From a giant Gulliver in Spain to a sleek basking whale in Budapest, readers tip 10 destinations with stunning contemporary buildings
Winning tip: Tickle Knut Hamsun’s spine in Norway
The Hamsun Centre in Hamarøy, northern Norway (a couple of hours by boat from Bodø), is dedicated to Norway’s most famous novelist, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), hailed by many as the father of modern Norwegian literature. Designed by the American architect Steven Holl, the striking building, which dominates the landscape for miles, offers references to the man and his work, including “hair” on its head (the roof), a metallic “spine” running through the building and a beckoning hand (a yellow balcony jutting out from the dark facade).
Music of the pods in Rome
Sala Santa Cecilia looks like a giant silver beetle or, possibly, a computer mouse. It’s one of three metallic-roofed “pods”, each with specific acoustic features, which are part of the vast complex making up Parco della Musica Auditorium. Designed by Renzo Piano, and finished in 2002, it stands on the site of the 1960 Olympic Park on the outskirts of Rome. Though the pods are definitely modernist, the 2,700-capacity outdoor theatre is a clear nod to ancient Rome, as is the use of Travertine marble throughout. We enjoyed the timeless experience of listening to music in the balmy Italian evening air.
Grayson Perry’s secret gingerbread cottage, Essex
The tiny village of Wrabness in north Essex hosts Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex. Five years in the making, it was designed as a shrine to the fictional character Julie Cope. This folly is the gingerbread house out of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. The building, clad in colourful relief tiles with a bright gold roof, has been compared to a Scandinavian stave church or a Russian chapel. Set in a tranquil landscape with views over green fields to the Stour estuary, it is a must if you ever find yourself in “England’s most misunderstood country”.
Cocktails with Le Corbusier, Marseille
Take a tour of common areas and a typical apartment at Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France. Snap ’grammable details like the modernist stained glass in the lobby or the bold doors, handles and light fittings in the corridors. Soak up the sun on the azure tiles and crisp concrete of the rooftop, then admire the ingenious pan cupboard in the flat’s original kitchen cabinets. End up in the bar, where you can sit, sip a slow apéro and watch the sunset. Tip: chat to the concierge on the desk at the entrance or the server behind the bar for more local knowledge.
Slide down a giant’s leg, Valencia
I recommend Gulliver (from Jonathan Swift’s novel) at Gulliver Park, Valencia, Spain. It is a great modern structure for kids to enjoy. It is in fact a playground based on Giant Gulliver. He is lying on the ground and the different parts of him form stairs and slides for the children to play on! Entrance is free but do check the opening hours as they can vary. The park is in the east part of the Túria Gardens, close to the City of Arts and Sciences, another fine modern structure in Valencia.
Straddle continents in the Dardanelles
Cross from Asia to Europe in just 13 minutes: that’s how long it will take you to traverse the brand-new 1915 Çanakkale Bridge, straddling the Dardanelles strait, 40 miles north-east of the ancient city of Troy, across to the Gallipoli peninsula on the north side, a little way west of Istanbul. The bridge, which boasts the longest suspension span in the world, is a beautiful structure in its own right – like a sleek 21st-century version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. The main attraction here, though, has to be the incredible views along the Dardanelles towards the Sea of Marmara to one side and the open Mediterranean to the other.
A close encounter in Graz
I staggered off the night train from Venice recently in Graz, Austria, and decided to go for an early-morning walk around the old town. When I came across a huge alien spaceship-type construction, I had to pinch myself then drink some strong coffee. The Kunsthaus is a surreal structure, a modern art gallery built in 2003, and it looks even more stunning at night when 1,000 solar lights come on – it looks like it’s getting ready for takeoff.
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A whale basks by the Danube, Budapest
The Bálna (“whale”) in Budapest, Hungary, is a large-scale, glass-fronted building on the bank of the Danube near the Great Market Hall. It is a mixed-use building, with shops, cafes, bars and a great art gallery focusing primarily on contemporary art. It has a fantastic terrace with great views on the city, but the architecture itself is also very interesting: designed by Dutch architect Kas Oosterhuis, it is a mixture of historic brick warehouses and a striking hi-tech metal-glass structure. Visiting is completely free; for more info see balnabudapest.hu.
Gorgeous distortion, Prague
The Dancing House in Prague, sometimes nicknamed “Fred and Ginger”, is a really cool structure. It was built in the early 1990s – I think that qualifies as modern in architecture! It’s so unusual because it sticks out from the gothic/baroque architecture that Prague is known for. It’s right on the river in the New Town district. When I saw it for the first time, it really gave the impression that it was falling into itself, sort of like when a fantasy/sci-fi movie visualises a black hole orwormhole, where everything becomes distorted and hard structures appear liquid. Really cool, day or night.
A metal net of geometric shapes, Pristina
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” certainly applies to the National Library of Kosovo, in Pristina. On its inauguration in 1982, the head of the Communist party asked why the scaffolding hadn’t been removed. However, I found the distinctive cube and dome features, relics from the Byzantine and Ottoman tradition, intriguing. It looked as though a metal net of geometric shapes had been thrown over the exterior, while 99 cupolas of varying sizes added beauty and flooded the reading rooms with natural light. Inside, we found the entrance walls adorned with copper börek-shaped coils and silver filigree panels studded with precious stones.