Art, Action & Inspiration

My Top 5 Architectural Gems

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilisation.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright

The first time it really occurred to me to have a favourite building was the first time I stood and looked out over Hong Kong harbour. It’s such a striking view, especially in the sunshine; with so many impressive buildings ranged out across the skyline, almost looking as though they’re jostling for your attention.

My friend Eric and I spent ages on the viewing deck taking photographs and picking out the ones we liked best, then looking up who designed them to see if we could find other examples of their work to visit on our trip.

Since then I have travelled a lot more and seen many examples of stunning architecture, and of course seen far more in pictures. Now I have a whole list of favourite buildings. These are the top five:

5. The Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai, China

I love Shanghai because it’s not just the home of fusion cuisine, it implements the fusion concept across the entire city. Shanghai is the place where east meet west, and history meets the modern era. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in its architecture.

The Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower sits on the opposite side of the Huangpu River from The Bund, with its fine examples of 19th century European-style architecture. It creates a stark contrast as the addition of this building to the skyline makes the opposite bank of the river look a bit like a space station by night.

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By day the tower, designed by the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Company, is even more impressive. It’s globes looking more like giant rubies than pearls. From the inside the tower also affords fantastic views across the city.

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4. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The design for this building was commissioned in the late 1980s and work on construction eventually began in 1996. The mosque was finally completed in 2007, the result of the labour of over 3,000 construction worker. The materials to build the mosque were sourced from all over the world with the aim of creating a monument to symbolised the unity of nations.

The Grand Mosque is so beautiful that it’s a struggle just to look at it. The perfectly white marble reflecting the dazzling light of the desert sun out in every direction.

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The gold decoration in the courtyard of the mosque doesn’t do much to lessen the glare.

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The interior of this building could never be as imposing it is from the outside but holds it’s own in terms of being lavish. I’ve never walked across so plush a carpet, it was more comfortable than my orthopedic mattress.

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The detailing on the decoration is fine and lovely.

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I even like the ceiling.

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But what sealed the mosque’s place on this list was the library – although I lost my pictures of the library – I do like me a nice library.

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3. Château de Chenonceau,The Loire Valley, France

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Once home to Diane de Poitiers, before being requisitioned by Catherine de Medici, Château de Chenonceau is everything that Walt Disney had in mind when he dreamed up the homes of his princes and princesses. Even on the outside the castle is so ornate, and intricate, and just plain beautiful that it’s hard to imagine it being constructed in the 11th century, having been designed by French Renaissance architect Philibert de l’Orme. Having now been in the Menier family since 1913 the site is visited by around 800,000 tourists each year.

Set above and beside the River Cher the grounds are a wonderful place to spend a sunny summer’s day. The château even has its own maze.

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That isn’t to say that the place doesn’t seem equally as lovely at night. It would have been the perfect setting when it played host to France’s very first firework display, in 1560, to mark the coronation of Francis II.

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The decor on the inside is just as magical, although it has clearly been updated from the original.

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2. The Oslo Opera House, Oslo, Norway

Designed by architects from the international firm Snøhetta, the Oslo Opera House is a simpler design than some of the other buildings on this list but it has an undefinable quality that made me fall in love with it. It took five years to build and was completed in 2007.

On the outside the Opera House is very modern and looks like a glacier but on the inside the look is of a more traditional Scandinavian building; where the use made of the space and light makes you feel as though you’ve entered a cathedral to music.

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And then come night time the building looks like something different again.

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From atop of the Opera House visitors can take in the splendid views of the harbour and the fjord beyond.

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1. Basilica Papale di San Pietro, Vatican City

I visited the Papal Basilica after having first been to the Colosseum. As I’d been looking forward to visiting all the great Roman ruins for many years I was disappointed to learn that the Colosseum was but a shell of its former shelf because the architects of the Basilica di San Pietro had stripped out all the marble to put in the church. So I went to the Basilica fully expecting to be disappointed, and assuming that the marble couldn’t possibly look as good in there as would have done had it been left alone where it was.

I’d actually had no intention of looking around the Papal Basilica. All I’d meant to see in Vatican City was the Sistine Chapel, I ended up at St Peter’s entirely by chance.

I’d set off to the Vatican early in the morning, 6am or something like that, and I went to the reception to ask where I should catch the bus from. The receptionist who had been on duty was just finishing his shift when I turned up, and said that as the Vatican was on his way he would give me a lift.

I’d been assuming he had a car. Outside he took me to a motorbike and handed me a helmet. I’d never been on a motorbike before and wasn’t keen to change that, so I asked if he’d mind me taking the bus after all. He said he would, and for some reason I got on the bike.

So we set off, at what felt like a high speed, through streets I didn’t recognise. At which point it occurred to me that I was alone in a strange country, in a strange city, that nobody knew that I was there, and that this man I’d met only minutes earlier could be taking me anywhere.

He took me to the Sistine Chapel like he said he would. But the queue was already round the block, and we were told that I would be waiting until at least 3pm before I got in to see the Chapel, if I got in to see it at all. I decided that I didn’t actually want to see anything that badly, and to save having wasted a trip, I’d go and look around the main church instead.

Paulo decided to come with me. He said that he’d lived in Rome for thirty years but never got round to seeing the tourist sites before, and as a catholic this was one he probably ought to go to.

It was good having him along. He told me lots of local news stories that probably wouldn’t have made their way into the guide books. And as I hadn’t brought a guide-book anyway, he told me thinks about the Basilica, things like the symbolism involved in the laying out of the grounds, and the fact that you can tell the time by looking at the columns in the main square outside.

Despite my pre-conceptions and intention to unimpressed, I was astounded by this building. After the word awesome in the dictionary there should be nothing but a picture of the Basilica Papale di San Pietro. It inspires great awe in the original sense of the word, to which photographs don’t even begin to do justice.

Before you go into the church proper, you have the option to look around a little museum containing some artifacts belonging to the church. Well, they called them artifacts, they don’t look like any artifacts I’ve ever seen in any other museum. Have you seen the bit in Pirates of the Caribbean where they’re in the caves with all the stolen treasure ready to shed Elizabeth’s blood and break the curse. The collection in this museum looks something like that. It’s a haul of treasure. If you can leave aside the realisation that they could sell just a fraction of this collection, which they admit is just a fraction of what they own, and wipe out global poverty, then it’s phenomenally impressive.

And I have no words to do justice to the inside of the Basilica proper.

You can climb right up to the top. And even right in the roof of the church, where many people were never going to venture as you have to be able to squeeze yourself up such a narrow stairwell to get there, the attention to detail is magnificent. At first glance it seems to be ornately carved, on much closer inspection it turns out that this isn’t a carving but a very delicate painting, shaded to make it appear as though it’s three-dimensional.

And once up on the roof you have a 360 degree panoramic view across Rome. Beautiful Rome.

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Note: I don’t have digital copies of my photographs of Château de Chenonceau, those above were taken from chenonceau.com.

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5 thoughts on “My Top 5 Architectural Gems

  1. The Oslo Opera House looks amazing. I’m not a huge fan of architecture, but I think I’d go there just to see the building.

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  2. Pingback: Shanghai Architecture | Flickr Comments

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