Great Classic Buildings

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12 must-visit architectural wonders, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to the Pantheon in Rome to Tikal in Guatemala

This list of 12 buildings "worth a journey" was prepared by Tony Atkin, Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and his office, Atkin, Olshin, Lawson-Bell Architects of Philadelphia. Mr. Atkin covered "older" structures. For buildings constructed after 1999, click here.There are the obvious buildings, like the Parthenon, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Taj Mahal that everyone would like to see (and should), but in compiling this list of the 12 must-visit classic architectural sites we have picked places we have been to and loved. Many of the sites are extraordinary for their architecture combined with their landscapes, or for their relation to the art or objects they house. Of course, there are many wonderful buildings and sites left out of such a short list.

1. Chartres Cathedral, France (1130 - mid 13th Century)

Chartres possessed the tunic the Virgin Mary wore at the Nativity, and by 1100 became the center of a cult of Mary that flourished in the Middle Ages, and a very popular pilgrimage site. Work began in the 1130's to modernize and extend an existing Romanesque church on the site, and it was done in the new Gothic style, first championed by Abbot Suger at the Church of St. Denis 55 miles away. The new style emphasized unity, light, and almost dizzying verticality, made possible by the invention of the gothic arch and flying buttresses, that allowed much of the wall to become windows. 

God and spiritual attainment became synonymous with luminescence and structural transcendence. An almost feverish competition for patronage of the church resulted in glorious stained glass windows, given by King Philip Augustus, Peter of Dreux, the Duke of Brittany--all the noble houses of France are represented. Queen Blanche of Castile, the mother of Louis the IX, gave windows of the north transept, which glorifies Mary and her child in brilliant reds, as she fought to protect the life and prerogatives of the future king.

Today the church is still approached across abundant wheat fields. Its uneven towers, done in different building campaigns, sharply break the horizon and set the stage for visiting this noblest and best-loved Gothic church.

Address: Place de la Cathedrale, Chartres

  • Monday-Sunday: 8:30 am to 7:30 pm
  • Guided tours at 12:00 and 2:45
  • 2. The Pantheon, Rome, Italy (begun in 118)

    Built by the Emperor Hadrian as a temple, it is unknown what rites or services were held here. The building's powerful presence is perhaps because of the combination of the highly detailed, square portico that is oddly attached to a huge, circular rotunda surmounted by a majestic dome with an open oculus at the top.

    Once inside, the odd exterior is forgotten, as one is overwhelmed by the scale and perfection of the vault and mesmerized by the round sphere of light from the open "eye" above that moves slowly around the interior as the sun changes position. This being the only light in the room, comparisons to the vault of heaven are inevitable.

    The building was (and is) a great technical achievement: built of concrete (a building material perfected by the Romans), the size of its great dome was unchallenged until the Fifteenth Century, when Brunelleschi made a dome of slightly greater span for the Cathedral at Florence.

    Address: The Pantheon, Piazza della Rotuonda, RomeWeb

  • Monday-Saturday: 8:30 am to 7:30 pm
  • Sunday: 9 am to 6 pm
  • Closed: Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25
  • 3. Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1924-30/1940-43)

    The Cranbrook Academy, Museum, and Educational Community is at first glance simply a beautiful example of a successful collaboration between Eliel Saarinen, a visionary genius who believed in the expressive power of modernism, and his patrons, George and Ellen (Scripps) Booth. In looking deeper, however, one can also find that it is a truly homegrown American icon that reflects a dedication to the importance of craftsmanship and making things by hand in the city--Detroit--that transformed American manufacturing capabilities through the assembly line.

    The campus is made up of several different parts developed over the course of its 100-year history. The original Boys School courtyard exemplifies an intense level of detail that only becomes apparent through extended discovery; for example, each pane of glass in the Dining Hall has a unique leaded pattern. Throughout the courtyard the hand of the master mason is apparent, as quirky brick details are--with Saarinen's blessing--randomly scattered through the walls.

    Although later buildings on the campus developed newer ideas about form, the tradition of incorporating the hand of the craftsman was never relinquished. The Girl's School and the Art Museum's breathtaking arcade show Saarinen's burgeoning interest in Modernism, flavored by arts and crafts decorative detailing. Contemporary additions to the campus--by Williams/Tsien, Peter Rose, and others, still display the human-scaled interest that hand-crafted detailing can provide to modern architecture.

    Address: Lone Pine Road, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
    877/462-7262 Web Information: cranbrook.eduhours/

  • Self-guided tours, Cranbrook House and Gardens: Daily, 11 am to 3pm in September and October. May through Labor Day: Daily, 10am to 5 pm (Fridays, 10 am to 8:30 pm)
  • Guided  Cranbrook House Tours: Sundays (June 1 to Oct 26) at 3:00 pm, Thursdays (June 19 - Oct 31) 11:00 & 1.15
  • There are many other types of tours, showcasing the various parts of the complex. Go to the Cranbrook website for complete information.
  • 4. Tikal, Guatemala (peak of development about 800)

    Tikal was one of the most powerful city states of the classic Maya, in the highlands of present day Guatemala. It consists of many groups of platforms, pyramids, and low buildings on knolls and shoulders of land, sitting above the surrounding swamps and jungles.

    The Great Plaza in the center of Tikal is flanked by the pyramids of Temple 1 (Giant Jaguar) and Temple 2, facing east and west, and also the low North Acropolis and palace building of the Central Acropolis on the south, all forming a dramatic and exciting civic and religious space. The central pyramids each have only one impossibly steep stair, facing each other and rising symmetrically up from the plaza. At the top is a small room with an elaborate "roof comb" headdress. Should you make the climb, you are rewarded with an astonishing vista of the tops of dozens of other pyramids, many unexcavated, rising above the dense jungle.

    The architects of Tikal and other Peten Maya sites, habitually thought in terms of groups of platforms and buildings, rather than isolated structures. Exterior space is much more important than interior rooms, which are generally small cellular spaces in a row. Assemblages of several buildings often serve as markers of significant positions of the sun on the horizon, or perhaps the stars. Tikal also contains a ball court that was used in the ubiquitous ancient Mayan ritual game, and structured causeways that lead to many outlying structures. Mayan hieroglyphs, carved on stelae (vertical rock slabs) around the site, have recently been deciphered, and mostly tell of ancient Kings and their conquests against neighboring cities. Today, Tikal's remote location and towering limestone pyramids make a powerful impression.

    Address: Tikal National Park, GuatemalaPhone: 502-7920-0025Web information: Monday-Sunday: 6 am to 6 pmAdmission: 50 Quetzales($6.35)

    5. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy (1300-06)

    Few buildings illustrate the potential for the integration of art and architecture as well The Scrovegni Chapel. This small early 14th century chapel is the masterpiece of Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), a Renaissance man before the Renaissance. A master-builder and painter, Giotto revolutionized western sight and philosophy through his early developments in perspective drawing. The chapel, a simple vault, is built into the ruins of the ancient Roman amphitheater, transforming a monument to brutality into a place for forgiveness. (Reginaldo Scrovegni, whose son built the chapel, was consigned to hell by the poet Dante.) The extent of Giotto's frescoes make the size and scale of the interior all but impossible to fully gauge. No photograph can capture their intense blue. This color alone could make a Hell's Angel cry and alone is worth the trip to Padua.

    A fabulous website provides information on the history and restoration efforts, as well as information on visiting the chapel. Don't miss the virtual tours.

    Address: Piazza Eremitani 8, Padua (off Corso Garibaldi)Phone: 011-39-049-2010020Web information: See aboveHours: Daily, 9 am to 7 pm (closed Jan. 1, May 1, Dec. 25 and 26)Admission: Adults 11 Euros ($13.50); students and seniors 4 Euros ($4.90); children five and under free

    6. Mesa Verde, southwestern Colorado (abandoned just before 1300)

    These astonishing Pre-Columbian dwellings, built on cliffs in shallow caves by people known as the Anasazi, were rediscovered in 1888 by a rancher looking for lost cattle. In the canyons of Mesa Verde are hundreds of caves, and during the height of the area's occupation (the 13th century), dwellings were built in almost every cave. The majority of tree ring dates obtained so far from the sites fall between 1230 and 1260, indicating this was a time of great construction activity. Remarkably, many of these extensive and beautiful sites were only lived in for one or two generations, as the inhabitants struggled with drought and possibly defense.

    The cliff dwellings range in size from a single room to the largest, called Cliff Palace, which has about 200 rooms and 23 kivas. Kivas are the remarkable underground Anasazi religious spaces (one can be entered at Spruce Tree House, one of the dwellings open to the public). The buildings were mostly made of ledgestones gathered from the site, and were originally covered with mud plasters, some with painted designs. The caves provided some shelter from the elements, and some of the dwellings were situated so they were shaded from the hot summer sun, but warmed in winter, when the sun angle is lower.

    Viewed from the top of the mesa, the cliff dwellings express a beautiful and timeless relationship between man's dwellings and nature. If you can climb a tall ladder and squeeze through the entrance (arranged for defense), don't miss the tour of Balcony House, where an ancient terrace overlooks the canyon.

    Address: Mesa Verde National Park, on highway 160. (It's a one-hour drive from Cortez, Colorado, heading east on Highway 160 to the park turnoff, and a 1.5 hour drive from Durango, Colorado, heading west on Highway 160 to the park turnoff.) Phone: 970/529-4465Web Open seven days a week

  • Ranger guided tours and self-guided tours spring, summer and fall only. There are also commercially-led tours available in many
  • Chapin Mesa Museum: Mid-April through mid-Oct 8am to 630pm; 8 am to 5pm the rest of the year.
  • 7. Shisendo Hall and Garden, Kyoto, Japan (1636-1672)

    Known as Hall of the Hermit Poets in English, Shisendo is a relatively small garden and house in the hills on the northeast edge of modern Kyoto. It was built by Ishikawa Jozan, a samurai warrior who became disillusioned with war and the Tokugawa shogun, and built an estate based on the legendary retreats of scholars and poets of the T'ang dynasty of China. After his death the garden was neglected and then restored in the 19th Century.

    Shisendo's main building is approached by a marvelous sequence of stone steps and spaces that lead past a large camellia tree to a genkan where shoes are removed and the visitor is greeted. As you walk along the portico to the main hall, your feet feel the wonderful cypress planks through your socks, and then the stiff resistance of the woven tatami mats. The hall is relatively dark, but opens diagonally onto the inner garden of sand, shaped azaleas, and beautiful trees beyond. The view is breathtaking and almost entirely open, because the shoji and fusuma panels have been pushed back into the walls--the roof carried by an impossibly small wooden column in the corner.

    The visitor sits on the tatami, and contemplates the gorgeous outdoor scene while listening to the gurgling of a nearby stream. After a while, green tea is brought by a discreet attendant, and the cares and concerns of the outer world slip away. After a peaceful few minutes, the visitor is allowed to enter the garden and look back at the building, which is a brilliant collage of form and materials. The roof planes are variously made of tile and thatch, punctuated with a small moon-viewing room with a circular window.

    Address: 27 Monguchi-cho, Ishojo-ji, Sakyo-kuPhone: +81-75-343-66Hours: 9 am to 5 pm, dailyAdmission: Adults 500 yen ($4.50), students 400 yen ($3.60)

    8. Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain (1900-14)

    Originally conceived as a suburban housing development, Parc Guell--designed by Antonio Gaudi --epitomizes the long Catalan tradition of creating engaging public spaces and is the most interesting public park in Europe. Nestled into the hills surrounding Barcelona, the park surprises the first time visitor with robust organic elements which all share a simple basic structure of rubble masonry adorned with a confection of complexly surfaced and patterned tile mosaics. Make your way to the projecting platform plaza (called the 'Greek Theatre' by Gaudi) for unparalleled vistas of the city and Mediterranean. Don't miss the opportunity to wander deeper into the park's grounds where one will discover the super-rustic rockwork causeways and retaining walls. These linear constructions, so seemingly random, are the organizers of the site and were as carefully conceived as any of the fantastic forms in Gaudi's other works.

    Address: Carrer d'Olot 7, VallcarcaPhone: +34-934-243-809Hours: 10 am to 7 pm, dailyAdmission: Free

    9. Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China (1420)

    Formerly the site where the Ming and Qing emperors, escorted by a brilliant retinue, traveled from the Forbidden City to pray and make sacrifices for good harvests, the vast Temple of Heaven complex in southeast Beijing has become a national symbol of China.

    A sequence of three significant groups of intricately detailed structures with blue tiled roofs and vast open spaces that housed the annual rituals are situated on an elevated central axis that runs through a lovely park and historic pine woods. The temple at the center of the complex is a masterpiece of integrated architecture and landscape design that in its simple geometric layout of a circular structure on a square base, formally symbolizes the relationship between the heaven and earth. It beautifully illustrates the significance of cosmology in Chinese philosophy, and has greatly influenced East Asian architecture and planning in for centuries.

    The temple complex has been transformed in more recent times from an imperial ritual ground into one of the most popular public gathering spaces Beijing, and is often filled with Beijing's citizenry engaging in shadowboxing (tai-chi), dancing, calligraphy, musicianship, song, and selling birds and other wares. The arrangement of the buildings, altars, and broad avenues is a lasting memorial to the consummate ability of the Chinese to utilize large spaces to the best possible advantage.

    Address: Tiantan Park, BeijingPhone: 8610-6702-2242Hours: 6 am to 7:50 pm, dailyAdmission: 35 Yuan Renminbi ($4.25)

    10. Paestum, Italy (530 - 460 BCE, and also occupied during Roman times)

    Part of Magna Greca (the part of Italy controlled by the Greeks, before Rome), Paestum is the site of Greek Doric temples, such as the Basilica' and the Temple of Neptune' that make magnificent ruins, some of the most intact Greek buildings surviving. The buff colored columns are so massive that their width almost equals the spaces in between them, and their fluted, pock-marked surfaces give them a tremendous physical presence. Severely tapered, they rise up to plain capitals that support a massive frieze, mostly shorn of its ornament. The whole has a powerful effect, perhaps of rugged soldiers in strict alignment marching across the plain.

    Several temples remain, and are arranged in visual relationship to each other, in a way that speaks of Greek civic design. After the complex was rediscovered in the 18th century, they became a "must-see" for British nobility on the Grand Tour. The German philosopher Goethe saw the temples in the early 19th Century and called them "sublime." The Italians really know how to treat their ruins, and these are beautifully kept, with little blue flowers growing out of the cracks in the stone.

    Address: The town of Paestum is located in the Italian region of Campania. Most visitors take the train from Salerno.Phone: (39)828-811-023Hours: 9 am to sunset for the temple zone and museumAdmission: 4 Euros ($4.90) for admission to the archeological park and museum

    11. Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania (1936)

    Probably the most well known house of the 20th Century, the fame and popular success of Fallingwater revived the architect Frank Lloyd Wright's career at the age of 69. This "weekend house" set deep in the woods over a stream exploits the technology of concrete construction and the geometry of intersecting and overlapping forms to create an unsurpassed architectural intensity. The visitor enters the house through an astonishingly small space (Wright was famously only 5'-4" tall) that upon entering, dramatically opens up through glass walls to the outdoor terraces and woods beyond. The open, free plan, pinwheeling rooms, and central fireplace relate the house to Wright's Prarie Style work of 25 years before, but the use of horizontal concrete bands played off against vertical stone masses and the dramatic structural expression, have made the house a modern icon.

    Address: PA Route 381 between the villages of Mill Run and Ohio PylePhone: 724/329-850Website info:

  • Mid-March through Thanksgiving weekend: Tues - Sun, 10:00 - 4:00.
  • Also open: Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Friday, the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day
  • 12. Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, England (begun in 1591)

    Hardwick Hall, designed by the brilliant architect, Robert Smythson, is a true prodigy house. It was built by one of the most powerful and richest women of Elizabethan England, Elizabeth "Bess" of Hardwick, a sometimes friend and sometimes rival of Queen Elizabeth. Bess was first married at the age of twelve, and as each of her four husbands died she became richer and richer. A project to remodel an existing house on the grounds was abruptly abandoned when her last husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, died leaving her another substantial fortune. The old house was left to ruin as she immediately began plans for a magnificent new house that still bears her initials, ES (Elizabeth Shrewsbury), in the parapets.

    The house is a radical combination of Medieval and Renaissance, with huge glass windows that increase in size the higher they are in the building. All the floors of the house are connected by a straight continuous staircase that ascends all the way up, past Bess's living spaces to the High Great Chamber at the top. The house contains many tapestries done by Bess and her handmaidens, as well as wonderful chimneypieces and elaborate plasterwork.

    Address: Hardwick Hall, Doe Lea, Chesterfield, DerbyshirePhone: (44) 124 685 0430 Hours:

  • 12 pm to 4 pm Wed, Thurs, Sat, Sun (for the hall)
  • 11 am-5:30 pm Wed thru. Sun (for the gardens)
  • 8 AM-6PM seven days a week (Parkland gates)
  • Hall: £6.80 ($12.25)
  • Garden: £3.70 ($6.65)
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