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19 architectural marvels worth travelling for

From flamboyant and futuristic fabrications to striking circular structures that radiate drama, these architectural marvels reimagine reality.

Extraordinary buildings are like extraordinary people; they have the power to enchant and inspire, as well as leave their indelible mark on the world. And today’s visionary architects are defying convention with their daring designs, creating modern masterpieces that push the boundaries and draw culturally aware travellers in droves. In the first independent study on the impact of architecture on tourism – Architecture Attracts Visitors by Pla’tou (the Platform for Architecture in Tourism) – 88 per cent of travel entrepreneurs and operators reported that success and enhanced profitability in destination tourism were “directly correlated to the use of contemporary architecture”. Since those 2007 findings, we have seen a propagation of architectural marvels appear all over the globe, from the majestic to the mind-bending.

National Museum of Qatar

With its super-sized intertwining disks, the National Museum of Qatar is a sublime example of sculptural artistry by famed French architect Jean Nouvel. He said the bold idea for the 2019 architectural marvel came to him through the lens of symbolism when he was contemplating the flora found in Qatar’s arid desert regions – “I remembered the phenomenon of the desert rose: crystalline forms, like miniature architectural events, that emerge from the ground.”

The National Museum of Qatar architectural marvels
The National Museum of Qatar © Kenneth Coffie/Unsplash

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Also from the applauded imagination of Nouvel is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is surrounded by water so visitors can arrive via sea or land. The crowning glory of this circular structure is the imposing silver dome that appears to float overhead – a geometric triumph of 7,850 stars repeating at varying sizes across eight layers. Nouvel was inspired by sunlight shining through the fronds of Abu Dhabi’s palm trees, and crafted the dome to create a similarly captivating ‘rain of light’ effect throughout the museum when the sun passes over.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabi © Adobe Stock

Fondation Louis Vuitton

The landmark Fondation Louis Vuitton museum in Paris is another example of art imitating life. Looming over the Bois de Boulogne parklands, the museum resembles a cloud of glass. Its acclaimed architect, Frank Gehry, said the architectural marvel – constructed from 12 curving sails made up of 3,600 panels of glass – was influenced by the greenhouse buildings found in French and British gardens.

Fondation Louis Vuitton
Fondation Louis Vuitton © Adobe Stock

Opus Building

The late Dame Zaha Hadid conceived the mind-bending Opus building in Dubai over a glass of whisky. The renowned Iraqi-British architect, who designed the Opus before she died in 2016, was reportedly struck with the idea after extinguishing a cigarette on an ice cube floating in her glass. The result is a perception-altering construction with a deceptive void that creates the illusion of the building falling inward upon itself, as well as vistas of the cityscape beyond it.

The Opus
The Opus © Adobe Stock

 Heydar Aliyev Centre

Hadid, dubbed ‘Queen of the curve’ by her contemporaries, also conjured the architectural marvel Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2012. Celebrated for its swooping, serpentine shape that shuns all sharp angles, the 57,500-square-metre cultural centre has no visible connections and contributes a soft, serene silhouette to the urban landscape.

Heydar Aliyev Centre
Heydar Aliyev Centre © Adobe Stock

Chengdu Science Fiction Museum

While Hadid may no longer be with us, her vision is survived by Zaha Hadid Architects, the creators of China’s futuristic Chengdu Science Fiction Museum. Its seven-point star design floats above the glassy waters of Jingrong Lake, reminiscent of a hovering spacecraft. And if it looks unusual, so was the time required to build it. At 59,000 square metres, the museum is three times the size of the Sydney Opera House, yet it was constructed in less than 12 months and completed in 2023.

Chengdu Science Fiction Museum
Chengdu Science Fiction Museum

The Oculus

In stark contrast, the Oculus at the World Trade Center in New York took more than 10 years to complete. Envisioned as a bird being released from the hands of a child, the ambitious fabrication was masterminded by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava as a symbolic gesture to replace the Trans-Hudson rail station destroyed in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The design was submitted in 2004, construction began in 2008, and the last piece was placed in 2016. Although initially criticised as an extravagance, many naysayers now say it was worth the wait.

The Oculus
The Oculus © Adobe Stock

Water Drop Library

An exquisite exemplar of unencumbered imagination, China’s Water Drop Library is a dramatic architectural marvel perched upon the lush green cliffside of Huizhou. Crowning its circular form is a rooftop pool that seemingly stretches towards the South China Sea. The 2013 brainchild of Beijing-based architects 3andwhich Design, the Water Drop Library would comfortably fit in any James Bond film.

Water Drop Library Huizhou
Water Drop Library © Weiqi Jin

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a museum of modern and contemporary art in Spain, stands as one of Frank Gehry’s most renowned architectural marvels. Spanning 32,500 square metres along the Nervión River, the structure showcases interconnecting shapes of stone, glass, and titanium. The building’s curves, designed to appear random, catch the light beautifully, while its reflective surfaces and curving lines offer an ever-changing appearance.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao © Adobe Stock/elxeneize

 China Central Television Headquarters

The China Central Television Headquarters is an architectural marvel located on the East Third Ring Road, Guanghua Road, in Beijing’s Central Business District. This 51-level skyscraper, designed by Anu Leinonen, Charles Berman, Adrianne Fisher, and a team of over 100 architects from OMA, embodies deconstructivism, a postmodern architectural movement from the 1980s. The conjoined towers, meticulously designed and constructed over eight years, from 2004 to 2012, feature a heavy use of glass.

China Central Television Headquarters
China Central Television Headquarters © Adobe Stock

National Stadium

The National Stadium, an architectural marvel in Olympic Green, Chaoyang, Beijing, spans 204,000 square meters. Another example of deconstructivism, it was designed to withstand earthquakes. The steel elements, though massive, suggest movement, and its ‘bird’s nest’ structure is inspired by Chinese ‘crazed pottery’. Architects Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Stefan Marbach, artist Ai Weiwei, and CADG’s Li Xinggang collaborated on this iconic project.

National Stadium
National Stadium © Adobe Stock/Richie Chan

Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, an architectural marvel in Dubai, stands as the world’s tallest structure at 828 metres with 163 levels. Designed by Adrian Smith, its form draws inspiration from the geometries of a regional desert flower and the patterning systems found in Islamic architecture. This skyscraper epitomises modern engineering and architectural sophistication, seamlessly blending cultural motifs with cutting-edge design.

Burj Khalifa © Adobe Stock
Burj Khalifa © Adobe Stock

Baiterek

The Baiterek, an architectural marvel in Astana, Kazakhstan, is a 105-metre-tall monument and observation tower designed by Akmurza Rustembekov. Rising from a wide flat base within a raised plaza, it embodies a folktale about a mythical tree of life and the magic bird Samruk. Its striking sphere atop an elegant structure reaches toward the sky, symbolising hope and happiness.

Baiterek © Adobe Stock
Baiterek © Adobe Stock

National Star Observatory

The National Star Observatory is a building created by Kyriakos Tsolakis Architects, nestled in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. As the country’s first purpose-built observatory, it blends seamlessly into its natural surroundings with a mindful and unobtrusive design. The observatory’s external surface is thoughtfully crafted to reflect its mission: to gaze out into the stars, planets, and universe. This architectural marvel enhances Cyprus’ astronomical research capabilities while existing serenely within the mountain locale.

National Star Observatory by Kyriakos Tsolakis Architects
National Star Observatory by Kyriakos Tsolakis Architects © Aaron Miles

OLM Nature Escape Eco-Aparthotel project

The OLM Nature Escape Eco-Aparthotel in Campo Tures, Italy, is a unique architectural marvel by Andreas Gruber Architects. Inspired by the beauty and cycles of nature, this circular building is entirely clad in larch wood and furnished with natural materials, including stone and spruce. More than just an accommodation facility, OLM Nature Escape harmoniously blends with its environment, offering guests an immersive experience in the natural beauty of the region.

OLM Nature Escape Eco-Aparthotel by Andreas Gruber Architects
OLM Nature Escape Eco-Aparthotel by Andreas Gruber Architects

City of Arts and Sciences

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, is a cultural and architectural complex designed by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, comprised of several iconic buildings. This modern architectural marvel includes the Hemisfèric, the Science Museum, Palau de les Arts, the Oceanogràfic, and The Umbracle – a vast, open-access garden.

City of Arts and Sciences valencia
City of Arts and Sciences. Left image © Adobe Stock; right image © Adobe Stock/TOimages

Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, is a modern architectural marvel and one of the largest museums in North America. This museum of art, world culture and natural history boasts a striking addition designed by Berlin-based Studio Daniel Libeskind. The structure features organically interlocking prismatic forms, with an exterior composed of 25% glass and 75% extruded-brushed aluminium cladding strips in a warm silver hue. Unique steel beams, ranging from one to 25 metres, create intricate angle joints, sloped walls and dynamic gallery ceilings.

Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario Museum. Left image © Adobe Stock/JHVE Photo; Right image © Adobe Stock/Adam Sander for Wirestock Creators

Lotus Temple

Tucked in New Delhi, India, the Lotus Temple is a Baháʼí house of worship and a prime example of expressionist architecture. Designed by architect Fariborz Sahba, this iconic structure was completed in 1986 and is notable for its striking flowerlike shape. Its unique design and serene ambience have made it a prominent attraction in the city, drawing visitors from around the world.

Lotus Temple in India
Lotus Temple © Adobe Stock

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was constructed between 1994 and 2007 and is the largest mosque in the UAE. A masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture, it features 82 domes, towering minarets and pristine white marble. Designed by Syrian architect Youssef Abdelke, the structure references classic Mamluk, Ottoman and Fatimid styles. British artist Kevin Dean created the intricate floral motifs and patterns, while the columns throughout are adorned with semi-precious stones such as amethyst, lapis lazuli, and jasper.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque © Adobe Stock

While all vastly different, one thing these contemporary architectural triumphs have in common is the designers’ willingness to take risks, commit to their vision and create a lasting impression on those who view them. They leave the world a more interesting place because of it.

Read more:
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This article originally appeared in volume 47 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.

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