by Jonathan Glancey, The Daily Telegraph, September 18, 2017
This weekend, architecture lovers across the city can enjoy free access to more than 800 of London's historic buildings as apart of the annual Open House London event.
A spiral stair no wider than your shoulders. A whispering gallery. A raven by Norman stone. When we are very young, we experience monumental buildings in random ways. Details, more than information, hold our attention, as do sounds, touch and smell. On first encounter, the sheer enormity of St Paul’s Cathedral or the beguiling variety of the Tower of London are all too much to make sense of in anything like coherent fashion.
Scroll down to see Jonathan's pick of the world's 10 greatest buildings
And, if as children, we are lucky to be taken to see such famous sights as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or the Empire State Building, how much more there is for our developing senses to take in. Pretty soon, though, we begin to put such overwhelming buildings into some kind of perspective and proportion. We like to know how tall they are, which is the biggest, how many London buses long they are and how many football pitches would fit into the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. (Answer: At least seven Old Traffords).
More or less accurate dates follow, and then the names of particular styles of architecture: all those perplexing labels like Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic. Or Mannerism, Baroque and Rococo. And, whether such encounters were force-fed through school textbooks, or learned through personal interest, we meet the architects who designed the world’s most famous buildings.
Many of us knew Christopher Wren from an early age, an English gentleman as likely to appear on postage stamps, bank notes and Latin inscriptions (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice) as he was in clerihews: Sir Christopher Wren Said, “I am going to dine with some men. If anyone calls say I am designing St Paul’s.
Much later, we might well have heard of Antoni Gaudí (Sagrada Familia) or even Jørn Utzon (Sydney Opera House). On the way to meeting these legendary Catalonian and Danish talents, we may have encountered John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Robert Adam and that litany of Renaissance men -Brunelleschi, Bernini, Borromini - so hard, at first, to disentangle from one another even though their works are as different from one another as gesso is from formaggio.
Even then, there has always been so much more to learn. Who commissioned Salisbury Cathedral, the Pantheon and Blenheim Palace? How much did such ambitious buildings cost? To what extent did contemporary culture affect their design or were they radical and even revolutionary buildings in their day? How and why have they survived when so much else has vanished? Why do we place such value on them, and will we continue to do so?
These many personal discoveries and questions point to the fact that, as we grow up, the world’s most compelling buildings stay with us, shadowing us with their permanent presence. Whether toddlers, schoolchildren, students or adults, we find ourselves returning to the world’s greatest buildings whether these are a bus ride or a long-haul flight away. As we mature, so they offer us ever more at each visit.
Some might argue that many of the world’s most famous and most visited buildings are popular simply because they are sold to us as part and parcel of package holidays. It is hard to find a holiday brochure, website or travel article in a newspaper that does not associate a trip to India with the Taj Mahal. By the same token Egypt equals the pyramids, Sydney its Opera House and, from its infamous opening in 1997 when ETA terrorists came close to killing King Juan Carlos, Frank Gehry’s joyously outlandish Guggenheim is synonymous with Bilbao .
Even without the advertising and marketing, however, the most dramatic and history-laden buildings would still draw crowds. Their fame, after all, is way beyond anything today’s disposable celebrities might begin to dream of. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, for example, was one of the Seven Wonders of the World listed by, among others, the historian Herodotus in the Fifth century BC. It was a famous ancient monument, some 2,500 years old, in the early days of the Roman Empire, some while before the advent of package holidays and tourist brochures.
Equally, the Roman Pantheon, rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian around 125AD, is not only a magnificent building by any standards, but it has been in continuous use as a place of worship, and wonder, since its dedication as a temple to all the gods. Today, especially in an era of psychopathic terrorist cults bent on global domination and the imposition of singular religious creeds involving the wanton and puerile destruction of revered ancient buildings, the Pantheon reminds us of how great architecture has had the power to stop past invaders in their iconoclastic tracks.
The Pantheon has survived the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the onslaught of Gothic invaders. It has been, in fact, a Roman Catholic church far longer than it was a Roman temple. It has even survived Adolf Hitler’s enthusiasm. The German architect Hermann Giesler recalled the Führer telling him, “From the time I experienced this building - no description, picture or photograph did it justice - I became interested in its history. For a short while I stood in this space... I gazed at the large open oculus and saw the universe and sensed what had given this space the name Pantheon: God and the world are one.” If only, as so many people have said over the past seventy years, Hitler had become an architect. He did, in fact, draw up a design for a giant domed hall in the mid-1920s. Albert Speer translated this into plans for what would have been perhaps the biggest building of all time. Designed to last at least as long as the Thousand Year Reich itself, its central oculus would have been big enough to swallow the dome of St Peter’s Rome and the rotunda of Hadrian’s Pantheon. Fortunately, the Third Reich missed its goal by 988 years, and Hitler and Speer’s pantheon was never built.
Truly great architecture, however, tends to endure in both the imagination and reality. The near destruction in 1687 of the Parthenon, the apotheosis of Greek architecture, by Francesco Morosoni - his enemy, the Ottoman Turks, had been using the temple as a gunpowder store - had been, in Venetian eyes, a legitimate action, yet no mortar shot could put an end to the idea of this perfect Greek temple. Hugely influential among architects from the late 18th Century, the shell of the Parthenon remains one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions today.
I have long been enchanted by a drawing in red chalk and brown wash of 1780 depicting The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins by the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. Here, the artist rests tearfully on fragments - an enormous foot beneath a giant hand - of what had once been the Colossus of Constantine, a seated figure 40-ft tall from the early 4th Century Rome. How, Fuseli seems to say, could such wonders ever be revived?
This was a romantic Neo-Classicist’s perspective. In fact, while many great Roman buildings and works of art were indeed imposing things, later ages and cultures have not despaired. From Gothic Cathedrals through to American skyscrapers, architects and those who have commissioned them have created ambitious monuments that attract us with a magnetic pull.
Great buildings, ancient and modern, are history, written on an imposing scale. They can be read like giant books. They talk of vanities and dynasties, of religion, love and war, of commercial ambition and of our collective ability to create structures that lift us far beyond the everyday and into far and unknown futures. They are there for us to visit and gawp at, and there, too, to be discussed, debated and even debunked.
There are those, for example, keeping company with George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, who feign to despise the Sagrada Familia (Salvador Dali would have liked to have kept it under a glass dome), as there are those who find little grace and rather less beauty in the structure of the Eiffel Tower. The French writer Guy de Maupassant, one of Eiffel’s fiercest critics took to eating lunch in the restaurant at the base of the tower, the only place in Paris, he said where this abomination was invisible. Maupassant wrote his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.”
As for millions of the rest of us, we will continue to clamber up the Eiffel Tower, to take pleasure in views of Manhattan from the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. We will trek to the pyramids at Giza even in uncertain times and perhaps, like me, know that we will be old when we can no longer run all the way up to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral as I have done for as long as I can remember. Great buildings shadow and measure our lives as they have done for generations before us, and will do for generations to come. Visiting them is one of the enduring pleasures of travel.
1. The Great Pyramid of Cheops
For nearly 4,000 years the Great Pyramid of Cheops was the world’s tallest building beaten only by the spire of Lincoln Cathedral from 1311-1549 (when it collapsed) and finally by the Eiffel Tower. The scale and precision of the enigmatic structure remains startling today. Quite how it was built, no one really knows. If it was built within twenty years - an oft-quoted figure - how did masons lay forty or fifty huge stones every day of the week? And was it really King Cheops’ tomb, or a symbolic building, aligned - along with the smaller Kafre and Menkaure pyramids - with the stars of Orion’s belt?
How to visit: Open daily 8am to 5pm (4.30pm in winter), site entry 80 Egyptian pounds; plus 200 for the interior of the Great Pyramid. Arrive at 8am before the big tour groups arrive, or later when they have left for lunch.
2. Pantheon, Rome
Few buildings in the Western World are more compelling than the Pantheon, a temple to all that is divine, or all the gods, or the Universe itself, rebuilt in its current guise by the Emperor Hadrian who may have had a hand in its design. Its heroic entrance portico raised on twenty-four granite columns shipped from Egypt fronts an awe-inspiring domed interior adorned in purple porphyry and rich marble. Made of varying densities of concrete, the 2,000-year old coffered dome is bigger than Michelangelo’s at St Peter’s. A giant imaginary sphere - the world, perhaps - could fit snugly beneath it, while a vast oculus (an “eye” open to the sky at the top of the dome) connects the interior directly to the heavens above.
How to visit: Open most weekdays from 9am to 6.30pm (sometimes later) and on Sundays, 9am to 1pm. Entrance free. Mass, weddings and other services are held here. While many tourists rush in and out on their hurried schedules, remember that Brunelleschi and Michelangelo spent many hours here pondering the Pantheon’s “angelic” design.
Architects: Ictinus and Callicrates with Phidias, sculptor
Dedicated to the goddess Athena, the Parthenon was built at the zenith of ancient Greek culture and power. If its 46 outer columns could be projected into the heavens - the perfectly proportioned temple is aligned with the constellation Hyades - they would meet at a point a mile above the city.
The Parthenon was built at the zenith of ancient Greek culture and powerCredit: Jenifoto - Fotolia
Here, then, is Athens connected to the old sky gods through a building that, badly damaged by the Venetian navy in 1687, has haunted Western culture and informed its architecture from Neo-Classicism to Le Corbusier.
Much of the Parthenon’s famous frieze - the Elgin Marbles - is housed, contentiously, in the British Museum.
How to visit: Open daily 8am to 7pm (8.30am to 3pm in winter), site entry around €12. Arrive early - the people, the sun - although the Acropolis is often busy with restoration work, all cranes and scaffolding. Then visit the Acropolis Museum (around €5).
4. Hagia Sophia
Architects: Isidorus and Anthemius
This astonishing 6th Century church dedicated to Divine Wisdom was built in just five years. Its design was revolutionary - a vast central space under a dome that appeared to be supported by faith alone - and its client, the Emperor Justinian, suitably impressed. When Isidorus and Anthemius led him inside, Justinian is said to have fallen on his knees declaring, “Solomon, I have outdone thee”. Here was a church greater than Jerusalem’s fabled Temple of Solomon. A mosque from the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and a museum since 1935, Hagia Sophia remains the architectural anchor of Istanbul.
How to visit: Open daily 9am to 7pm (9am to 5pm winter), entry 40 Turkish lire. This is Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, yet the Church-Mosque-Museum is so vast that even when queues for tickets are long, it rarely feels crowded.
5. Salisbury Cathedral
Architect: Elias de Dereham
What makes Salisbury cathedral so special - its sky piercing 404-ft high spire aside - is that, stylistically, and despite restorations over the centuries, it is all of a piece. Perched on a perfect green lawn in a superb cathedral close, it resembles some exquisite, if vast, Gothic casket. Cool, chaste and serene to the eye, the structure of the cathedral is, nevertheless, the stuff of high Gothic drama. When the tower and spire were added, their weight caused their supporting pillars to bend inwards; you can see this phenomenon from beneath the crossing. Christopher Wren came to the rescue with tie beams in 1668.
How to visit: Open daily 9am to 5pm (Sunday 12 to 4pm), entry free. Stay on for choral Evensong, 5.30pm weekdays (Sunday 4.30pm). Dogs on lead welcome. Best to book spectacular Tower Tour (332 spiral steps): salisburycathedral.digitickets.co.uk (around £12.50); minimum height restriction, 3ft 9inches.
6. Castle Howard
Architects: John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor
Forever Brideshead in the eyes of those seduced by ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s baroque novel, Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard marks the spectacular architectural debut of Sir John Vanbrugh, soldier, East Indian merchantman, spy, playwright and witty stalwart of the fashionable Kit-Kat Club. Nothing less than palatial, the great domed house rises from a stirring North Yorkshire setting, its sheep-studded acres adorned by such peerless 'eyecatchers’ as Vanbrugh’s Temple of the Four Winds and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s colonnaded circular mausoleum for the Howard family, who live here still. Devastated by fire in 1940, today the 145-roomed house is hugely popular.
How to visit: Open daily April to October (10.30am - 4pm), entry around £17.50 (adults). Gardens and grounds, with notably fine monuments, open all year (10am to 5pm), entry around £9.95, dogs welcome. castlehoward.co.uk .
7. Sagrada Familia
Built: 1881 - present
Architect: Antoni Gaudí
When complete in 2026, the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, will - at 566-ft high - be the world’s tallest church. With eight of its eighteen vegetable-like towers complete, it is already one of the world’s most extraordinary buildings. Some have found it preposterous. For George Orwell it was “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”, while Salvador Dalí thought it had a “terrifying and edible beauty” and “should be kept under a glass dome.” In recent years, its ingenious design and construction has fascinated architects researching advanced methods of construction. Gaudí did without a computer, but he had God on his side.
How to visit: Open daily (9am to between 6pm and 8pm), entry from around €15. Tickets pay for building works. Only one of the eight completed towers has a lift that goes both up and down; arrive early to avoid queues. Dress properly or modestly.
8. Empire State Building
Architects: Shreve, Lamb and Harmon
Built in the teeth of the Great Depression, what was for four decades the world’s tallest, although largely tenantless, building was dubbed the 'Empty State Building’. John J Raskob, its high-rolling New York financier, is said to have asked his architects “How high can you make it so it won’t fall down?” It took the Second World War to fill it the Art Deco skyscraper with government offices, but in July 1945, a USAAF B-25 Mitchell bomber smashed into the 79th and 80th floors killing 14 people. The limestone-clad steel tower stood firm. Ever since, the Empire State Building has remained the city’s architectural linchpin.
How to visit: Open daily, 8am to 2am (last elevator up, 1.15am), entry from around US$32 (adults). Observatories on 86th and 102nd floors. Unimpeded views. Busiest, 11am to 1pm and an hour before sunset. Online tickets: esbnyc.com .
9. Sydney Opera House
Architect: Jørn Utzon
Half a century after this revered building was commissioned, it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site: “It stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the twentieth century but in the history of humankind.” Today, few would disagree, and yet philistine New South Wales politicians harried the building’s brilliant Danish architect causing him to resign in 1966. It has taken long decades for the building to live up fully to its architectural promise inside and out, although its distinctive skyline - gulls’ beaks, ocean waves, or nuns’ wimples - has never been less than thrilling and endearing.
How to visit: Open most days. Entry to foyers, free. Tours, from Aus$37, 9am to 5pm. But, the best thing is to buy a ticket for a performance and enjoy the SOH’s fine bars and restaurants, too. For all details: sydneyoperahouse.com .
10. Guggenheim Bilbao
Architect: Frank Gehry
The 'Bilbao factor' was a sickness that warped the minds of city politicians worldwide from the opening of Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad museum. From then on, any city undergoing regeneration was expected to host a second rate copy of this bravura tour-de-force and tourist magnet.
The operatic museum’s inauguration was truly dramatic. Shortly before King Juan Carlos was to have declared it open, ETA Basque separatists posing as gardeners working on Jeff Koons’s Puppy, a sculpture made of flowers standing watchdog over the museum’s main entrance, were found to be carrying grenades in flower pots. Monarch and museum survived; a policeman was not so lucky.
How to visit: Open every day except Christmas Day and 1st January (10am to 8pm), entry around €10. Impressive permanent collection, notably Richard Serra’s 1,000-ton oxidised steel The Matter of Time, along with works by Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Eduardo Chillida.