Blog | Architecture

The Most Important Works of Architecture Since 1980?

. 3 min read
Frank Gehry Guggenheim Bilbao Interior
Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao, Interior

Vanity Fair asked 52 prominent architects, architecture critics and deans of architecture schools to list the five most important works of architecture created since 1980 (or here if the link doesn't work) and to name the greatest work of architecture thus far in the 21st century.

Important is a different category than favourite, best, interesting, beautiful, greatest and so on. Important requires that you look beyond personal preferences to the extent to which a building or design has influenced architecture and architectural discourse and to the impact it has had in a wider sense.

As usual in lists such as these there is a bias towards more recent buildings, because these are the ones people remember clearest and because people may have long forgotten about the impact a building completed in 1987 had during the 1990's. I for one had totally forgotten the Lloyd's building dates back to 1984. It seems to have always been there.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry gets by far the most votes. It's interesting that some designs that received a lot of attention when they were first presented, such as Bernhard Tschumi's Parc La Villette in Paris, get only few mentions.

It is amusing that some architects think of one of their own designs as one of the most important buildings of the past 30 years (Bernard Tschumi, Tadao Ando, Coop Himmelblau, Daniel Libeskind, Steven Holl, Eric Owen Moss, Richard Meier even includes two of his own buildings).

Some respondents mentioned the large hedron collider, which is an original choice, because it is the promise that it might offer new insights into the structure of matter and the universe, that makes it into an important building.

Without further ado here's what you've been waiting for, my own list of the most important buildings since 1980:

Frank Gehry: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. It transformed Bilbao and has become a model for city officials around the world wishing to put their city on the map by commissioning a museum of contemporary art by a famous architect. It was also the first design in which Gehry succeeded in bringing out his now trademark sculptural forms. This was made possible by technological advances in both software and engineering practices and in the use of new materials. In that sense, too, it set a new standard. I think many trends in architecture of the past 20 years were made possible by innovations in the use of concrete.

Norman Foster: HSBC Building, Hong Kong. It set a new standard for what a modern office skyscraper is or could be. I think it was one of the first major buildings to use a layered floor, which allows cables etc. to be hidden underneath floor panels. What I think is interesting from an engineering point of view is that it lacks an internal supporting structure.

The Jussieu Library (1992) by OMA|Rem Koolhaas was never constructed, but the ideas live(d) on. I think Villa VPRO (completed in 1997) by MVRDV is the first building to use the folded interzone floor plan. It is also one of the principal design elements of the Yokohama Port Terminal (completed in 2002) by Foreign Office Architects. And of course Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs, Nathalie de Vries, Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo all started out at OMA. The central idea, that the vertical dimension of a building does not have to be divided into equally spaced floors, but can be landscaped, has been highly influential.

Santiago Calatrava: El Alamillo Bridge, Sevilla. I think this was the first cantilevered single pylon bridge. It has since been imitated many times. I also include it because it initiated a new playfulness in bridge design and a renewed interest among architects in designing bridges. It also encouraged (local) governments that it was worth hiring an architect to design a bridge in an effort to create a new city icon.

There are a number of other buildings that I think are important, if only because almost every architecture student visits them or would like to do so: the Kunsthal by OMA|Rem Koolhaas, the Vitra Fire Station by Zaha Hadid, the Casa da Musica by OMA|Rem Koolhaas, the Mediatheque building in Sendai by Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando's Church of Light in Osaka.