The "architectural pilgrimage" is much more than just everyday tourism. Studying and admiring a building through text and images often creates a hunger in architects, thanks to the space between the limitations of 2D representation and the true experience of the building. Seeing a building in person that one has long loved from a distance can become something of a spiritual experience, and architects often plan vacations around favorite or important spaces. But too often, architects become transfixed by a need to visit the same dozen European cities that have come to make up the traveling architect's bucket list.
The list here shares some sites that may not have made your list just yet. Although somewhat less well known than the canonical cities, the architecture of these six cities is sure to hold its ground against the world's best. The locations here make ideal long weekend trips (depending of course on where you are traveling from), although it never hurts to have more than a few days to really become immersed in a city. We have selected a few must-see buildings from each location, but each has even more to offer than what you see here—so don't be afraid to explore!
New Canaan, Connecticut, United States
After the Nazis pushed the Bauhaus out of Germany in 1933, director Walter Gropius was invited to head the Harvard Graduate School of Design, making it the first in the United States to adopt the Bauhaus methodology. In the 1940s, John M. Johansen, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes and their professor Marcel Breuer from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design began building homes for their clients and themselves in the tiny Connecticut town of New Canaan.
They became known as the “Harvard Five,” famous for their post-WWII work in modernist residential architecture that became emblematic of hope and change. Most of the dozens of projects built during this period have survived, and are still used as private homes. Those included on this list are no longer occupied and are open to tourists, but you can find dozens more modernist buildings to check out streetside.
One of Philip Johnson’s most famous buildings, the 1949 Glass House demonstrates the influence of Mies van der Rohe on the Harvard Five. This project in particular is inspired by van der Rohe’s stilted Farnsworth House, which also used glass controversially to build a transparent residence. Aside from the fireplace and bathroom, the wall-free house is completely exposed to—or, depending on how you look at it, integrated with—the exterior.
Eliot Noyes House
Eliot Noyes was the first of the Harvard Five to settle in New Canaan, and built his own home there based on Bauhaus teachings from Gropius and Breuer—also drawing inspiration from his time studying the work of Frank Lloyd Wright after graduation. The Noyes House juxtaposes heavy stone with glass to create a public-private dichotomy, and its use of natural materials contributes to a balance with the surrounding nature, which is echoed in the home’s courtyard that places wildlife at the center of the design.
Now maintained by the New Canaan Historical Society, the Gores Pavilion was designed by Landis Gores. His extensive work on Philip Johnson’s Glass House is evident in the Pavilion’s familiar cantilevers and glass walls. It was built as a pool house for its owners but now functions as a showroom and mini-museum as part of the Historical Society’s effort to engage with the town’s modernist architecture.
Despite its surviving Medieval palaces and tombs, Baku has become best known for its lavish construction of late- and postmodern monumental architecture. In a concerted urban planning effort that began somewhere around the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the State Committee for City Building and Architecture of the Republic of Azerbaijan has commissioned high profile, often semi-public urban projects to cultivate an image of Baku as a cosmopolitan and successful destination city. The result is an odd but fascinating mashup of architectural spectacle, and there are likely even more massive, dazzling buildings in the works. Travel to Baku for a critical look at how visionary master planning and tourism can shape a city.
Gmp Architekten’s faceted Crystal Hall was constructed in just eight months and meant as a temporary stadium for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, but was altered to become a more permanent venue for sports and concerts. The arena’s exterior is a perforated metal membrane meant to look like crystal, but the real show happens after dark, when thousands of colored LEDs illuminate its massive waterfront surface. LEDs like these that create free light shows have become almost a necessity in city-making projects of this scale, with buildings throughout Asia donning colorful, attention-grabbing coverings.
Heydar Aliyev Center
The counterpoint to Crystal Hall’s sharp, angular formal rhythm is the curving flow of Heydar Aliyev Center, named after Azerbaijan’s 20th-century Soviet-leader-turned-President. The Center is one of Baku’s earlier postmodern monuments, and was built at a time when Baku seemed an unlikely city for a Zaha Hadid commission. The building’s vast open spaces are a feat of engineering, and its large public plaza makes the Heydar Aliyev Center a part of life even for those who never enter its museum or theater, echoing the use of squares and plazas in Soviet architecture to offset the elitism of inaccessible buildings.
Travelers to Baku would be remiss to overlook its more historic architecture—although the new buildings are creating an equally important narrative of their own. The Maiden Tower dates back to the 12th century and is a major example of the region’s pre-Islamic architecture. It is believed to have been a Zoroastrian fire temple, with fire exits built throughout the masonry. The Maiden Tower is the center of many legends and myths, making it a central part of Azerbaijani cultural history, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Monument.
Columbus, Indiana, United States
Perhaps the most unlikely town to be called the “Midwestern Mecca of Architecture,” the 44,000 person town of Columbus, Indiana has nonetheless earned its unofficial title. After Eero Saarinen built the town’s first modernist building in 1940, a combination of public subsidy, post-WWII revolutionary thinking, and civic engagement prompted some of the world’s most renowned architects, including four Pritzker Laureates, to bring their designs to this unexpected settlement.
Fire Station 4
Each of Columbus’s six fire stations was built by a different architect as the city expanded. Seeing the complete collection forms a lens through which visitors can examine the development of popular architectural styles, namely evolving modernism, from 1941 to 1998. Fire Station 4 was designed by Robert Venturi, another Pritzker Prize winner, in 1967. The architect was instructed to design a building that was easy to maintain and not distracting, hence the station’s planar simplicity.
Irwin Miller House
One of Columbus’s most notable projects, the Irwin Miller house was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957. Mies van der Rohe’s influence is present in the home, which lets steel and glass define its unornamented walls and cantilevered, overhanging roof. The use of glass quiets the separation between interior and exterior, allowing the property’s lush gardens to become a part of the home. Inside, the interior design of Alexander Girard includes pedestal chairs and a sunken living room, both distinctly emblematic of mid-century modern furniture.
Cleo Rogers Memorial Library
Before winning the Pritzker Prize in 1983, I.M. Pei also left his mark on Columbus with the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library as the town’s first civic building in 1969. He was tasked with creating a focal point for the town center: a defining element to unite the various disparate modern buildings that would start a dialogue between Saarinen’s neighboring Miller house and First Christian Church. The library is built with native brick, and Pei mixed red dust into the mortar to minimize its appearance and imbue the building with a monolithic quality.
São Paulo, Brazil
In the political uncertainty of midcentury Brazil, São Paulo took nervous, rebellious, and nationalist energies and turned them into art. Movements such as Neo-Concretism and Tropicalism in art were also reflected in a modernist architecture that was grappling with exploring a Brazilian identity amid foreign influence that was seen as both constructive and destructive at different times. The legacy of these tensions and the beauty that resulted can be found in many of the city’s buildings.
The iconic Oscar Niemeyer is responsible for much of Brazil’s modern architecture, but residential architecture is rare among his many civic projects. The Copan building is massive: 38 stories of apartment units form a subtle wave shape that, seen from above, seems to cut through the urban fabric like a glacier slowly flattening the terrain. Today, conditions of some parts of the Copan building are unfortunately somewhat precarious, and with a restoration project underway that is expected to last until 2019, a mesh covering has been placed over the facade to protect pedestrians from falling tiles.
Tomie Ohtake Institute
Architect Ruy Ohtake designed the Tomie Ohtake Institute in 2001 for his mother, a celebrated Japanese-Brazilian painter and sculptor who settled in São Paulo in the mid-20th century and was one of Brazil’s key abstract artists. The contemporary tower utilizes the colors and swirling, ribbon-like shapes that were common in Tomie Ohtake’s work, and it has become a favorite in the São Paulo skyline.
Museum of Art São Paulo
The MASP is one of Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi’s most significant works in her adopted home of Brazil. The museum is suspended above a pre-existing plaza to preserve the public life that it hosted, and the lower half is buried to prevent the structure from rising high enough to obstruct the city’s views. The bright red piers that support the museum are representative of Bo Bardi’s admiration of Brazilian culture, as they parallel the rebellious color and forms of the Concrete movement that was taking place in Brazilian art at the time.
Porto often slips through the cracks on lists of Europe’s best cities for architecture. Its surviving Baroque churches and cathedrals are beautiful on their own, but several diverse projects from the last century are what makes Porto a true standout today.
São Bento Station
José Marques da Silva’s 1916 São Bento Train Station is an example of the Beaux-Arts style that began in Paris and then spread throughout Europe, and later the United States. It is a return to ornamented aesthetics and Baroque and Classical styles after the use of machined cast iron popularized during the Industrial Revolution. The São Bento Station also has an impressive interior, with mosaics of 20,000 tiles that depict scenes from Portugal’s history.
Leça Swimming Pools
Just a twenty-minute drive from Porto, the Leça da Palmeira beach of Matosinhos is home to Álvaro Siza’s famous Piscinas de Marés. The saltwater swimming pools nearly enter the sea, but are bordered by dark concrete and rock formations that blend with the surrounding beach, making the pools feel almost magically carved from the earth.
The art deco Serralves Villa from the 1930s occupies a park of the same name. Its flamingo pink exterior displays the verticality and machinic roundness common in art deco, and it looks like a set of the next Wes Anderson movie against the manicured lawn. The interior houses an unbeatable collection of early-20th-century European designers, among them Edgar Brandt and Émile Jacques Ruhlmann. In the same park is another Álvaro Siza project, the Serralves Foundation Museum, which is typical of Siza’s white sculptural style and houses one of Portugal’s most revered collections of contemporary art.
Although Luis Barragán is best known for his work in Mexico City, his career really began in his hometown of Guadalajara. The Guadalajara projects of the 1920s are living glimpses into Barragán’s evolution as an architect, and demonstrate his creation of a visual vocabulary of large windows, flat planes, and colorful stucco. His association with the Guadalajara School, which prioritized regional traditions in architecture, began at this time, and this regionalism is evident in his work’s materiality and spatial awareness of its natural surroundings.
Jardines del Bosque
A precursor to the Las Arboledas and El Pedregal neighborhoods built later in Mexico City, the Jardines del Bosque is a housing subdivision planned by Barragán and constructed after the controversial destruction of the area’s woods to make way for the new development. Also located within Jardines del Bosque is the Parroquia el Calvario, making the neighborhood ideal for learning not only about Barragán's early urban planning, but also his conceptions of spirituality in architecture.
One of few completely white structures in Barragán’s portfolio, Casa Franco is a perfect example of the regionalism espoused by the Guadalajara School, with its geometric wooden fence separating the courtyard from the street and foreshadowing the secluded microenvironments for which Barragán is best known. The building is now home to Travesia Cuatro, a Madrid-based art gallery, meaning it is possible to see the interior, although due to a renovation the interior now follows the conventions of an uncontextualized white cube art space.
Casa Efraín González Luna
Barragán’s commission for the locally prominent intellectual Efraín González Luna is regarded as the stylistic peak of his Guadalajara period. Like the other Guadalajara buildings, Casa Efraín González Luna is in some ways rooted heavily in regional tradition with its clean arches and stucco walls. But Barragán took the time to experiment here, further developing his concept of the garden as a retreat, and developing a play of light that emphasizes the openness of the space.
Bonus City: Songdo, Korea
Songdo is Korea's experimental smart city, and was planned from the ground up as a speculative, futuristic business hub. It incorporates a slew of models for the "cities of the future," including a smart waste system, green building techniques and energy usage, and integrated parks. It sits on reclaimed land that's just a fifteen-minute drive from Incheon International Airport, making it an ideal quick exploration trip for a long layover.