The Five Greatest Buildings in the World

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Louvre city-facing side
Begun by French King Francis I, who returned from his campaigns in Italy with countless renaissance treasures which would later become the source of the Louvre’s impressive collection, the Louvre was also the site of one of the pivotal moments of the French revolution when the then adjoining Tuileries Palace was stormed by an angry and increasing confident Parisian working class. The Louvre is not just the greatest building in the world – it’s surely the greatest in the Universe! It’s gothic, it’s renaissance, it’s palatial opulence in the heart of Paris, but most of all it’s beautiful when beams of winter sunlight arc in from the south and animate its carved stone surfaces.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Louvre, Pavillion Sully, as seen from the Cour Carrée
I was lucky enough to witness this effect the first time I ever set eyes upon the Louvre on a frosty February day in 2005. And since then I’ve only had glimpses and reminders of that particular magic again. Note well: the effect isn’t the same in summer; the statues of France’s former heroes that sit atop the many pillars of its many arches lie dormant in the oppressive summer sun of August and September. Only under the perfect alignment of a crystal clear atmosphere, cool ambient temperature and a perfect arcing angle-of-incidence of the sun’s rays do the statues come alive and does the stone begin to breath with a life all of its own.

The principal building of the British Houses of Parliament the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Its spiky gothic towers and walls are just fantastic! It is gothic without being medieval and along with Big Ben it seems to somehow symbolise the exciting promise of a cosmopolitan big-city Europe as well as history and culture at the same time.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The British Houses of Parliament
There was once an English King who had the audacity to march into the House of Commons and try to arrest some of its members by force – the example that was made of him was so resounding that I think it has had a tangible effect on the power of all kings everywhere since. Notwithstanding the fact that the English parliament has since then played a significant role in entrenching monarchical power from the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France, to setting-up the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia to backing the Shah in Iran.

Sydney Opera HouseImage via Wikipedia
The Sydney Opera House - with a surface like
"hammered silver"
Australia’s very own great building. Why do I think it fits amongst the top five? Notwithstanding that it is a modern building and I generally have a predilection for buildings which have withstood the test of time I still find this building remarkably beautiful. Basically it is a beautiful building in all three levels of zoom: proportions, details and textures. That is to say, when looked from afar, looked from a medium distance and looked at up close, it is always beautiful.

As its popularity on postcards and tourist brochures for Australia attests to, it is a building with stunningly beautiful proportions, I think because it perfectly balances symmetry and random variation as if it were a thing of nature. Each building or shell is beautifully symmetrical, yet they all are a little different in terms of size and orientation. The chevron pattern of the tiles on the outside of the building give just the bare minimum amount of detail to stop the enormous white shells that are the walls of each building from seeming bare and unnatural. Finally the walls are made from porcelain and not simply painted or rendered white. In creating the tiles for the walls, architect Jörn Utzon wanted something very specific: a tile that "had gloss but did not have a mirror effect. A tile with a coarse structure that resembled hammered silver." This “hammered silver” look is really what makes the building complete and makes it blend into the harbour which surrounds it as if it were of a piece with the water itself.

Although you wouldn’t think it, I actually think this building is a winner for many of the same reasons as the Opera House mentioned above. It has extremely elegant proportions with the slender minarets complementing the bulk of the central building and is almost most beautiful when viewed from the other side of the river Yamuna that flows through Agra. In terms of details, the delicate marble lattice windows are beautiful enough to warrant this building’s inclusion in the list even if it was in the shape of a box and made out of concrete. And as for the texture of the materials, I think that not even great European cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris and the Duomo in Florence with their incredible stone and marble masonry have been as painstakingly worked on as the inlaid marble of the Taj Mahal. In fact, it beats the Opera House on all three scores and I would probably put it second on the list were it not for one small but important facet of the building – it’s function.

Because great buildings are about people as much as anything else and whilst I do believe that there is a place for monuments to great events and even tombs to important people (whether that be important to just you and your family or the whole of humanity) this tomb seemed to me particularly dead. Walking up to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal herself, I couldn’t help lose all attachment to the significance of the
building, crowded as I was amongst a throng of tourists, listening to them whistle more interested in hearing their own echoes than the memory of the person buried underneath. Because no-one respects or cares about Mumtaz Mahal anymore, the Taj Mahal is now more a tourist attraction than an important monument and I think that it is because of this disconnect between its original purpose and its present function that you can’t help feeling a little dejected upon finally reaching its centre – in fact I would advise you not to, it is better to simply appreciate it from the other side of the river and remember the former glory of the Mughal days. Because at the heart of this great monument lies an unfillable empty space.

5. The Chrysler Building

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...Image via Wikipedia
The Chrysler Building
Burnished steel and elegant proportions – that’s why I nominate this building as the greatest skyscraper. It’s not the tallest and I think that there might exist some skyscrapers with even more elegant proportions (although none that I've ever seen), but the burnished steel cap on the top just makes this one a real gem! Steel is one of those fantastic materials that are just great. Great to look at, great to touch, great to think about because the very word has all sorts of great connotations about strength and solidity. I don’t know why some materials are simply more aesthetically pleasing than others – but it’s a fact, some just are: glass bottles although heavier and more expensive to produce are simply nicer than plastic ones, stone blocks always beat concrete, a beer that you’ve seen poured from a wooden barrel will taste nicer than one from a metal cask and no amount of concrete or render or paint can beat the polished shine of burnished steel.

Does this building deserve to be in the list? I really like skyscrapers and I think this is the best one, but does the number one skyscraper beat the third or fourth best castle or cathedral? Well, that’s the question.

Do you disagree with my definitive list? Please feel free to leave a comment - even if you're reading this blog weeks from when it was published, there's no such thing as necroposting on this blog as far as I'm concerned.

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1 comment:

JJ said...

I have to think about other buildings, but I have been to 1,2, and 5 and they are very impressive. If I come up with another candidate, I shall return.