Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings
Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings
Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: Paul Cattermole
Audience: Trade
Specs: color throughout
Pages: 512
Trim Size: 9" x 12" X 1 12/16"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20081010
Price: Select Below

Architectural Excellence: 500 Iconic Buildings

A chronological survey of 500 great buildings, from Turkish prehistoric cave dwellings to a 21st century Tokyo store. Each building includes a photograph, but the top 50 selections are double spreads. Captions provide specifications and brief history.

A magnificent collection of the world's greatest buildings, ancient and modern.

Architectural Excellence is organized chronologically and serves as a visual lesson in architecture through the ages. The buildings featured come from all over the world and include centers of worship, public buildings, places of business and homes. Each building includes a photograph, with a double-page spread for the top 50 selections. Captions provide specifications and brief histories.

Beginning with a prehistoric cave dwelling in Turkey and continuing to the 21st century, this magnificent book shows buildings that reflect human imagination, engineering skill and determination. Many are familiar-the Parthenon, St. Basil's Cathedral, Grand Central Station. Others are equally significant but lesser known.

Examples include:

  • Great Stupa in Sanchi, India, c. 200 BC, Buddhist
  • Caernarfon Castle in Wales, 1339, Medieval
  • Novodevichi Convent in Moscow, c. 1500, Byzantine /Kievan
  • Zwinger Palace in Dresden, 1722, Rococo
  • Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, 1837, Victorian military
  • The Monadnock Building in Chicago, 1891, Richardsonian
  • Courts of Justice in Chandigarh, India, 1956, Modernist
  • Price House in Corona de Mar, California, 1989, Organic
  • Maison Hermes, Flagship Store in Tokyo, 2001, High-tech.

Tremendous in its scope, Architectural Excellence is an unmatched resource for architecture professionals and general readers.


Paul Cattermole is an architectural writer based in London whose books include Bizarre Buildings.



Architecture and Identity
This journey through 500 buildings begins with one bomb. On the night of May 10, 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, a tumbling incendiary from a German plane struck the British House of Parliament. Of the 14 attacks the building sustained during World War II, this was the most devastating. The ensuing fire consumed the debating chamber of the House of Commons leaving behind a blackened shell at the heart of government.

The Palace of Westminster, (to give it its more regal title), was no stranger to such sudden destruction. The structure that bore the Luftwaffe's aggression owed its very existence to a blaze of 1834 which had swept away the majority of Westminster's Tudor and medieval buildings dating back as far as the 11th century. This fiery demolition prompted an architectural competition, won in 1836 by Charles Barry and the flamboyantly named Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. A neoclassicist by inclination, the talented Barry had been obliged to tap Pugin's mastery of Gothic revival as the judging panel had deemed this to be the most appropriate style with which to clothe a British institution. To most of the contemporary Establishment, the Gothic style was inherently patriotic, backed up by centuries of noble national precedents from parish churches to great cathedrals. By contrast, the once fashionable neoclassical style was increasingly regarded as a foreign import, tainted by its dangerous associations with tumultuous revolutions in France and America. As a consequence of its creators' opposing dispositions, the winning design was a hybrid, Barry's highly symmetrical classical plan almost dripping with Pugin's ornate Gothic detailing. This compromise clearly rankled with purist Pugin, who indignantly declared the result to be "All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body." It was into this tense marriage of classical and Gothic that the German bombs dramatically intervened.

The vital matter of rebuilding the Commons Chamber was addressed before the war was even over. In 1944 the prestigious commission was awarded to the prominent architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Designer of both the ubiquitous red telephone box and the iconic Battersea Power Station (see page 314), Scott was an Establishment figure and former president of the RIB (Royal Institute of British Architects). In his inaugural speech as president in 1935 he had made an impassioned appeal to those at the ideological (and stylistic) extreme of his profession. He urged both diehard traditionalists and hardline modernists to look for common ground and pursue an architectural "middle line." For Scott, this meant transforming power station chimney flues into striped classical columns and placing 19th century "Soane domes" atop his inherently modern telephone boxes. Hi calls fell largely on deaf ears and, despite some notable commissions, Scott soon found himself out of sync with the progressive time.

His 1942 proposal for rebuilding Coventry Cathedral (another recipient of the Luftwaffe's attentions) was flatly rejected by the Royal Fine Arts commission on the grounds that it was neither sufficiently avant-garde or traditional, but an unsatisfactory amalgam of the two. Eight years later, a competition panel would choose the uncompromisingly modern design of Basil Spence for Coventry's spiritual home (see page 353); a clear indicator of the new direction to be found in British postwar architecture.

Though Scott did not suffer the same ignominy with his Westminster proposal he did find him elf deviating inexorably away from hi own "middle line." Sensing everywhere the heavy hand of history he concluded that only a piece in the same Gothic perpendicular style would be appropriate within the context. Despite the shortcomings of the original chamber, such as poor acoustics and insufficient seating, Scott rejected the idea of creating even a moderately modern intervention, arguing that it would jar disastrously with the work of Barry and Pugin. His proposal that the interior be rebuilt in its original form ironically placed him amongst the staunch traditionalists he had earlier sought to convert. Thoroughly approving of this line of action, Sir Winston Churchill (himself a national institution) is alleged to have made the telling observation; "We shape buildings, thereafter they shape us." The Commons agreed. Following a debate on January 25, 1945, a free vote was held, with the motion to rebuild in Barry's mold being carried by 121 votes to 21. Scott duly oversaw the building of a five-story block within the walls of the original, the double-height debating chamber accounting for the top two floors. First used on October 26, 1950, its Gothic finery continues to present an illusion of unbroken occupancy stretching back far further than its true vintage.

Stories in Architecture
This tale of a national icon restored serves as a helpful introduction to the three recurring themes found within these pages: style, function, and context. In a state of constant flux, this trio of concepts is constantly tugging architects in different directions, often leading practitioners to reach radically different conclusions to their contemporaries. Architecture does not happen in isolation, for it is largely a mirror to society, its built forms reflecting the traditions, fashions, customs, beliefs, and aspirations of the people who commission it. Styles come and go as these factors change, leaving behind a document of that moment in time. A single building may offer an interesting historical snapshot, but without the support of its forebears and successors its meaning is substantially diluted. In much the same way that a single mosaic tile can offer only a single color, individual buildings need to be placed together within a timeline before the pattern of the wider picture can be described. A quick overview of these three strands of narrative will bring alive the hidden stories that lie waiting in this survey of the built environment.

The Strictures of Style
Westminster's marriage of convenience, between the Gothic and the classical, was symptomatic of 19th century architecture's overriding obsession with style. Whether they were derived from the ruined monuments of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, or based upon Europe's own medieval cathedrals, the whole of Western architecture seemed locked into a recurring cycle of historical revivals that all claimed to hold the authenticity of antiquity. The so-called "Battle of the styles" was not limited to Europe, being waged across the British Empire wherever public buildings were required. Under the baking sun of the Indian subcontinent, Bombay became a forest of Gothic spires while its rival, Calcutta, was home to a neoclassical colony. Little concession was made to the climate or to India's own architectural heritage -- itself the product of successive invasions, and the co-existence of Hindu and Muslim. For their part, the various cultures of the Middle and Far East kept largely to themselves, honing and refining their own indigenous patterns of building that had continued without interruption for centuries. Conquest or contact through trade periodically exposed the West to the shapes of Arabia and the Orient, leading to architectural oddities such as the Prince Regent's indulgent Royal Pavilion (see page 185) with its Mogul domes.

Across the Atlantic, America was also borrowing freely from the past. Like France, the young republic saw the classicism of Athens era being synonymous with the ideal and origin of democracy. From the "Age of Enlightenment" onward, the use of neoclassical forms signaled the break from the oppressive old regimes of church and monarch, the principal patrons of the Gothic. The fact that the Greek had originally painted their buildings in bright colors was known, but largely ignored, the wealthy patrons' preference being for tasteful white marble facade, as seen on their Grand Tour of Europe. The result was a host of fluted Corinthian and Ionic columns, rising like ghostly shadows of their ancient ancestors. From the White House to The Capitol (see pages 190 and 212), this Christian nation was quite happy to appropriate the classical orders of pagan antiquity for its own purposes.

What finally upset this obsessive gazing into the past was the arrival of new forms and new material. With the rumbling approach of the Industrial Revolution came new building types for which there were no historic precedents. The railway station in particular became the subject of some unfortunate stylistic confrontations, clearly seen in London's St. Pancras (see page 216). Here the red brick Gothic splendour of the Midland Grand Hotel by Sir George Gilbert Scott (Giles' grandfather) makes no attempt to couple up with William Henry Barlow's even more impressive iron and glass train shed, then the largest single-span structure in the world. For the emerging younger generation of architects the structural possibilities of these new industrial materials offered a way out of the stylistic cul-de-sac. Gradually, cast iron, plate glass, reinforced concrete, and finally, steel broke the stranglehold of brick and stone and helped forge a new architecture informed by its materiality, not its symbolic meaning. This new mood at the turn of the century was hammered home by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos, whose vitriolic essay "Ornament and Crime" (1908) branded the use of any stylist devices a "degenerate." His approach advocated stripping buildings back to their purist form, thereby avoiding the inherent obsolescence brought about by changes in taste and fashion.

The attacks of Loos and his contemporaries heralded the birth of modernism, and the beginning of the most eclectic century of architecture the world had ever seen. The story of architecture's eventful stylistic journey is retold here through a careful selection of seminal buildings by key practitioners, covering almost five millennia between them. Tracing the timeline, the reader can follow the continuous narrative of construction from ancient originals through Victorian revivals to the high-tech structures of today. Ultimately, even the belligerent modernist has to acknowledge his debt to the past.

Form and Function
Scott's decision to reinstate, rather than reengineer, the stately House of Commons stands directly at odds with modernist ideology, as articulated in the well worn maxim, "Form follows function." Consequently, the epicenter of one of the most technologically advanced democracies in the world once again donned the faux-medieval robes originally prescribed for it by dusty Victorian romantics. Instead of addressing the specific needs of a modern debating chamber, Scott continued with Pugin's and Barry's ode to the medieval great halls, whose open spaces were intended to accommodate multiple functions, from state banquets to legal trials. The result is decorative and reassuringly solid, but with significant practical failings already alluded to. Those wishing to speculate as to how a progressive modernist might have tackled the task can make a direct comparison with Norman Foster's 1999 intervention at the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany (see page 459). Here, a modern circular debating chamber was crowned with a glass dome and mirrored light cone, all successfully inserted into another bombed-out Victorian shell, (this time in the opposing neoclassical style). In contrast to Westminster's closed stone keep, the transparent Reichstag has tourists queuing around the block to gain access to its dome's panoramic spiral ramps. The recent process of devolution in the U.K. has afforded architects fresh opportunities to reassess the practicality and symbolism of democratic forms, resulting in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales (see pages 491 and 498), whose characters differ sharply with the formality of Westminster. Admittedly, they both had the benefit of a blank canvas on which to draw, but neither Miralles nor Roger made any recourse to historical pastiche in their efforts to break down the barriers between the governors and the governed.

The actual mantra that "form follows function" was first popularized by the American architect Louis Sullivan, widely credited as the father of the Chicago skyscraper. His original utterance, "That form ever follows function," was made in an article of 1896, published in Lippincott's Magazine and entitled "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." Sullivan was concerned with the aesthetics of the emerging generation of steel-framed high-rise buildings which would come to dominate the modern cityscape. But, far from advocating a minimal, utilitarian structure devoid of any decoration, Sullivan was simply suggesting that the tower's exterior treatment be appropriate to the form. Instead of flicking through the stale pattern books of history, he proposed that new styles be evolved in their place. Adorning his multistory Carson Pirie Scott Department Store of 1899 (see page 235), the flowing Art Nouveau patterns of his flamboyant cast iron traceries are evidence of a love of ornament that might have delighted even Pugin. It fell to the purist Adolf Loos and the modernists who followed, (such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier), to design buildings deliberately stripped of ornament to reflect the phrase in its more dogmatic, contracted form. Le Corbusier, too, had a knack for soundbites, his 1923 book Vers une architecture ("Towards a new architecture") referring to the house as a "machine for living in." As famous as the phrase that preceded it, the clinical white precision of his 1931 Villa Savoye (see page 295) is held up as an icon of logical modernist functionality. Ironically, Corbusier would later abandon the harsh rectilinear lines of his early work and create large scale architectural form that were as free-flowing and organic as Sullivan's applied decoration, (see Notre Dame du Haut, page 336).

Not content with simply documenting the rise of modernism, this survey sets out to challenge the popular notion of "form follows function" being a purely 20th century concept. Widening the search beyond the narrow modernist definition, it opens the way to re-evaluate historic structures that also have an inherent functionality. The Shaker's Round Barn (see page 212), begun in 1826, is a notable 19th century example of architecture as process, with the internal circulation of the wagon tracks and harnessing of gravity bearing witness to the Brethrens' quest for greater efficiency. However, the use of logical layouts and unembellished, utilitarian form goes back much further than this agricultural example. The inclusion of a significant number of military structures is quite deliberate, for if Le Corbusier's villas were "machines for living," then Vauban's citadels (see page 142) were undoubtedly "machines for killing." The cold calculation with which military engineers arranged their interlocking fields of fire and built embrasures and parapets to defeat specific projectiles, puts their fortresses in a brutally functional category all of their own. Even the medieval castles of Krak de Chevaliers and Malbork (see pages 76 and 99), with their concentric rings of defenses, staggered turrets, and deadly arrow slits have a cold mechanical precision. The final irony is that their pointed towers and crenulated walls were later adopted as purely decorative forms by Victorian architects, wishing to recreate a vision of noble chivalry that ignored the bloody realities of medieval warfare.

A Sense of Place
Scott's judgment that only a Gothic carbon copy could sit with the remaining fabric of Westminster might appear to lack daring, but it demonstrate his sensitivity to both the commission's physical and psychological context. Effectively a symbolic act of restoration, he was faithfully rebuilding the inner shrine of a democracy that had resisted the tide of Fascism to emerge scarred, but victorious. That comforting sense of continuity restored, of war wounds healed, would seem to support Churchill's assertion that buildings "shape us." Communities are loathe to alter their familiar monuments, which have the power to inspire and unify in a very public manner.

Most architects do not have the handrail of such an historic building to lean upon. They must find other means of injecting their buildings with a "sense of place" to achieve that satisfying air of permanence. In the absence of applied decoration, this is most commonly explored through form and materials, the latter being particularly pertinent in an eco-conscious age. The Industrial Revolution may have helped free architects from the straightjacket of style, but the liberation of the new railway network also began to erode centurys' old traditions of vernacular architecture. The importing of affordable "foreign" materials (Welsh slate, Italian pan-tiles, London stock brick) to once-isolated backwaters meant that local material, and the skill to use them, went into terminal decline. In the age of profit-driven property developers, this gradual process of national homogenization is almost complete. The result is a soulless sea of clones. It is difficult to form an attachment to a mass-produced mock-Tudor house knowing that its glued-on timber frames, that thin veneer of regionality, disguise an anonymous breeze-block carcass. The unique may have largely given way to the ubiquitous, but architects frequently fight against the economic tide to imbue their buildings with material meaning. Richard Rogers' National Assembly for Wales (see page 498) makes a patriotic virtue of its Welsh slate podium, even though blocks of near identical Chinese slate could have been imported at a fraction of the price. Conversely, the seemingly indigenous green oak laths that form the groundbreaking Downland Gridshell (see page 473) were sourced from carefully managed forests in France, not England. In this instance the desire to act in a sustainable fashion took precedence over national pride, as shipping material the short distance from Normandy produced far fewer carbon emissions than trucking timber down from suppliers in northern England. The desire to respond to a building's context must sometimes be tempered with a sustainable pragmatism.

Form can also be a powerful tool, for past glories can be invoked in far more imaginative ways than pure revival or pastiche. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (see page 480) is an outstanding example, subtly infused with memories of Ancient Egyptian mythology. Its forest of concrete columns, with their simple flared capitals, produce echoes of Luxor's hypostyle halls, transplanting the lines of pagan temples into an awe-inspiring 21st-century library for the whole of the Middle East. Jean Nouvel's Arab Institute (see page 409) follows a similar vein, its screening fatçade of photosensitive apertures cleverly tapping into the clients' architectural heritage by recalling the pattern (and function) of the traditional Islamic mashrabiya. Far more subtle than outright duplication, these deft architectural moves provide context-driven precedents for architects across the world.

Accelerated Iconography
This story both begins and ends with a bang, for the last 100 years have seen an explosion of divergent ideas that are helping shape a world of unconventional icons. The fact that almost three-fifths of the 500 buildings that follow were completed after 1900 demonstrates how architecturally rich the past century has been. The great social upheavals of the two world wars proved a major catalyst for change. The first replaced large reactionary regimes and empires with numerous youthful states, keen to express their identity. The second drove a wave of avant-garde modernists to flee Europe and disseminate their ideas in Britain and America where they took root and flourished. It remains one of history's great ironies that Hitler and Stalin did more to spread the modernist ideology they loathed than any other motive force.

If the advent of air travel made the modern world a smaller place, then the internet and computer-aided design have compressed it still further. In an increasingly mobile society, the superstars of international architecture flit back and forth across the globe to accept their high profile commission. They are outpaced only by their own designs, which whiz through high-speed internet links to deliver precise digital instructions to distant site managers or computerized cutters. The speed with which ideas can now be tried, tested and built with structural certainty has reduced the labor of experimentation to accelerate the rate of change by encouraging ever more daring forms. The question remains as to whether these rapidly prototyped icons have the same power to "shape us" as did their distant forebears. Whatever a building's age, it should still tell us something meaningful about the moment of its completion. With the guiding strands of style, form, and context in hand, we are now ready to begin our search for architectural excellence.

Paul Cattermole


Table of Contents


Ancient World to 500 CE
Dark Ages 500-1200 CE
Medieval Period 1200-1500 CE
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century
21st Century


Author Events   Firefly Books Fall 2021 Catalog PDF