Saturday, June 3, 2023
Home Business Feature The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture

The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture

Video by Scott J. Ross

The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture

Three architects, three journalists and two designers gathered over Zoom to make a list of the most influential and lasting buildings that have been erected — or cleverly updated — since World War II. Here are the results.

A few months ago, I set up a Zoom call with the architects Toshiko Mori, Annabelle Selldorf and Vincent Van Duysen; the designer Tom Dixon; the artist and set designer Es Devlin; the critic and T contributor Nikil Saval; and Tom Delavan, T’s design/interiors director, to talk about postwar architecture. Our goal was to make a list — similar to ones we’ve done on influential rooms, protest art and contemporary art — of the 25 most significant buildings constructed after World War II. The word “significant” always inspires debate, and there was plenty of disagreement among those assembled, but we hoped to surface projects made over the last eight decades anywhere in the world, whether public or private — though we did limit our list to those that are still standing (which, if you consider various oppressive governments, imposed some geographical limitations) — and so we asked each of our panelists to nominate 10 or so entries ahead of time, from which we would mercilessly cull.

Modernists, of course, played an important role in this discussion, and a few of them — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Lina Bo Bardi, Luis Barragán — were named again and again on our individual ballots. There were also three buildings — Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951; Plano, Ill.); Kahn’s Salk Institute (1965; La Jolla, Calif.); Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia (1986; São Paulo) — that received three preliminary votes each, practically mandating their inclusion as finalists. From there, though, the conversation was as sprawling and high-spirited as the styles, countries, aesthetics, typologies and practitioners represented by the projects we narrowed in on below (which appear in chronological order, from their dates of completion), as our experts lobbied for or against architecturethat they felt had not only reshaped the world and era in which it was introduced but also has endured and remains influential today.

Given the difficulties plaguing our current moment, it’s not surprising that the social concerns of architecture — the need to provide housing, for instance, or create useful civic and academic structures; the idea that beautiful cities and communities shouldn’t only be built for and by the rich; the urgency of sustainability, environmentalism and more careful materiality — were on everyone’s mind, and we attempted to be democratic in more literal ways, too, choosing projects from every continent except for Antarctica (though, spoiler alert, outer space makes an appearance) and considering the field’s historical inequities, especially in the West, and particularly when it comes to Black architects and women architects. That said, a different list would have emerged from a different group, or even from this same group on a different afternoon. As Selldorf pointed out in a brief moment of frustration with the assignment, “The real trouble is there are more than 25 important buildings.” Nonetheless, here’s our humble attempt. Kurt Soller

The conversation has been edited and condensed. The building summaries are by Michael Snyder.

Magda Biernat/OTTO

Upon his arrival in Mexico City from Guadalajara in 1936, Barragán worked tirelessly to build his persona as a poet of color and light. While many of his peers were designing hospitals and housing projects on a grand scale, Barragán mostly eschewed such civic engagements, dedicating himself to upscale housing developments and cloistral private homes, none finer than the one he built for himself in 1948. Hidden behind a blank wall of plastered concrete, the building turns its back to the street, unveiling itself through a sequence of passages and stairwells that open into spaces of vivid austerity. With its overgrown back garden studded with narcissus and jasmine, and its interior spaces illuminated by collaborations with friends and colleagues like the German Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz and the Cuban Mexican furniture designer Clara Porset, Casa Barragán incorporates landscape and art into its intimate study of atmosphere and proportion. In recent years, the property — also a base for the Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán and now open for tours by reservation — has become a site of architectural pilgrimage, popularized in countless photos. But despite its exposure, it remains a timeless argument for the power of architecture built not just around utility and form but around the elemental ideals of serenity and joy.

Kurt Soller: To start, how did you all come up with your own lists? Were you thinking about architects who were influential after the wars and then choosing their most significant projects, or were you considering buildings that instantly came to mind and what they represent, in terms of their significance?

Es Devlin: Inevitably, it’s really emotional — heartfelt. We’ve all been influenced by these designs, so there’s a personal aspect to it. And then there is, I guess, a sense of a responsibility to this list, and who should be on it.

Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Soller: In the case of Casa Barragán, for example, did it matter that it feels particularly relevant today? There’s obviously been a renaissance of interest in that house since it opened to the public.

Tom Dixon: Right. I was trying to look for things that changed something, that moved the conversation. [This house] stands the test of time because it’s a kind of symbol. So that’s what I was looking for, things that revolutionized some typology.

© George Lambros

By the time Edith Farnsworth commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design her suburban Chicago home in 1945, the German American architect had spent two decades working toward a philosophy that he called beinahe nichts (“almost nothing”), reducing his designs for institutional buildings to their absolute essence. With the Farnsworth House, he brought that aesthetic into the domestic sphere. The house consists of a flat white roof, a white slab floor and a delicate membrane of glass to contain the structure, its only interior division a wooden enclosure for the bathrooms. Slender white columns raise the structure 5 feet 3 inches off the ground, and a broad flight of stairs, which seem to levitate as if by magnetism, connects it to the lawn below. There’s luxury in the materials — shantung silk curtains, travertine floors — but the true appeal rests in the perfect proportions. In the end, such attention to detail pushed the house’s price through the roof, driving a wedge between client and architect, yielding a suit and a countersuit and Farnsworth’s denunciation of the project in the May 1953 issue of House Beautiful, in which she described the experience of living there as being “like a prowling animal, always on the alert.” The Farnsworth House immediately became shorthand for the anodyne excesses of high Modernism, yet even its critics couldn’t deny the profound impact of its openness, its transparency and its crystalline minimalism, chilly and dazzling as ice.

Devlin: For me, it’s the epitome of a drawing made manifest into concrete architecture. It’s that connection to place and space, and that connection of inside to outside. Think how much influence it’s had and continues to have. It doesn’t date. It could have been built yesterday.

Tom Delavan: In my mind, it’s the archetype of a modern residential house, but what do you all think of Philip Johnson’s the Glass House (1949; New Canaan, Conn.) versus the Farnsworth House? Isn’t that a debate among architects?

Toshiko Mori: No. There’s absolutely no comparison in terms of execution. If you really look at the Farnsworth House, every single detail has a relationship to logic, from the corners to the steel to the cabinets to the grid of the entire structure. There’s this amazing discipline.

Devlin: I couldn’t agree more.

Selldorf: The tectonic vocabulary in the Farnsworth House is far superior. It’s much more rigorous.

Nikil Saval: The other thing is that, with the Glass House, Johnson had been a fascist [who had supported the Nazis and espoused racist and white supremacist views]. We should acknowledge that. Maybe it’s one of the reasons he didn’t appear on any of our lists.

© Roger-Viollet

Though the last 20 years have seen a widespread return to vernacular materials among the world’s architectural avant-garde — compressed earth in Paraguay, for instance, or bamboo in Vietnam — building with mud was still seen as anti-modern by the architectural establishment when Fathy, an Egyptian architect, created an entire village out of mud brick on the West Bank of the Nile River. At that point, he had spent his career unearthing the Arab identity that colonialism had attempted to destroy. This project, conceived to include housing, a mosque and a market, was commissioned by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to relocate residents who lived above the nearby Pharaonic tombs of ancient Thebes, in order to protect the artifacts below. Though never formally completed, and badly neglected over the ensuing decades, New Gourna, with its rhythmic procession of domes and passageways and reliance on indigenous techniques for cooling the air and adding light, repudiated modern architects’ tendency to impose their will on landscapes and the communities that lived there. A pioneer of sustainable, participatory architecture long before those ideas took hold, Fathy crafted an organic structure built around lived experience and born, both literally and figuratively, from the soil itself.

Annabelle Selldorf: I’ve never seen a Fathy building in person, so —

Soller: Can you talk about why you still nominated it?

Selldorf: Because I think he’s deeply connected to a tradition of building — a profoundly humanist attitude between architecture and urban communities. He was a hugely influential teacher and a transformative person.

Vincent Van Duysen: It’s beautiful.

Selldorf: I’ve just always been impressed with the philosophy behind his work.

Eino Mäkinen/Alvar Aalto Foundation

Just over halfway through Alvar Aalto’s six-decade career, the Finnish architect and furniture designer won a competition for a town hall project in the recently founded milling village of Saynatsalo, set across three wooded islands on Finland’s Lake Paijanne. Built to house administrative offices, a library, apartments and retail spaces, the project represented an inflection point in his career, between the functionalism of his early work and a mature aesthetic rooted in the environment and culture of a snowbound nation only recently independent after centuries under Swedish and Russian rule. At Saynatsalo, two red brick structures, totaling about 18,300 square feet, form a square around an elevated courtyard that descends to ground level via a staircase carved out of the earth, like a Scandinavian answer to a medieval piazza. The materials — stone and glass, brick and timber (Finland’s primary natural resource and traditional building material) — are warm and tactile; like the furniture designs that added to Aalto’s fame, the building proved that clean Scandinavian rationality could also be gentle. More a town center than a mere government building, Saynatsalo is once again as active today as it was at the time of its construction, a civic architecture built for the community it still serves in ever-evolving ways.

Alvar Aalto Foundation

Mori: I love everything Aalto did, but in terms of significance, there’s this town hall in the middle of Finland, and it’s multifunctional: housing, a public library, markets. It’s a really interesting town center, and it’s important to celebrate a civic building that’s also successful.

Van Duysen: I know Aalto from his design work. To be honest, I’m not very familiar with his architecture — maybe some of his private houses, but not his public buildings. But yes, I love Aalto for sure.

Selldorf: Aalto is huge, and the way Toshiko outlines the importance of this — again, in my mind, it’s not just one thing. I think it’s made a huge difference in how people think about the role of the architect relative to civic life. I love it.

© Ezra Stoller/Esto

Once completed, the 38-story Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Manhattan instantly became one of Mies van der Rohe’s most influential works, representing a high point in the history of corporate Modernism. Bands of bronze-plated mullions and brown-glass windows weave over the tower’s dark surface, which soars over its iconic streetscape. The stone arches of McKim, Mead and White’s 1918 Racquet & Tennis Club, a superb example of the Renaissance-revival grandeur of New York before the Depression, are mirrored in the sheet-glass panels of the tower’s recessed entryway, while its rigid right angles echo the rigorous geometry of Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois’s 1952 Lever House a block away. By day, the Seagram Building’s dark, reflective surface is impenetrable, a mirror to the city outside; at night, it glows like a lantern woven from strips of light and shadow. Home from 1959 to 2016 to Philip Johnson’s landmark Four Seasons Restaurant and its shimmering reflecting pool, the Seagram Building brought a subtle opulence to the often severe International style. But of all its aesthetic innovations, none is more important than the ground-level plaza that occupies roughly half the building’s corner plot, an expression of the bold ideas championed by Phyllis Lambert, a daughter of the Seagram’s C.E.O. Samuel Bronfman, and the director of planning for the project. The sacrifice of valuable space to the public realm permanently changed Manhattan’s urban fabric, inspiring zoning laws that would encourage future developers to push their structures back from the street. The building has since come to embody the coldness of capitalist power, with countless corporate headquarters copying its irreducible monumentality, but it revolutionized the way that architecture, even at such an imposing scale, could contribute to the lived space of the city below.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Soller: This is the second Mies van der Rohe building that people nominated, after the Farnsworth House, and I was curious if others felt we should compare them: If making a list of just 25 projects, do we need to choose one over the other?

Selldorf: I think they are two different things: The Seagram Building has urban importance. I mean, just imagine that you’re building this high-rise and you’re setting it back from the street to create this generous plaza in front. There’s a kind of heroic quality on an urban scale that is very important.

Saval: With Mies, as well, I think of his role in the Bauhaus, and his depoliticization of modern architecture.

© Ezra Stoller/Esto

Following the devastation of World War II, Japanese architects confronted a new challenge: how to rebuild a society — and the infrastructure to support it — in a language that could embrace global modernity without turning its back on a proudly preserved cultural heritage. Built between 1955 and 1958, Kenzo Tange’s Kagawa Prefecture Building, among the architect’s first major projects, proposed a synthesis of traditional Japanese techniques — exposed posts and beams, the rhythmic procession of arcades embracing a garden — with the monolithic force of concrete, a Shinto shrine reimagined for the machine age. In the building’s lobby, a mural by the abstract painter Genichiro Inokuma, born and raised in Kagawa Prefecture, introduced color and curves to Tange’s orderly design, while furniture by the pioneering industrial designer Isamu Kenmochi inverted Tange’s approach, rendering contemporary forms in traditional materials, in this case wood. In 2019, seismic retrofitting was completed on the building, which is still in active use today, a testament to its continued relevance in one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. The building was part of a postwar boom in civic structures across Japan, but none of those, even ones designed by Tange himself, has surpassed this masterpiece.

Mori: It’s similar to Aalto, in terms of its civic importance. The concrete work is very fine because it was all done by hand. It has a balcony all around it, so you can always get fresh air and ventilation — it’s one of the earlier open-plan buildings. It still functions, and the people who work there love it.

Ettore Bellini/courtesy of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice

In the middle of the 20th century, when many of the world’s prominent architects strove to eradicate ornament, Carlo Scarpa built a career on his eye for precision, material and, above all, place. He brought all of those talents to bear in his renovation of the ground floor and entrance of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, established in 1869 as a museum and library set in a centuries-old palazzo in the heart of Venice, his hometown. Meticulous in its attention to detail — see the delicate mosaic tiling on the entry hall floor and elaborately worked channels and drains that weave through the garden’s labyrinthine fountains — the project, which began in 1949, was also prescient in its adaptability to the vicissitudes of nature. Restoring the deteriorated ground floor and gardens, Scarpa raised a walkway over an open space where water from the canal outside flows in through sea gates, splashing constantly against the Istrian stone steps, a reminder of the mercurial lagoon that shapes every aspect of the city’s life. Venice today is famously sinking, its magnificent piazzas under constant threat. As only a local might, Scarpa understood that vulnerability is no less central to the building’s history than are its graceful limestone arches, more than a half-century before widespread awareness of climate change started to reshape the way we live and build.

Soller: Tom Delavan, you made this point that several buildings on the long list are adaptive-reuse projects, old buildings updated after the wars —

Delavan: I was wondering, should those be included or not if we’re talking about postwar architecture?

Mori: They’re all different, but I had a specific idea for Fondazione Querini Stampalia because it’s completely built for flooding. Scarpa designed it precisely for rising sea levels, which is a significant attitude for an architect. He actually made this historical palazzo adaptable to climate change [some 60 years ago], and that’s incredible.

Van Duysen: Besides that, he was a master in detailing and use of materials. You can see his influences from Japan. Also, his furniture? The use of colors? Very poetic. It really shows his unique qualities as an architect.

© F.L.C./ADAGP, Paris, via Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York 2021. Photo: Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette

Perhaps no person had a greater impact on the course of 20th-century architecture than Le Corbusier. Through his innovations, from the crisp, mechanical clarity of Villa Savoye, built in 1931 outside Paris; to the concrete bulk of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, the housing project in southern France that helped usher in Brutalism; to his work leading the team that designed Chandigarh, India, a purpose-built state capital that (for better or worse) reshaped urban design, the Swiss French architect inspired countless builders around the world to pursue their own idiosyncratic visions of Modernism. One of the last European projects completed before his death in 1965, the monastery of La Tourette outside Lyon in east-central France, incorporates elements from all of his developmental periods: The concrete pilotis that lift much of the structure off the ground gesture toward the white stilts of Savoye; the windowpanes of the library, designed in collaboration with the composer Iannis Xenakis, translate the concrete brise-soleil of the High Court in Chandigarh to the temperate French climate; the crypt’s cylindrical oculi (Le Corbusier called them “light cannons”), which illuminate the black, yellow, red and blue surfaces within, nod to the primary colors deployed as accents in Marseille. Most of all, La Tourette uses those elements to foster both introspective tranquillity and a powerful sense of communion, a political and philosophical posture born out of the architect’s public housing projects. In La Tourette, those concepts coexist in even greater harmony, enjoyed not only by the Dominican monks who live there but also by scholars and artists who travel there to study, meditate and pay their respects to a master working at his height.

© F.L.C./ADAGP, Paris, via Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York 2021. Photo: Courtesy of Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette

Selldorf: The be-all and end-all. It’s so interesting how he internalized the idea of a monastic life that also represents community life, and the architecture is really the simplest way of getting to it. He utilizes concrete as a nonmaterial in my mind — it’s really about space and how you circulate within it, and the light and the freedom of expression that nevertheless serve a purpose. It’s not per se a religious building, even if it’s a monastery. And that staircase in the library is one of the most beautiful I know.

Mori: When I was a student, I did an analysis of this building, and then the monks hired me as a guide, so I actually lived in it. It’s very rough in finish: If you touch the walls, they will scrape you. There’s a nunnery down the street, and sometimes nuns will come up and there are very friendly interactions. The monks are great cooks — it’s Lyon, so there’s an amazing quality of food — and they know what wine to get, and I was treated really well. I think Corbusier was very much interested in community life.

Courtesy of Amanda Kowalski

“I’ve always been drawn to making things as simple as possible, if you can do that without making them inhuman or dull or oppressive,” said the American architect Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1989, 28 years after completing his landmark campus for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Designed as an initial cluster of 26 cedar-shingled volumes connected by wooden decks and platforms — more a village than a building — the project takes the vernacular of saltbox cottages with steeply pitched roofs from New England’s rural and coastal communities and abstracts it. Lifted on stilts over a wooded granite slope, the structures (later expanded to 36 under Barnes’s eye) look out over the steel blue water of Jericho Bay, their rooflines set at 45-degree angles like saplings seeking light. Still used today for artists’ residencies and workshops, the welcoming, lucid design has, for more than half a century, provided fertile ground for ceramists, weavers, carpenters and scholars, including such visitors as the textile designer Anni Albers, the glass blower Dale Chihuly and the ceramist and painter Toshiko Takaezu. Barnes’s finest accomplishment is not just an elegant set of buildings but an ideal space for collaboration: between artists and thinkers, humans and nature.

Selldorf: When I think of Barnes, I always think of this building because I’ve loved it so much. But it sort of alludes to a different period, doesn’t it?

Mori: It’s a very simple series of buildings, modestly built, basically by carpenters.

Saval: A great one, though.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

From the early 1950s until his death in 1974, the Estonian American Louis Kahn developed a mystic architectural language all his own, using runic geometries and ritualistic chiaroscuro to turn galleries, university campuses and government offices into spaces of sublime meditation. No building on American soil comes closer to that transcendent power than his Salk Institute, a biological research facility in La Jolla, Calif., commissioned in 1960 by the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk. Set on bluffs overlooking the Pacific, the center of the institute consists of two elongated blocks that face each other across a patio paved in travertine and bisected by a channel of water, like something from a Mughal garden. (Kahn had imagined this space filled with greenery; it was Barragán who convinced him, ingeniously, to leave it blank.) The buildings themselves are innovative in their functionality — they remain in use as research laboratories, with dedicated utility floors that allow maintenance to be done without interrupting the lab’s activities. But it’s the buildings’ grandeur that sets them apart: Viewed from the west, their surfaces alternate between panels of concrete, sun-bleached teak and shaded voids like monastic cells; from the east, they become pale gray escarpments, turning toward the sea. At the Salk Institute, science and the humanities were not conceived as opposites, but extensions of each other, the buildings themselves improved by their empirical rigor, the pursuit of knowledge supported by the power of calm contemplation. And though Kahn is often remembered for the poetry of his structures, his finest works (this one among them) also celebrate the human need for civic space.

Soller: Kahn had the most projects nominated for this list: five different buildings. In a lot of ways, this is a kill your darlings kind of task. They’re all worthy, but if someone wants to advocate —

Mori: I advocate for the Salk Institute. Life science buildings are, of course, very significant today, and this one survived over time, evolving through changes in scientific research, but it also combines amazing site strategy: the landscape, the views, the materiality. It really considers the life of scientists, not just as machines but people who live in a community. It’s timeless and important.

Selldorf: I agree. I’m emphatic about the intelligence Kahn brought in making places for people to come together in the labs, but also in little monastery-like cocoons or cells. There is this structural concept that’s rather brilliant and belies the simplicity that you experience.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Modernism produced countless architectural utopias, but few captured the public imagination more completely than Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes — acrylic bubbles supported by an intricate lattice of steel tubes — scores of which the American inventor made throughout his life, starting in 1949. By the time Fuller erected his largest dome, which was commissioned by the U.S. government for the United States Pavilion at the Expo ’67 World’s Fair in Montreal, he’d fine-tuned similar structures at a more modest scale for years, following in the footsteps of a scheme invented, patented and first built in Germany by the engineer Walther Bauersfeld after World War I. Because, as Fuller explained, a sphere contained the greatest volume within the least surface area, the geodesic dome could reduce both material and economic waste, an early proposition for a sustainable, egalitarian architecture. In the first six months of Expo ’67, 5.3 million people visited Fuller’s structure, which soared more than 200 feet into the sky and soon became a symbol for Montreal: a draw for outsiders, a source of fresh amazement for locals and a centerpiece for then-mayor Jean Drapeau’s ambitious effort to place his native city on the international map. Geodesic domes never became the global standard for inexpensive modular housing, but they nevertheless captured a moment of unrivaled architectural and technological optimism.

Saval: I wanted to ask both Toms, who also chose Fuller projects … I’m curious, like, I felt weird picking any Fuller project. I just wanted to pick Fuller as a force in the world, and a particular dome is less representative than the fact that multiple people built geodesic domes across the world who were not Buckminster Fuller. If you go into his archives, there are thousands of letters: “How do I build a dome?” “Can you send me your dome book?” Obviously, he revealed a lot about structure, and he influenced so many people, but that influence is really represented in the burgeoning of, you know, encampments and communes and efforts across the world to realize that vision by people who aren’t Fuller.

Delavan: I agree with you. It’s part of what Es was talking about earlier — I have a personal connection: He came to speak to our class when I was in first grade, and I became obsessed with geodesic domes as a child. I remember telling my father, “We should buy one. It can resist earthquakes and floods and hurricanes!” And he said, “Well, we live in Connecticut, we don’t have any of those things,” so we didn’t get it. I feel like Fuller was thinking ahead in terms of sustainability, and maybe even climate change.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Dixon: There’s also an argument that he didn’t invent that structure. I did flip-flop myself and had exactly the same problem about picking which dome, but there was something about Montreal that made it kind of, well, just so visible at the Expo, and the Expo itself was full of great architecture of many types, but it’s also now a biosphere. He had climactic controls in there and other innovations that have gone on to be super important. Nikil, I like what you’re saying about the fact that it’s influenced so many other nonarchitects to build structures that are sound. I also quite like the fact that you didn’t get your own dome, Tom. I’d have been very jealous.

Delavan: I’m still mad about it.

Mori: Fuller himself is a construct, really. I agree with Nikil that I couldn’t pick a building by him because it was so much about himself.

Dixon: I don’t think that you can mark him down for constructing a persona. A lot of people on this list had teams that were working under the master and had a lot of input, you know? The idea of the heroic architect is definitely unfashionable now, but a lot of these people are also constructs, I’d say.

Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection

The first high-rise building in downtown Chicago designed by a Black architect, the Johnson Publishing Company Building was erected to house the offices of the media magnate John H. Johnson. Conceived by the pioneering Chicago architect John W. Moutoussamy, with interiors by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser, the tower housed the offices for epoch-making magazines like Jet and Ebony, which reflected and shaped the tastes of countless Black Americans. Rising 11 stories over South Michigan Avenue, the building has a powerful sense of proportion and rhythm, with panels of concrete that seem to float between bands of recessed windows. Inside, Elrod and Raiser filled the space with the declarative colors and opulent textures of their time: Wall-to-wall leopard print carpeted the Jet offices, and in the 22-foot-high lobby, an abstract bronze by Richard Hunt, among the city’s most prominent sculptors, hung from one of the wood-paneled walls. In the iconic ovular test kitchen for Ebony, earth-toned whorls of olive, ocher and rust papered the walls and cabinet fronts, a proud expression of Afrofuturist psychedelia. From the outside in, the Johnson Publishing Company Building was unabashedly luxurious, rigorous in its optimism — a declaration of Black progress throughout the 20th century. (In 2010, the Johnson Publishing Company moved out of the building, and in 2019 it was converted to apartments.) That so few high-rises by Black architects have joined Moutoussamy’s most important work on the American skyline is a testament to just how far the profession still has to go.

Via the September 1972 Ebony magazine/Johnson Publishing Company

Mori: Moutoussamy was a student of Mies van der Rohe’s at Illinois Institute of Technology and, as you know, the Johnson Publishing archive is completely preserved and Theaster Gates is managing it. So the building has this really important history; it’s one of the most complete manifestations of African American aesthetics from that time. You can see Mies’s influence, but it’s really one of the most significant buildings in Chicago, with its beautiful proportions.

Soller: There was a phenomenal art collection inside, right?

Mori: Yes, it was quite amazing. I don’t know why that’s not happening today: complete buildings, designed with interiors.

Darren Bradley/OTTO

Sixteen years passed between the selection of the Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s design for an opera house in Sydney Harbor and that building’s completion in the early 1970s. Chosen based on the suggestive power of a dozen drawings, the Opera House, now among the most recognizable structures on earth, proved almost impossible to build. First there was the problem of how to create the sail-shaped concrete shells that seem to rise off the water like clouds: It took more than three years for Utzon to find a geometric scheme that would allow for their fabrication in situ. To achieve the shells’ luminous surfaces, Utzon covered them with more than a million handcrafted ceramic tiles, their surfaces roughened by trace amounts of crushed stone, a technique inspired by Japanese pottery. Construction costs soared, exceeding the building’s initial budget of $7 million by some $95 million and driving Utzon to resign as principal architect in 1966. He never visited the completed building. Yet that expressive roofline has since inspired countless cultural centers in cities around the world, conceived not just to serve their skylines but to transform them.

Saval: Kurt, you asked a question about buildings that define a city, and this is probably the most defining: I’m not a huge fan, personally, but I’m not going to make a case against it.

Courtesy of Agence Merci

As an off-piste Alpine skier, the French architect and furniture designer Charlotte Perriand approached the construction of her ambitious Les Arcs resort as an opportunity to introduce the masses to what she described as the “possibility of self-transcendence” offered by mountain landscapes. Begun in 1967, Perriand’s portion of the project consisted of two clusters of hotels and apartments set into the mountain slope with views up to the pastures above (two more sections would be added later without her participation). For the second stage of the project, Perriand lifted prefabrication techniques from shipbuilding: To assemble a structure that could accommodate 18,000 beds in the span of just seven months, she used mold-formed polyester to make easily reproducible kitchens and bathrooms. Carefully planned setbacks in the facade transformed the building itself into a slope, providing each of its long, narrow rooms with expansive views. Perriand would come to criticize the project’s imposition of urban density onto the natural landscape, but its combination of advanced modular techniques with rural materials far from the city — a new typology that neither superimposed the layout of a city on the mountains nor resorted to rural kitsch — still resonates today.

Dixon: The ski chalet doesn’t rank that brilliantly in terms of sustainability or honorable usage of materials, particularly nowadays, but that modular approach to building — the way she integrated into the landscape and the woodiness of the prefabricated construction — is amazing, as are the furnishings inside.

Woning Van Wassenhove (1974) © Juliaan Lampens/courtesy Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Belgium; Photo: Rik Vannevel.

When Brutalism was born in Europe in the years after World War II, the concept of monumental concrete edifices stripped down to their barest essentials seemed most apt for institutional buildings and public housing projects — imposing structures conceived at the scale of the city, yet a far cry from the gossamer glass of the International style. Starting with his own house in 1960, the Flemish architect Juliaan Lampens applied that muscular aesthetic to intimate residential projects, the most influential of which was the Van Wassenhove House, built for a bachelor teacher outside the university town of Ghent. Board-formed concrete walls rise in a stairlike silhouette, their surfaces blind to the trees (and neighbors) outside, while an oculus in the ceiling fills the interior with diffuse light. At one end, a dramatic downspout funnels rainwater toward a circular pond embedded in the concrete patio, dropping from the roof at a 45-degree angle, a sculptural intervention in the building’s geometric order. Inside, the floor plan is radically open, with the bedroom contained in a plywood cylinder that doesn’t reach the ceiling. Lampens wasn’t the only architect to experiment with Brutalist houses — Paulo Mendes da Rocha made similar explorations in São Paulo, Brazil, particularly with the twin homes he built in 1964 for himself and his sister — but in Northern Europe, Lampens’s work helped open the door to a rapprochement with a Brutalist aesthetic long used principally by the state. It offered a different texture for domestic life, and for European Brutalism itself.

Woning Van Wassenhove (1974) © Juliaan Lampens/courtesy of Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Belgium; photo: Rik Vannevel

Van Duysen: Of the many Brutalist buildings, I want to point out this one. It’s from a Belgian architect who was really unknown until his book came out in 2010. He created buildings that refer to bunkers, and it’s pretty much sculptural: The furniture is part of the architecture. He was a great Belgian Brutalist — a Modernist as well, of course — but he also references Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

G. Meguerditchian/ © Centre Pompidou, 2020

Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano were in their 30s, neophytes by the standards of their trade, when they were selected to build a new arts center in the heart of Paris’s beloved medieval core. The pair had joined forces the year before, not long after Piano, originally from Genoa, Italy, met Rogers in his native London (they would stop collaborating six years later, after the Pompidou’s completion, though they remain close friends). With no major projects to their names, the pair beat out 680 teams to win the competition. The design was radical, including mobile interior floors, giant screens that would broadcast messages into the surrounding plaza and an infinitely adjustable exterior. With its elaborate skeleton of tubes, pipes and rigging, painted in giddy, primary school shades of green, blue, red, yellow and white, the Pompidou Center looks like it’s been turned inside out, its guts revealed to the city around it, both a continuation of Modernism’s investment in technology and a kind of satire of its dogmatic insistence on transparency. Contrasting against a cityscape of beige stone and gray skies, the Pompidou has inspired both love and consternation over the years. And though the young designers’ most ambitious plans for the building never materialized — the floors don’t move; the exterior is static — its impact as a museum is undeniable, as is its gleeful, winking embrace of playfulness as an architectural value in itself.

Delavan: For me, it’s how it activates that space, how the building pulls you in. And on a very basic level, it’s fun.

Mori: Also, it has many layers: nighttime use, daytime use, a restaurant, an exhibition center, a library — it’s a multifunctional building, beyond the museum, which I just think is great programming.

Van Duysen: True, it’s very dynamic.

Iwan Baan

Built of gray stone and concrete grown over with dense vegetation, Balkrishna Doshi’s 1983 campus for the Indian Institute of Management in the South Indian city of Bangalore synthesizes centuries of architectural history with rare subtlety. The campus’s elegant arrangement of passageways, courtyards and gardens — set on a little over 13 acres — glances toward the layout of the briefly inhabited 16th-century city of Fatehpur Sikri in India’s north, conceived by the Mughal emperor Akbar in part to encourage civic engagement and debate. Doshi’s structural rigor and material honesty — stone corridors and pergolas built with strict right angles and open to the lush environment that gives Bangalore its nickname, the Garden City — gesture toward the work of his teacher Le Corbusier, while the careful modulation of light and shadow suggest Kahn’s work at his own IIM campus in Ahmedabad (Doshi worked closely with both architects on projects in his native India). Absorbing and indigenizing a diversity of styles, IIM Bangalore speaks to India’s singular talent for cultural synthesis and its millenniums-long history of openness to the entire world.

Saval: My family is from Bangalore, and I have childhood memories of going to the campus, which is an extremely bucolic setting. It’s one of the best instances of a modern architect deferring to the landscape and to the culture of a city, as well as to indigenous architectural traditions.

Nelson Kon
Nelson Kon

In the mid-1970s, when the Italian Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi was commissioned to design a cultural center in a former factory in São Paulo’s neighborhood of Pompéia, adaptive reuse of industrial spaces had yet to enter the architectural mainstream. But Bo Bardi saw in the factory’s saw-tooth roofline and industrial scale a heritage structure no less valuable than the historic buildings that she’d evaluated for damage back in her native Italy in the aftermath of World War II. The factory was owned by a nongovernmental organization called SESC, or Social Service of Commerce, founded by business leaders in 1946 to provide employees with free community spaces. Soccer teams and a theater company had already taken up residency under the aegis of SESC. With the aim of preserving that grass-roots vibrancy — consistent with a lifelong, community-oriented politics displayed by buildings such as the São Paulo Museum of Art (1968), which levitates over an urban plaza on the city’s principal commercial avenue — Bo Bardi removed the factory’s interior walls, then softened the space with an undulating pool cut into the concrete floor. At the back of the complex, she added her own interpretation of an industrial vernacular with a pair of concrete towers, as whimsical as they are imposing, that house sports facilities. The shorter tower’s fortresslike walls are punctured by surrealist, globular windows and connected to the taller, narrower tower by flying pedestrian bridges that, seen from below, lock together like fingers. One of dozens of SESC complexes in São Paulo, Bo Bardi’s masterpiece continues to serve its original purpose, containing a theater, a cafeteria and exhibition space, as well as open areas that provide room to breathe in a cramped metropolis.

Saval: In all honesty, I wanted to represent Bo Bardi in one fashion or another. And I thought I could have chosen her house (Casa de Vidro, 1951; São Paulo), or the São Paulo Museum of Art, but I just think this is a really joyous building: There’s this combination of exuberance and monumentality.

Selldorf: It also shows courage, and I think that celebrating Bo Bardi as an important voice in her time, being Italian, having gone to Brazil and really staking out a vocabulary that is her own, contributes to what that building represents today. There’s a commitment to social justice and equity that resonates.

Fabrice Fouillet
Fabrice Fouillet

In his design for a thermal spa built over natural hot springs in the Swiss mountain village of Vals, Peter Zumthor used 60,000 slabs of locally quarried quartzite — a stone created during the formation of the Alps some 50 million years ago from geologic elements that might be as much as six times older than that — to erect what you could easily mistake for a forgotten ruin excavated from a hillside. The main structure projects from the slope as a solid rectangular mass, its face punctured by square windows and voids. Winding pathways traverse the interior like tunnels into ancient tombs. Manipulating light and darkness, those channels control access to spectacular views of the surrounding Alpine massif, while variations in water temperature — the pools range from 57 to 97 degrees — generate their own dramatic shifts in atmosphere, from the chill of a glacial lake to the dense steam of a Turkish bath. “Raised in the spirit of classical modernism and besieged by fashionable postmodern designs, we were cautious about models,” Zumthor wrote in a 2011 book on the building. Instead, Therme Vals draws on the essential structures of the region: quarries and bridges, traditional stone rooftops and the cathedral-like interior of the Albigna Dam (1959; Bregaglia) near the Italian border. As cities around the world raced to build showpiece museums and opera houses in the ’90s, Zumthor built something timeless, Teutonic in its logic but sensuous, too.

Van Duysen: In terms of Swiss architecture, he influences a lot of people. Here, there’s this interaction between massifs and voids. I love it. And inside, the volumetric, spatial qualities are one of a kind.

Siméon Duchoud

Since the completion of his first project, a primary school in his native village of Gando, Burkina Faso, Francis Kéré has made his small hometown into a laboratory for buildings as elegant in their forms as they are in their cleareyed solutions to matters of light, ventilation and social engagement. The first of these, the school, consists of a roughly 5,500-square-foot prism of clay-and-cement bricks, cast on-site using a simple manual press introduced to the community by Keré that, along with the addition of cement to the clay mixture, improves the material’s strength and makes production more efficient without raising costs. To protect the main structure from the blistering desert heat and the downpours of the rainy season, he lifted an arched brow of corrugated metal, a common building material throughout Burkina Faso, over the brick structure on a matrix of carmine rebar. The perforated brickwork of the ceiling draws hot air up, cooling the building’s interior and obviating the need for resource-intensive air-conditioning. (Kéré’s firm has since added a second set of classrooms, a public library and teachers’ housing .) Modernism has always struggled to incorporate vernacular architectures created by and for the people who suffered the worst ravages of colonialism, so Keré’s work represents an important step toward a new paradigm, declaring — albeit subtly — that tradition can provide a sturdy foundation for a better future.

Soller: We should talk about breadth not only when it comes to style and era and typology but also when it comes to gender and geography. For instance, there are only two nominated buildings in Africa, one of them being New Gourna Village [above]. Nikil, you picked Gando Primary School, right?

Saval: I did, yeah. It’s a major work of sustainable and ecologically minded design, but I also admire it in terms of articulating ideas within a particular place. Speaking to your broader question, in terms of breadth, I flirted with the idea of — and ultimately did not commit to — naming just social housing projects, because that strikes me as one of the major challenges of architecture laid out in the modern movement, you know? Many architects were involved in that for a long time, including Kahn and Le Corbusier, of course. I just thought … “What should we guarantee for people? What are rights?” Housing is an essential right. That was something that people once believed, and I think that’s fallen away from architecture and from most social democracies and governments, and now maybe we’re coming back to it.

Soller: Completely.

Saval: The other thing is that there are very few Black architects. Speaking from an American context, it’s hard not to call it a white supremacist profession. There were Black architects whose work we’re recognizing belatedly, but even if all that work were recognized, it would still reveal how disproportionately the work is done by white architects in the United States.

Soller: And male architects, too.

Saval: Yeah, absolutely.

Iwan Baan

With the completion of the ambitious first two phases of this project, the Hangzhou-based firm Amateur Architecture Studio claimed its place — and reclaimed China’s — on the contemporary design stage. The campus consists of more than 20 buildings spread over 131 acres on the outskirts of the city where the husband-and-wife team Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu live, with verdant hills and mountains to the north and west. Their daring admixture of styles, materials and scales reads like a mission statement for a style that neither idolizes modern technology nor romanticizes the past. Screens of timber stand alongside Mondrian-like grids of concrete, while irregular windows puncture surfaces of plain white plaster. Exterior walkways with wooden banisters rise and fall like the lines on a graph across the facade of a building crowned with a wavelike roofline. Wang has compared the studio’s free, eclectic style to that of China’s “literati” artists, who treated their calligraphy, painting and poetry as a form of self-expression more than a virtuosic display of technical skill. The Xiangshan campus is both. Together, Wang and Lu have spurred an essential conversation about the fundamental importance of reconciling tradition and transformation in an ancient nation racing itself to modernity.

Iwan Baan
Iwan Baan

Mori: Wang won the Pritzker Prize, and he’s very much an anti-establishment architect, but we have to mention his wife, Lu, because she was the one on-site telling people what to do: Their practice is based upon reclaiming debris from old buildings being destroyed. It’s an amazing choice in terms of being anticapitalist, but also in terms of the preservation of culture and materials. Their office is called Amateur Architecture Studio because, he claims, I’m just training. That’s actually unique in what you call more commercially driven architecture in China. But with the old roof tiles stuck together, it’s also very beautiful.

Sandro di Carlo Darsa

Marina Tabassum’s mosque sits on a small trapezoidal plot of roughly 8,000 square feet, in a peripheral district of Dhaka. The chaotic capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka is home to Kahn’s magisterial Parliament complex, which was completed in 1983 and remains a constant source of inspiration for one of Asia’s most vibrant architectural communities. The mosque’s basic structure is relatively simple: a square prayer hall built from concrete set into a circular pavilion of bricks nestled within another square of load-bearing brick raised on a brick plinth to protect the building from seasonal floods. Tabassum creatively uses brick — a key indigenous material in this fluvial nation — to filter the tropical sun, casting shade into the transitional spaces between the blazing street and the sanctuary itself, a room defined as much by the dappled light that filters in from above as by its walls or ceiling. As much as any building completed this century, it encapsulates the power of religious architecture — and particularly the architecture of Islam — to generate and support a sense of community.

Sandro di Carlo Darsa

Mori: While we’re thinking in terms of inclusion, we [should] look at Middle Eastern and Muslim contemporary architecture. This mosque was built after gathering together money [from the community], and it’s a religious space, but it’s also a community center. It’s well ventilated — she figured out sustainable ways of moving air through. Around it, the area’s really dense, and this provides peace and quiet, a moment of respite.

Amanda Williams

As an architecture student at Cornell, the Chicago-based artist Amanda Williams read and reread the German American painter and designer Josef Albers’s seminal 1963 text “Interaction of Color,” in which he argues that all colors are “relational,” mutable according to those alongside them and to each person’s individual experience. For her project “Color(ed) Theory” series, Williams, who was born in the Chicago suburb of Evanston and raised on the city’s South Side, spent two years in the neighborhood of Englewood, also on the South Side, painting condemned houses using a color palette coded with cultural references specific to the Black experience: turquoise became “Ultrasheen,” after the hair conditioner; violet became “Crown Royal Bag,” after the whisky; teal became “Loose Squares/Newport 100,” after the cigarette brand. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about color,” Williams writes, “as both an artistic medium, and then also as race.” The houses in “Color(ed) Theory” had already ceased to be habitable interiors delimited by walls; Williams made them mnemonics for cultural memory that lawmakers have spent decades trying to erase. While city planners use colors to draw out maps that define how space is used (zoning) and what neighborhoods merit support and investment (redlining), Williams uses color to speak a different language, one legible, first and foremost, to her own community. If something as fundamental as color is, at its core, relational, then Williams’s project suggests that architecture is, too.

Amanda Williams

Saval: This project highlights disinvestment and neglect in urban Black neighborhoods in the United States, and it also alludes to the government’s hand in redlining — systematically excluding Black people from homeownership and from the accumulation of wealth. It’s not about the construction of space, or the adaptation of space, but it’s drawing attention to a spatial dynamic in racial capitalism, I would call it. Williams is a real visionary.

Selldorf: I think it’s difficult to put in this category. This is very interesting, but I feel like we’re getting into rudderless-ship syndrome here. There are many artists who mess with architecture, but this is not architecture. Do not misunderstand me: I think it bears looking at, talking about, thinking about, but it’s outside the territory that we’ve been circling. I’d have to rethink my list: I’d then like to also include David Hammons’s version of a Gordon Matta-Clark building [“Day’s End,” 1975] in the Hudson River, that’s just been completed in New York. It has all kinds of connotations that connect with what you were saying.

Mori: I have to say it’s quite different, because that project is a memory of the pier. … And that’s also representative of the L.G.B.T.Q. community [who socialized there, and] which was oppressed. And so there’s this idea of memory, whereas Williams’s project, I feel, is this idea of identity through color.

Selldorf: Oh, I didn’t suggest that they are the same. I’m just saying it’s going away from buildings to built form.

Van Duysen: We should stay with buildings.

Selldorf: If everybody is into Williams, I’m fine with that. Now I want to see them.

Mori: Williams’s work is significant, especially in our time, because one would take the colors in “Color(ed) Theory” for granted, but she’s saying there’s incredible racial and social connotations associated with them.

Philippe Ruault
Philippe Ruault

Architecture in the decades following the Second World War was defined in no small part by the need to house a growing urban population, and by the optimistic belief that modern technology could make that goal a reality. Vast housing projects went up all over the world, many of which would later become grim symbols for Modernism’s failure. In 2011, the city of Bordeaux held a competition for designs to improve three such state-built structures, ultimately selecting the French architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal, Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin to lead the project. Seven years earlier, in 2004, Lacaton, Vassal and Druot had published a manifesto criticizing the French government’s costly and wasteful habit of demolishing housing blocks rather than rehabilitating them. And so, with the structures fully occupied, the architects remade the buildings with a deceptively basic intervention. Tacking deep winter gardens onto the drab facades, they extended the modest apartments out toward the terra-cotta rooftops of the city’s historic center and introduced light and air into their stuffy interiors. In the architects’ commitment to improve the quality of urban life, their 530 Dwellings are a return to the politics of Modernism — dedicated to the idea, if not always the practice, of architecture that could work for ordinary people — one reimagined with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of sustainability.

Philippe Ruault

Saval: It seems like the future of green social housing to me, which is essential if we want to consider the survival of the planet.

Mori: It’s difficult to communicate this project without extensive narrative, and that’s the challenge, I think, but actually what’s so great about it: It has very complicated programming and processes.

Saval: That’s a good case for it in my mind. It’s distinct in that it’s not immediately arresting.

Marshall-Tribaleye Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The third brightest object in the night sky is not a far-off planet or a solar system but a building about the size of a football field. Designed and assembled by five space agencies representing 15 countries, the structure represents not only a triumph of engineering but also of politics, an unprecedented international effort in the name of science. Largely built over the course of some 30 separate missions beginning in 1998, it remains the closest humankind has ever come to creating a habitat in outer space. Crafted from pieces manufactured in Russia, the European Union, Japan, Canada and the United States — with a new pod currently in the works by a private company looking to stake its claim to the next phase of space exploration — the I.S.S. is a complex structure of cylinders and passageways fabricated from lightweight materials like Kevlar, titanium and aluminum, and assembled in space, where it orbits 250 miles above Earth’s surface. Floating in close orbit, its solar panels fanned out among pinpricks of alien light, the structure resembles a deep-sea creature or a tropical insect more than a building in the traditional sense. Initially conceived as a laboratory, manufacturing plant and servicing facility for off-planet exploration, among other uses, the I.S.S. today serves exclusively as a research laboratory. But the sheer ambition of the enterprise still inspires awe: It remains a powerful symbol of hope for a more peaceful, unified future, bright and distant as a star.

Dixon: You couldn’t really classify it as architecture in the conventional sense, but it’s possibly the future of the field. I think that we’ve got an overwhelming midcentury-modern bulk, and that’s what I find a bit frightening — that we can’t find more contemporary buildings that are revolutionary. Obviously, we can’t tell whether they’ll stand the test of time, but we can tell whether they’ve changed the conversation, right?

Soller: Do the rest of you think the International Space Station qualifies as architecture?

Delavan: It didn’t even occur to me to think of something like that, but it’s so different from everything else on the list and obviously an important collaboration and important in that it’s not fixed.

Selldorf: I am totally irrelevant in this conversation.

Soller: What do you mean?

Selldorf: I think very few things are architecture or, alternatively, I think everything is architecture.

Dixon: It’s architecture because people live in it for years, and — although I’m actually quite against the space race — I think we should be dealing with the planet first from a cooperative point of view. There is something symbolic about the space station in terms of getting people to [work together] from foreign nations, and there is also something really fascinating about it being made on Earth but architected in space. It’s more significant than almost any other building: It shows the imagination of the human race.

Photography Direction: Betsy Horan and Jamie Sims

Research Editor: Alexis Sottile

Copy Editors: Erin Sheehy and Diego Hadis

Production: Nancy Coleman and Kristina Samulewski

Most Popular

Mary Turner Pattiz, Rock D.J. During FM’s Heyday, Dies at 76

She was known as “the Burner” for her seductive delivery, but off the air she was anything but a wild rock ’n’ roller. She...

Quebec dental hygienists give back to community with free dental care

Diane Marcin couldn’t believe it when she saw a flyer advertising a free dental cleaning Saturday – she said she had to check it...

Burglar takes the cake: Vancouver thief snatches goodies, and cleans store

A Vancouver cafe burglary was caught on video early Friday but it was not a typical break-in. The only thing stolen from the store? A...

Vancouver fundraisers held to support theatre and security for youth drag camps

The Carousel Theatre for Young People on Vancouver’s Granville Island is holding two fundraising events on Saturday. The two events will feature performances by the...