Go for the Site, Stay for the Architecture BY JOANN GRECO

Impressive cathedrals house of worship and soaring skyscrapers regularly appear on travelers’ bucket lists. But by considering these attractions as significant architecture rather than as just items on a checklist, we give them—and their creators—the attention they deserve. Here’s a closer look at the design stories of some of the world’s most iconic structures.

House of Worship

The Acropolis, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Angkor Wat, the Dome of the Rock: some of the world’s top stops are religious sites that pay tribute to God (or gods) and the magnificence of life on Earth. Perhaps the most splendid of them all is Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul, Turkey. Dating to the 6th century, the monument has served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, a royal mosque and now a museum. A succession of architects—and earthquakes—has tinkered with it throughout its complicated history, but its soaring many-windowed dome (182-feet high) and glittering gilded mosaics are the epitome of Byzantine architecture. eayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en

Skyscraper

This category, too, offers many candidates, but perhaps the quintessential powerhouse is the Empire State Building, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon on the site of the former Waldorf Astoria hotel. Ever since King Kong swatted at “aeroplanes” from its crown, this edifice has served as the establishing shot for countless movies set in New York City. Upon opening in 1931, the 1,250-foot building quickly surpassed the more soigné Chrysler Building, its crosstown sister, to become the tallest building in the world, a record it held for decades. With its stainless-steel retail canopies, limestone exterior and ziggurat setbacks, it’s a prime example of the bold geometrics and masculine rigor of Art Deco. esbnyc.com

Tower

The icon of all icons, the Eiffel Tower handily beats out also-rans such as the Seattle Space Needle and the two wannabe towers in Tokyo. While it’s hard to believe now, this graceful structure was once controversial, mocked as a too-modern, in-your-face blight at odds with the Beaux Arts elegance of Parisian streets. Built as a gateway for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, Gustave Eiffel’s engineering marvel served as a meta-comment on a new era of industrial might and materials. Today, its tapering form and iron filigrees continue to enchant, no matter how many times you’ve visited the City of Light. toureiffel.paris/en

Art Space

Thanks to his curvaceous Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright also makes a run in this category, but we’re giving the nod to Australia’s Sydney Opera House, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like the Guggenheim, it’s an engineering marvel and an organically shaped construction that responds to its site in an exciting way. Designed by Jørn Utzon, who was awarded the commission in 1957 after winning an international competition, the performance hall didn’t open until 1973 after Utzon and his engineers finally figured out how to fashion the distinctive sail-like roof. Long before computer-aided design made playing with forms a regular part of modern architecture, this Danish architect took a leap that puts this, his most famous work, on the greatest hits list. sydneyoperahouse.com

As is the case of several others on this roster, the designers of Big Ben/Houses of Parliament, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in London, have never become household names. But in winning an 1835 competition to rebuild the Palace of Westminster (its official name), which had been destroyed by fire a year earlier, Charles Barry cemented his place in history. But he didn’t do it alone, turning to Augustus Pugin, an architect more comfortable with Gothic architecture, the preferred style of Parliament members, to prepare his drawings. Pugin is widely recognized today as the major contributor in the jaw-dropping interiors of the 1,000-plus rooms, but neither he nor Barry dreamed up the building’s most famous touch: its clock tower. Affectionately known as Big Ben (though the tower’s official name is Elizabeth Tower and the tower’s Great Bell is called Big Ben)—after Sir Benjamin Hall, a commissioner of public works at the time—it was the idea of the resident lawmakers. parliament.uk

Residence

Buckingham Palace, Versailles and the White House are worthy contenders, but who would ever seriously call their grandiosity homey? By contrast, Fallingwater, the most celebrated house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, widely considered America’s greatest architect, has all the hallmarks of comfort: generous windows, muted palettes, intimate nooks. Yes, there’s a certain grandeur in the 1938 masterpiece in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, but it’s there in a literal embrace of nature—the building wraps itself around existing trees while boulders burst into the interior— that makes this the touchstone of Wright’s organic approach to architecture. fallingwater.org

Memorial

Architecture can delight, but can it make you cry? The Taj Mahal, a World Heritage Site in Agra, India, offers a convincing case for the affirmative. Its story is impossibly romantic, of course—it was built in 1648 by Shah Jahan to honor his beloved third wife—but its serene presence as a symbolic embodiment of paradise is also extremely moving. Add in the pureness of its sparkling-white marble, reflected in a shimmering canal, and bring on the tissues. Then make time to appreciate the intricate applications of floral motifs and decorative calligraphy. No wonder UNESCO has praised both its “perfect harmony and excellent craftsmanship.” tajmahal.gov.in

Unfinished Masterpiece

Don’t worry—my client is not in a hurry,” Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi once said of his most famous work Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the time of the architect’s death in 1926, this ambitious project was only a quarter done; the latest reports peg it for completion in 2032—exactly 150 years after it was first begun. There’s no doubt, though, that this ornate and wild mix of Art Nouveau and Gothic already represents Gaudi at his pinnacle. sagradafamilia.org