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January 03, 2006

Architecture "Worth a Journey"

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Would you ever take a major trip to visit just one particular architectural site?

I did once (as I'll explain), but that was when I was young. Nowadays a building I wish to see might weigh when planning a trip to Europe, but it would never be the focus of that trip. I'll take detours to visit a site holding particular interest, but that's the most I'll do. And if a site happens to be in a city I was visiting anyway, I'll make certain to take it in.

(By the way, that "Worth a Journey" phrase in the title comes from those Michelin Green Guides -- their travel guides, not to be confused with their Red Guides dealing with food and lodging. The Green Guides have a star system that's usually summarized in fold-out map pages at the front of the books. The top category is "worth a journey" at three stars. Two stars is "worth a detour" and one star means "interesting".)

Here are some architectural sites I've made sure to visit on various journeys:

Glasgow School of Art.jpg
Glasgow School of Art.
This is a Charles Rennie Macintosh masterpiece. Glasgow is a city often ignored by tourists, but I included it in a Scottish itinerary because I'd wanted to see that building in person since high school days.

Hagia Sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
This gripped my imagination since I first came across pictures of it in a book I read when I was ten. As it happened, Istanbul was included in a 2004 tour of the region and Hagia Sophia was one of the stops. But I would have played hooky from the tour group to have seen it.

Helsinki Station.jpg
Helsinki Main Railroad Station designed by Eliel Saarinen.
Another must-see from high school days. When I finally visited Helsinki last fall it was my first stop.

Maginot Line - surface view.jpg
Maginot Line fortress -- surface observation post and artillery turret.
The Maginot Line might be classed more as engineering than architecture, but it has fascinated me since childhood. I tried to visit a fortress on my first trip to Europe, but arrived in Thionville too late in the day to track one down. I succeeded the next trip. (I plan a post on the propaganda Maginot Line and the real one.)

Ryoanji - better image.jpg
Ryoanji temple, Kyoto.
Back in high school I did an (extremely brief) exploration of Zen Buddhism and one of the books I bought had a photo of Ryoanji's famous rock-gravel garden. It fascinated me so much that, seven or eight years later when stationed in Korea, I took a week's leave to visit Japan and included a special journey from Tokyo to Kyoto to visit Ryoanji.

Below are a couple sites that have intrigued me since grammar-school days. I would definitely visit them if I were nearby. But I'm not likely to ever see them in person because I'm not very motivated to travel to the counties where they're located.

Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Angkor Wat.jpg
Ankgor Wat in Cambodia.

Finally, just for fun, here are two sites I've also wanted to see for years but haven't done so because, well, they no longer exist. But if one of you out there has invented a time machine ...

NY 1939 Fair - GM.jpg
1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors pavilion.
This is a view of the city of 1960 display, my personal must-see. But the entire fair would be a blast to visit, if I only could.

Treasure Island - 1939.jpg
Treasure Island, 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition.
Nothing particular I'd want to visit here -- just experience the whole thing. When I was in fifth grade I came across a picture book about the fair and the crypto-Mayan, semi-Deco architecture somehow hooked me.

Do you have any architecture that's "worth a journey" to see?



posted by Donald at January 3, 2006


You took my Hagia Sophia and Angkor Wat, two of my favorite fantasy visits. I don't know that I'd want to make the journey to Angkor, either. Anyway, mine are pretty tame. They would be Borobudur, the amazing Buddhist temple in central Java; the royal palace of Caserta, in Italy - specifically the stair-hall, since I have a major thing for staircases; and the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.

I know this doesn't count, but if I could get in, so to speak, I'd love to walk around (strictly as an observer, not a participant, whatever that might -shudder- mean) in almost any of the "Carceri" (the Prisons) etchings of Piranesi, that great 18th century Italian architect-wannabe. Just love those humongous interior spaces.

Posted by: Flutist on January 3, 2006 10:56 PM

If you include local transit, then the Prado at Balboa Park in San Diego is worth the trip. :)

(Sometimes you're just in the mood for quiet architecture.)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 4, 2006 2:49 AM

I enjoyed seeing Borabudur very much, but found the experience overwhelming. Each relief is intricately detailed and you could spend weeks and weeks studying each piece.

The heat and the crowds can be dizzying. The Javanese people love to have their photographs taken with Westerners and even if you're strong enough to say no, you'll still be asked and asked throughout the tour. The labyrinth of trinket and food stalls you must pass through to return to your bus is another irritation.

I visited Egypt in order to see the Great Pyramids, but I can't think of any other country I'd visit simply to see a structure. Visiting Angkor Wat appeals to me a great deal, but it's not the only aspect of Cambodia that intrigues me.

Posted by: Phil on January 4, 2006 4:57 AM

As I remember, the style represented by the Taj Mahal originated in Central Asia, mostly Uzbekistan. (The style is more Turko-Persian than Indian). In Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand there are a number of amazing buildings of that type, the more amazing because Uzbekistand(which used to be the hinge of the Silk Road) is now in the middle of nowehere.


Posted by: John Emerson on January 4, 2006 8:45 AM

Better images at this site

Posted by: John Emerson on January 4, 2006 8:48 AM

Some of Palladio's rural villas. They're a day trip from Venice, but fairly far from any other major tourism.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on January 4, 2006 10:36 AM

I've gone to see a lot of sites and bldgs, but mostly in the course of more-general traveling. I did do a few Frank Lloyd Wright pilgramages -- Fallingwater, both of the schools, that zany city hall across the bay from San Francisco, a few others ... Which had the unexpected effect of making me think a little less of FLW than I had before making the pilgramages. Oh, and I went to Arcosanti, out in the Arizona desert, which was a hoot-and-a-half, in semi-touching, semi-sad, semi-annoying kind of way. At the moment I'm mostly in the mood for towns and neighborhoods. I'd love to get to Ticino (the Italian part of Switzerland), to some of the small white hill towns of Spain, to Parma and some other small cities in Italy ... I should do more of the really ancient places, I know. Are the pyramids as astounding as they seem to be? Is there a lot to be gotten out of seeing them in person? India seems full of great places and buildings, but I've known few people to go there and not return with some awful infection -- "amoebic dysentery" seems to hit westerners pretty regularly. And I certainly don't need that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 4, 2006 11:13 AM

In terms of sites that no longer exist, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago would be up there, as would be most of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (I had a Viewmaster imagining of the latter that fascinated me as a child.)

As far as what exists today, I'm keen to go visit Asmara, Eritrea. I'm fascinated by both Art Deco architecture and modern Africa, so this city is a must-see for me. At this point, however, I'll wait until there's a less xenophobic regime.

(While in Asmara, I'll make a point of taking a day trip to the military junkyard of rusted-out tanks and whatnot left over from their war of independence against Ethiopia.)

Posted by: Nick on January 4, 2006 11:31 AM

Re: Architectural sites worth a visit

In addition to the Taj Mahal, other sites along those lines that I'd like to see are the Pyramids, Pompei and Macchu Picchu (although I don't know if I'd care for the journey up those mountains!).

Other architectural sites that I'd like to visit (to see how they compare with the same old stock photos that one always sees and also to see how they fit into their surroundings and other unexpected details) are the Acropolis in Athens, the Forum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Coliseum and the Pantheon in Rome, the Garnier Opera House in Paris, the Zwinger (a beautiful palace in "East" (?) Germany), the spectacular Centennial Hall (in Breslau?, Germany), the Adler & Sullivan Auditorium (Chicago), Falling Water, the Vanderbilt Estate (in No. Carolina?), the Breakers in Newport, the Otto Kahn's Oheka Castle on the Gold Coast of Long Island, one of those giant resort hotels out west that are made soley out of gigantic logs, one of those Eicher housing developments in the S.F. Bay area, Jon Jerde's "Canal City" (in Japan) and Richard Neutra's Kaufman House in Palm Springs (to understand why it's in so many architectural books).

- - - - -

There's a great photgraphic paperback by Dover Publishers of the 1939-1940 World's Fair that is the next best thing to being there. Basically it's an annotated catalog of photos taken by the Fair's official photographer. (It's an old book, so it can probably only be found in used bookstores or the library.)

Among the photos are terrific ones of the GM Pavilion which was even more spectacular than just the Futurama ride. The pavilion also had a wonderful full scale mock-up of an intersection of the city of tomorrow -- with elevated pedestrian walkways, etc.

Also the NYC Pavilion from the fair still exists with part of the building an ice skating rink and part of the building the Queens Museum. It's the only building left from the 1939-1940 World's Fair and, unfortunately, there are plans to alter it that may take away some of its grandeur and charm.

Speaking of World's Fair leftovers, another architectural site I've always wanted to see is Bernard Maybeck's wonderful Palace of Fine Arts Pavilion, left over from the 1915 S.F. World's Fair.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 4, 2006 11:35 AM

I'd love to see more Maybeck!

Oh, it occurs to me that we've spent a few weekends in Newport basically for the architecture. I forgot that because visiting Newport generally turns out to be so pleasant that the visiting-the-Breakers part of it kind of sank back into the general fun of the visits. Newport's wonderful. The mansions are too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 4, 2006 12:31 PM

Angkor Wat and the stone churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia are at the top of my list. I'd go to either countries just for those places, but luckily, there are other aspects of them that interest me as well. Oh, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Fairly obvious stuff, I guess, but I haven't seen them yet.

Posted by: the patriarch on January 4, 2006 2:20 PM

Everyone should go to Barcelona to see the wonderful Antonio Goudy architecture.

Posted by: isla palma on January 4, 2006 2:48 PM

If I had the means I'd do a World Calatrava Buildings Tour.

Posted by: Tat on January 4, 2006 9:05 PM

I notice that several of you mentioned sites in the USA. For some reason I focused on overseas and forgot the local angle. On the other hand you might have noticed that all my examples derived from impressions I got from books, etc. between the ages of 10-17 or thereabouts. And for some reason US buildings didn't have quite the impact. Well, maybe a reason might be that I considered them accessible and never dreamed that I'd travel abroad to see the others.

Michael -- Interesting what you said about Wright. A lot of his stuff is very impressive in color photos in books. But the few of his works I've seen in person strike me as being slightly disappointing too.

I visited his Taliesin West in Arizona last spring and wasn't hugely impressed. I don't much care for the Guggenheim or the Marin Civic Center either. The Robie House at the University of Chicago was better (from the outside -- I didn't get inside). The one that impressed me most (outside, again) was the Millard House in Pasadena that I stumbled across on my way down the hill heading from the Rose Parade to the Rose Bowl for the football game back when I was a Junior at Washington.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 4, 2006 9:09 PM

Speaking of architecture that isn't around any more...

Balboa Park's Prado aint supposed to be there anymore. It was lath and plaster construction, but built so well it largely lasted up to 1970 before serious signs of deterioration became noticable. The only buildings meant to be permanent were the California Tower and the Museum of Man and the Botanical Building. And the last was supposed to be the frame for a new railroad station downtown.

The 1935 exhibition was another matter, and tends to be more eclectic in style. This time around the buildings were meant to be permanent, though even they have gone through renovation or rebuilding. Part of the rebuilding/renovation including redoing the facades to better fit in with the look of the Prado.

At present the one building in need of serious work is the Museum of Art, but that has been delayed by squabbles over funding and how much rebuilding it actually needs.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 4, 2006 9:16 PM

The following is from an old e-mail. I'll have to put it on my blog, along with the picture of me at La Tourette when I was around 18. And btw, I loved Fallingwater, the greatest party house ever built.

In graduate school, I took two summer school courses in Europe offered by Columbia University’s graduate department. I was the only student in the first course that wasn’t in the Master’s program at Columbia, and this was in the days when the cheap way to get to Europe was to fly Icelandic Airlines to Luxembourg. So that was what all the Columbia students did. Icelandic had prop planes that had to refuel in the country’s capital, Reykjavik, where they made you get off the plane, in the hope that you might spend a dollar or two while you waited.

The Columbia students all took the same plane to Luxembourg, where they rented a van for the drive to Rome, where we had to be three days later. Many of the autoroutes and autostrade were incomplete then, so the drive was not as easy as it would be now. The students decided that they could only afford to make two stops on the way, and only one of them had been to Europe before.

So with all of Europe spread out before them, where did the graduate students in the Master’s program at the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Planning at one of America’s finest Ivy League institutions go?

To Paris, the City of Light? To the Alps, one of the natural wonders of the Western world? Or perhaps to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and one of the finest concentrations of architecture in the entire world. Or to the beauties of the French Riviera. All of these places were right on the way.

But instead, they voted to go first to La Tourette, a “Brutalist” concrete box of a monastery designed by the great Swiss Modernist Le Corbusier. And then they went considerably out of their way to the northern Italian town of Como, where they only had time to look at one building, the Casa del Fascio, or House of Fascists, designed by the obscure Italian Modernist Giuseppe Terragni.

Terragni was a cult favorite with several of their teachers, because: a) he had been relatively obscure; b) he was Italian, so it was a lot more fun to go visit his buildings than it was to visit, say, the better buildings of Josef Plecnik in Serbia; c) Terragni’s buildings, especially his unbuilt ones, were among the few Modernist buildings that could be used as examples of an idea that was in vogue then among architecture professors, namely the concept of “narrative in plan;” and d) he was an Italian Modernist, and architects visiting the glories of Rome, Florence and Venice always hungered for Modernism on their travels.

I’ve been to both La Tourette and Como: in total, I’ve visited more than 40 buildings designed by either Le Corbusier or Terragni (as I said, I’m an architect). So I could talk at great detail about why it was a waste of time to make Como one of the two stops.

But the real point is that anyone but an architect knows how ridiculous it is to think it’s better to visit a single building by Le Corbusier, no matter how great , than to visit Paris, one of the highest achievements of Western Civilization.

Posted by: john massengale on January 5, 2006 3:55 PM

Has anyone mentioned the Alhambra?

Posted by: CyndiF on January 5, 2006 6:22 PM

In Spain, I would add the Mezquita in Cordoba.

In Italy, I would add the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and the Campo Santo in Pisa.

In Mexico: Teotihuacan.

Posted by: Acad Ronin on January 12, 2006 9:33 AM

Delphi has got to be there, for how it complements the beauty of the site (spread up the side of a very steep slope going down to the water, rather like Mont-St.-Michel).

Also the monastery in Ethiopia (I can't remember its name offhand, sorry) where [Ethiopic Christians believe] the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

But who am I to talk? I went to Milwaukee a couple of years ago to see the art museum and wound up spending all day at the Harley-Davidson plant and the Miller brewery!

Posted by: Tim on January 13, 2006 12:52 PM

What about the Wainwright Building in St. Louis by Louis Sullivan (now that was an architect)?
And Teotihuacan looks smaller than it really is, at least before you climb the pyramids...

Posted by: Paul on January 18, 2006 5:50 PM

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