There is no such thing as neutral architecture. Every part of a building’s design, from its layout to the texture of its materials and the balance of natural and artificial light, has a profound effect on us. Studies have shown that buildings can profoundly affect our health and emotions. Savvy architects have long tapped into this when designing buildings, carefully combining elements that elicit specific feelings in those who inhabit or visit them, be it a sense of wonder in a sacred hall, soothing thoughts in a library or educational centre, or a heightened sense of drama at a concert venue. Here we travel across the globe to celebrate some of our favourite buildings that succeed – beautiful works of architecture that inspire and uplift too.
Water is calming. It’s appropriate then, that the meditative confines of Dipòsit de les Aigües, which hosts the main library at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra (upf), are in the vaults of a former reservoir. The structure, which dates from 1874, was originally built to store water for nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, the largest park in Barcelona. Designed by architect Josep Fonsterè (with assistance from a young student named Antoni Gaudí), the interior is defined by monumental pillars that support the arched ceiling.
Over the course of the building’s life, it has been used as an exhibition space, an archive and a car park for the city’s police force until, in 1992, it became the property of upf. After its acquisition, the university gathered a team of architects to develop a sensitive proposal for a new library in the historic vaults. Architects Lluís Clotet i Ballús and Ignacio Paricio i Ansuategui, of Barcelona-based studio Clotet, Paricio and Associats, won the commission and stripped the building back to its bare structure, preserving the historical brickwork. The duo then used prefabricated scaffold-like structures to create tiered floors along the edges of the structure while leaving the central nave at its original level.
It’s an arrangement that can be disassembled and feels more like a furniture fit-out that complements the building and enhances its original value, rather than an imposition on the historic structure. This is an architectural move that has also created a variety of atmospheres within the space, catering to the varied needs of its users. The powerful and open central space is an inspiring environment in which to read, while the cosy corners on its tiered levels are ideal for writing.
“What is surprising is that a structure that seems, at first sight, to be alien to the needs of a library has in fact proved to be the perfect building,” says Anna Magre, director of Biblioteca de les Aigües. The result, she says, is a library that has a monastic quality, where one can find solace from the hustle and bustle of the Catalan capital.
One of the most poignant examples of postwar reconstruction in the German capital stands in the southern district of Schöneberg, courtesy of long-defunct city practice Fehling+Gogel. Its jagged concrete spire is visible from afar, the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche has long flown under the radar; visitors who press down its formidable brass door handle often have the brutalist space all to themselves.
Part of Schöneberg’s old Protestant parish, the church was built in 1962 to replace a large art nouveau original that was destroyed in the war. It now stands next to a surviving 18th-century village church and, whereas the quaint elder sibling is pink-washed and upright, the béton brut Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche has barely a straight angle. Inside, the pews are placed on two sides around the altar, in a layout reminiscent of a concert hall. Indeed, the interior was modelled after the Berliner Philharmonie and it has acoustics to match.
The Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche remains in active use by the community: its choir has swelled to more than 100 members, and it is home to Berlin’s Japanese and Central African congregations. Among the parish staff, the unconventional architecture has always divided opinion. “I am one of the few who actually like it,” says Carola Dieckmann, the church sexton. She appreciates the spartan but tactile materials, the soft light falling through windows on three sides, and the communal feeling that the asymmetric space creates. “You have the sense of being enveloped by people,” she says. Such a sensation is rare in Christian churches, where the architecture is less about building a sense of community on Earth and more focused on a sense of reverence and awe for a deity above. But in Berlin the result is a building that inspires people to connect with their fellow man.
Even so, Dieckmann admits that upkeep of the heritage-protected building is a headache. She points to the milk-glass window above the entrance, which obscures the traffic outside while letting in a misty light. When one pane cracked, the parish had to track down the only workshop in Germany that could manufacture the right glass – for a six-figure sum. Twice, the new window shattered before it could be installed. Resorting to another type of glass would have lost the church its listed status. “We said we would give it one last chance before we give up,” says Dieckmann. Call it luck or divine intervention, but on the third attempt, the glass made it into place intact.
The regimented 18th-century façades of the buildings flanking Turin’s Piazza Castello give little away in terms of what hides behind them. Indeed, it’s very much by design that the Teatro Regio – renovated to the plans of eccentric mid- century architect Carlo Mollino in the early 1970s – is still so ravishingly surprising today.
“Whereas the exterior might be in keeping with the historic surroundings, the interior is anything but traditional,” says Laura Milan, an architecture historian and Mollino expert. With its quadruple-height foyer crisscrossed with concrete walkways, transparent escalators, dazzling brass light fittings, and with acres of red carpet throughout, the opera house is quite a spectacle. And that’s just the entrance.
Its opening night in 1973 (when a production of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani was staged, directed by Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano) came after decades of anticipation, says Milan, who holds a phd from Turin’s Politecnico, where Mollino himself taught. The original structure, an opulent affair built in 1740 to the designs of rococo architect Benedetto Alfieri, burned down in 1936. War-damaged and with other priorities, Turin was left without an opera house for almost 40 years. But beyond that impressive foyer, Mollino’s spectacular auditorium must surely have been a sight worth waiting for.
“Gone was the opera house all’italiana,” says Milan. Instead of boxes arranged in a horseshoe, Mollino designed a vast auditorium with seats sloping down to the stage, while elegant balconies add glamour and hundreds of translucent Perspex tubes create an unforgettable chandeliered ceiling. The resulting hall is mesmerisingly modern – and it’s these features that make an evening at the opera here so breathtakingly distinct from any other performance experience.
A fixation on the forms of modern technology combined with the use of sumptuous materials, Mollino’s designs are a juxtaposition, like the Turin that gave birth to him. This noble seat of the Savoy dynasty is as full of bourgeois restraint as it is of the innovative fervour that enabled auto manufacturer Fiat to be founded here. Mollino, son of a successful engineer, had plenty of that rich dichotomy that so characterises the Torinese spirit. An architect, downhill skier, aerobatics pilot and sadomasochism photographer, Mollino’s legacy is hard to gauge given his eclectic output. But taking a plush red velvet seat in his fabulous opera house is surely the best way to consider it.
Western Victoria’s Grampians region – also known by its Aboriginal name, Gariwerd – is renowned for its dramatic landscapes, sloping sandstone mountains and sprawling heathland. The best way to take in this landscape is to follow the Grampians Peaks Trail, which links the range’s most famous vistas, and stay at one of its campsites, where there are multiple structures created by Australian studios McGregor Coxall and Noxon Giffen.
Located at 11 sites along this 160km-long hiking route, the collections of weather shelters, amenities, tent pads, furniture, communal areas and cabins have been designed to discreetly complement the geography and nature. “It’s a pretty strong experience, doing that walk,” says Justin Noxon, co-founder of Noxon Giffen. “We wanted the architecture to be strong enough to honour this majestic and quite powerful landscape but also gentle enough to be part of it rather than dominating it – because the Grampians landscape is the hero of the trail experience.”
The structures have achieved this tricky balance – and that’s what makes them so remarkable. Spending time inside the cabins and shelters increases one’s appreciation for the landscape. This was, of course, by design. Noxon Giffen took direct inspiration from the surroundings – all its structures have sloped roofs, a reference to the Grampians’ distinct peaks. In addition to creating a visual through-line and design family for the entire trail, the roofs also assist rainwater collection. The buildings mimic their backdrop in other subtle ways: in the communal shelters, a clerestory ribbon emulates a gumtree canopy, filtering the light while also providing ventiliation. Many of the materials used were local and recycled, from sandstone and mild-steel cladding to silvered and bushfire-charred gumtree timber.
It is architecture that entices people into the landscape. Those considering a walk along the route can navigate and provision themselves or opt for a short, catered guided tour, providing access to exclusive private cabins. These huts are framed by timber battens and wrapped in a translucent skin, which diffuses soft, mottled light. Inside, there are beds, mattresses and little else. There’s nothing to do but reflect, steep in the serene mountain views and connect with your fellow hikers. “Everything about the architecture is gentle, restrained and part of the landscape language,” says Noxon. It’s about making a place in this ancient landscape, in harmony with it, that enriches you, your experience and your connection with the trail.”
The Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts was completed in 1972 by John Andrews having been approved by the school’s dean, and award-winning Spanish architect, José Luis Sert. Andrews, Australian-born and Toronto-based, designed the school with five floors offset like terracing, in “trays”. A single, sloped and ridged glass roof and sides covers the structure, recalling a greenhouse. The resulting building is a work of grand early 1970s exposed concrete with brutalist tendencies, crowned in glazing.
“Andrews was intent on making the studio space the heart of the school,” says Sarah Whiting, current dean of the school, which is commonly known as gsd. And, as students here will tell you, he emphatically succeeded, with the interior landscape a riot of design, from top to bottom. Many gsd students have a desk in the trays. When viewing them from the uppermost fifth tray, looking towards the first, the workspaces appear to be on a mountainside covered by all manner of models, drawings and paraphernalia. The gsd is now home to about 1,000 students and faculty members. The majority are split between three core departments: architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning and design. Much is learned in the building by simple observation, often between design disciplines that in most schools overlap only rarely. “Students feel that they have a cohort,” says Whiting. “The building renders visible what they’re doing and makes a community.”
But while the trays have helped to create an inspiring learning environment, no building is perfect. Famously, Andrews’ design leaks, is cold in winter, hot in summer and entirely unsustainable to operate. A spate of renovations will begin in summer 2024, including new, highly efficient glazing. This hi-tech minimalism comes from “respect for the architecture and architect”, says Professor David Fixler, an expert in architectural preservation and chair of the Faculty Building Committee for the renovation. “At gsd we are leaders in approaching the cutting edge with gusto.”
Yet the building is comfortingly protective of its students. Nooks, back staircases, secret lounge areas at the ends of hallways – there is always somewhere half-hidden to offer refuge. The building itself teaches a core lesson: the trick to much of good design is kindness and an understanding of human scale and needs, even in the grandest or most sublime structures and landscapes.
In architecture, there is no set formula for the perfectly composed space. It comes from trial and error. But Álvaro Siza Vieira, Portugal’s most gifted interpreter of modernism, found one solution early in his professional life with his design of Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, a fine-dining restaurant situated in a seaside suburb of Porto.
Commissioned in 1958, when Siza was just 25, the low-slung structure, which was initially a tea house, invites visitors via a series of steps and landings that lead up to the whitewashed exterior in a gradual procession. Perched a few metres from the Atlantic on a rocky outcrop, the building follows the rugged topography of the site to minimise its artificial profile, save for two mast-like angular chimneys.
Siza used a gently sloped, terracotta-tile roof with a pattern and colour that mimics a nearby chapel. Inside, visitors are greeted by a double- height atrium lined in Afzelia, a red-hued African hardwood, and stairs leading down to a south-facing bar and a west-facing dining room that offers sweeping views of the ocean via floor-to-ceiling windows. To maintain focus on the sea, the roof extends, similar to a ship’s bridge, so that a diner’s gaze goes straight out to the blue horizon. This makes for an ideal pairing with the two-Michelin-starred restaurant’s sea-based menu.
“Our guests have direct contact with the Atlantic,” says chef Rui Paula, who notes that Siza even designed a mechanism to lower the windows to the floor to allow people to enjoy alfresco dining when weather permits. “Our menu revolves around the Atlantic, which is very cold and oxygen-rich, and fish and shellfish from Portuguese waters; this one-of-a-kind location allows us to reinforce this within a beautiful setting.”
The interior, which underwent a faithful renovation before being converted into a restaurant in 2014, reflects Siza’s obsession with detail, as he designed every aspect of the restaurant down to the service trolley and table lamps. A subtle, yet effective decorative feature is the wood slats that protrude from the ceiling in the 20-seat restaurant. For Paula, the conjunction of his finely crafted tasting menu and the rich Afzelia wood, with white walls and abundance of natural light, often leaves patrons speechless. “There is a quiet harmony in the ambience that Siza has created,” he says. “For a chef, you cannot ask for a better backdrop in which to present one’s cuisine. I never tire of coming to work when I have this space and this view to look forward to.”
Long before high streets were populated with global coffee chains, Japan had its kissaten – independent cafés that offered proper service and a place to sit quietly; some specialised in classical or jazz music, or books. Against the odds, many survive today, offering an experience that could hardly be more different from the conveyor belt we’ve all had to get used to.
Nagasaki’s Fujio opened in 1946 and is now under the stewardship of the founder’s nephew, Tatsumasa Kawamura. There have been gentle updates – this is an interior to savour with earthy colours, gentle lighting and plenty of warming timber – but the basics are the same: a cheery welcome with a glass of iced water and hand towel on arrival followed by excellent coffee and perhaps a warm egg sandwich made with fluffy white bread. Fruit sandwiches are another staple of the kissaten menu and are a particular speciality of this café.
A visit to Fujio is a reminder that architecture is enhanced by the people who inhabit it – in this case, the community in which it is ingrained. Indeed, Fujio is part of the city’s history (it even gets a mention in famed novelist Shusaku Endo’s Sand Castle). As regulars stream in and out, there’s a gentle camaraderie that only a long-time business, in cosy confines, can provide. The Japanese kissaten should be celebrated not just as a retro relic but as a great example of good hospitality. Many of us don’t relish streamed music and our name misspelt on a paper cup. “Kissaten culture is unique,” says Kawamura. “I want to keep it alive.”