived until you've heard the Liverpool Cathedral Organ and Choir.

  • St George's Hall - a stunning neo-classical building, which until recently was unused. Built in the manner of the Parthenon, and with lions that rival Trafalgar Square in London. Inside, one of the halls has a floor which is only open every so often. Members of the public must wear pads on their feet to prevent damage to the tiles.

  • The Liver Buildings - the first sight of many visitors to Liverpool. A massive structure, still the home of the Royal Liver Assurance company. The building is topped by two mythical creatures, the Liver Birds, from which Liverpool is said to have taken its name.

  • St John's Beacon - more unusual than beautiful. A big tower rising out of the St. John's Shopping Precinct, at has a plateau near the top which used to rotate (it was originally a revolving restaurant). Today, it is the home of the city's local independent radio station. At night, the tower is illuminated, and is visible for miles around.

San Francisco

The Swedenborgian Church, San Francisco

In a more modest but no less magnificent configuration on the West Coast, the Swedenborgian Church on the corner of Lyon and Washington in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco also gives one a sense of humankind's potential. Built in 1895 under the direction of Pastor Joseph Worestor, the church reflects both the Swedenborgian concept of 'the spirit in all things' and Worestor's respect of, and friendship with, John Muir. The roof is supported by eight Madrona trees that were hauled from the Santa Cruz mountains wrapped in padding to reserve the bark. There is no paint or gilt in the room, as well as no pews - instead, parishioners sit in one of the original 80 hand-made, rush-covered chairs still in use.

One enters the sanctuary from a modest side entrance, after passing through a garden that is glorious in its simplicity. There are trees planted from all over the world, including an Irish yew, a cedar from Lebanon, an olive tree from the Holy Land, a maple from Japan, a California redwood, a crab apple from Siberia, and a New England Elm. The then-emerging 'Arts and Crafts' (aka 'Mission') style of architecture and design is found in the asymmetrical dynamics throughout the building, and consistently incorporated in the 'purity of materials and line' used.

Simply sitting within the Swedenborgian Church allows one to relax, focus and feel at peace - no mean accomplishment for a structure made by mortals.

The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Thirdly, in the opinion of some, The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the world's most beautiful man-made constructions. Although a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait was first conceived in 1872, weather and ocean currents were thought to make the task impossible. Construction began during America's Great Depression (a remarkable feat itself), and the bridge opened in May, 1937. It was the world's longest suspension bridge only until 1964, yet remains a marvel of engineering, grace and dreams. Thank whoever that pedestrian traffic is not only allowed, but encouraged; for from nowhere else is the panorama of San Francisco more stunning.

Olympic Stadium Amsterdam

The stadium can be found immediately when one rides into Amsterdam on the south side. It was used for the Olympics (of course) when they were held in Amsterdam. After that it was renovated many times, and used for many events. The most recent inhabitants were Ajax football club (for matches that couldn't be held in their own stadium because it was too small), the American Football club Amsterdam Admirals, and nowadays it is being used as an athletics stadium.

It was stripped of some features a few years ago, since space was needed for some companies to move into it. The beauty of the stadium, however, lies in the atmosphere that can be felt whenever one is close to it, and the history that can be read by just looking at it. When inside the stadium (especially when it was still used for main sport events) that atmosphere is even better.

Aya Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Also known as Hagia Sophia (in Greek) or The Church of Holy Wisdom (in English). It was built as a church by Emperor Justinian in about 525 AD, and then converted into a mosque by Mehemet the Conqueror. It's got an enormous dome that seems to defy gravity. It's a bit shabby now, but you can see how incredible it once was.


The Sagrada Familia - Barcelona

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a stunning building designed by Gaudi. It is incomplete as the funding to finish it ran out so it is theoretically still being built. What is in fact a massive cathedral is in fact only about a quarter of what the finished article should be. It is nevertheless a stunning site - Barcelona has one or two other buildings in the same Gaudi style - a sort of flowing carved stone effect .

It's the most beautiful building I ever seen.

The Alhambra, Granada

The Alhambra is a Moorish palace built in the city of Granada in Southern Spain. It is a fabulous example of Moorish architecture, with airy rooms, very detailed carvings and engraving and tile work decorations. There is also a large use of water features in courtyards. It is attached to some beautiful gardens called the Generalife.

It can be so busy that you have a ticket with a time on it which is when you are allowed to enter the palace. You may also need to buy the ticket in advance.

I've never met anyone who had seen it and had a bad word for the place.
How very true. I was there few years ago and I was lucky, because it was early in the morning so only few visitors were there. It was so quiet and peaceful... If mentioning the Alhambra, one should remember the gardens around it... well, you can't count them as buildings, but they are a perfect background. My favourite part of the Alhambra is the Lion Court with the lion-fountain. I read somewhere, that Alhambra is understood as 'a physical realisation of descriptions of Paradise in Islamic poetry'.

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania

Located between the villages of Mill Run and Ohiopyle in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania, Fallingwater is often described as one of the most beautiful buildings in the history of American architecture.

Designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright, the house straddles Bear Run at the top of a waterfall. The design utilised native stone and large concrete terraces which parallelled the nearby rock strata to create a shining example of 'naturalism' in architecture. The house was created for the wealthy Kauffman family of Pittsburgh as a summer 'cottage' at their favourite spot in the forests of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Admission (at time of writing) is $10 for adults on weekdays and $15 on weekends and reservations are suggested as more than 125,000 visitors tour the home every year.

Driving directions from Pittsburgh: Take the Pennsylvania Turnpike eastbound to the Donegal exit (Exit 9). Turn left onto State Route 31 east, and after going two miles, turn right onto State Route 381 south. Follow Route 381 south for about 20 miles to Fallingwater which will be on the right.

The home and grounds are now maintained by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and more information can be found at the group's website.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is huge. There is only one place in Durham you can't see it from, and that's the Market Place, because its just down the hill from the Cathedral and other buildings are in the way. You can see it from miles away on practically all the major routes into Durham. Durham Cathedral is normally quite quiet, quite prayerful. It has amazing columns are as thick around the base as they are tall, and a high, high tower.

A popular part of the Cathedral is the Galilee Chapel, which is at the west end of the cathedral. It's very light and has lots of small columns. But the Chapel of the Nine Alters at the east end of the Cathedral is lovely too. On the southern side are the cloisters1 which are very peaceful, too...

Durham's skyline would be nondescript in the extreme without the Cathedral.

And a Philosophical Note to End on

It amazes me that the human race's most nearly-ethereal accomplishments - architecture and music - remain ultimately temporal. But then again, don't we all...
1Look out in the Harry Potter film when it comes out where Harry has an owl or something on his wrist, and is standing on a grassy space surrounded by stonework - that was filmed in the cloisters. The owl can also be seen flying round the tower.

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