A list is as incomplete as the unravelling of time. Implicit within the making of one list is the need to make another. To do, to see, to hold, to climb, to cook, to love - we might lose our bearings without something new to conquer. With this in mind, I offer a list of seven architectural wonders that blends the contemporary and modern worlds. Take it for what it is, and as something that may change tomorrow.
Of course, the Seven Wonders of the World - first compiled around 100 BC - was the original architectural list. This most courageous distillation of architectural works surely ignored the most sublime temples, and snubbed entire city-states through the non-inclusion of their monuments. Consider how many feelings were hurt.
What emerged, after centuries of contemplation, was a list that celebrated mass and monumentality, classical form and megalomaniac ambition. Greek poet Antipater of Sidon declared that the Temple of Diana of Ephesus was the ultimate wonder of architecture, while conceding that the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Colossus of Rhodes also deserved to make the cut. The Great Pyramid at Giza was included. For Persia, two sites were named: the Tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus and the Walls and Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Later, during the sixth century, Gregory of Tours replaced the Walls of Babylon with the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, which towered over the island of Pharos in Egypt.
For my list, the dreams of architects such as Etienne-Louis Boullée or Archigram, no matter how seductive their visions on paper, were barred. Architecture, both historic and modern, was considered, but only if the works are still intact and accessible to visitors. Works that have endured for their beauty and clarity, that have annihilated the whims of style, were favoured. There is a concession to grandiose, even stupefying works but, mostly, this is architecture that carries us away the moment we hold it with our eyes.
Luis Barragan House
Near a highway, and amid the fruit vendors of Mexico City's west end, the Barragan House lies behind an anonymous masonry wall that offers zero pretension or allusions of grandeur to the neighbourhood.
So begins a journey into a monastic space, free from the clutter of the consumer world, where Barragan lived, worked and, ultimately, died in 1988. The Mexican architect considered the house his laboratory, and he modified its design over four decades. Today, architects from around the world consider it a sublime distillation of light, with walls that guide the body and interiors aligned with nature.
Barragan, who laboured in relative obscurity, believed that windows should provide views without being compromised by a door. For his house, the large picture window designed with a cruciform of thin black mullions is an enticement into the garden, with its ponds and sculptural trees, but the door is placed deliberately to the side. The landscape is designed to be as compelling as the interior. Indeed, U.S. architect Louis Kahn was drawn to what he described as the primordial darkness of the water flowing from the stream into the garden.
Barragan breathed new life into the International Style of architecture by using the bright colours of traditional Mexican festivals, while favouring the unshakable rhythms of heavy wooden roof timbers and narrow wooden stairs cantilevered from stucco walls. He was a religious man moved by the cloisters and courtyards of monumental monastic buildings. There's no gold or stained glass in the house, but there are earthenware pots on the stones of the courtyard, and surprising views to the outside world afforded by tiny, perfect windows.
More than the great majority of well-endowed places of worship, Barragan's roof terrace is a place of profound, simple spirituality, offering explosive views of the sky. A dark, narrow staircase leads to the terrace held behind tall, brightly coloured masonry walls.
Barragan was the 1980 laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture. During his acceptance speech, he called it "alarming" that publications devoted to architecture seemed to have banished the words "beauty, inspiration, magic, spellbound, enchantment, as well as the concepts of serenity, silence, intimacy and amazement."
These concepts, he said, though perhaps imperfectly translated in his work, "have never ceased to be my guiding lights."
Perched on a hilltop near the Swiss border of eastern France, Le Corbusier's chapel of Ronchamp (1954) is one of the most blessed works of architecture as sculpture. Devout Catholics travel there, but it has become a coveted place of pilgrimage among architecture students and design superstars. The concrete walls are prow-like and the roof resembles an inverted crab shell, but, as Le Corbusier wrote of the chapel, "the key is the light, and the light clarifies the forms."
Though Le Corbusier was himself a non-believer, he captured the human sense of the sacred like no other. Chartres Cathedral dazzles for the impossibility of its Gothic structure and its vivid blue stained-glass windows, but Notre-Dame-du-Haut moves us with the gift of silence and peace.
Criticized as a shocking piece of irreverence by the disciples of strict modernism, the chapel was a highly personal work for Le Corbusier that allowed for emotion, rather than banishing it. Gentle light descends onto three altars from hidden skylights, and there is a reverence for The Virgin Mary and all women in the messages and flowers hand-painted on the small windows: "Marie" is written on one, as if by a child. Another deeply recessed window contains the words: Bénie entre toutes les femmes (blessing among all women).
Art matters - how could it not? But with this Frank Gehry-designed building (1997), architecture matters more. The museum makes love to its context, providing climactic views down many of Bilbao's densely organized streets, and kneeling down to the Nervion River.
Clad in titanium, roiling and hopeful, this is one inspired place to stage a rebellion against mediocrity in architecture. For all those city planners hoping to revitalize derelict industrial lands - this would include Toronto's - Gehry's museum sends a clear message: Insist on courageous, innovative form rather than giving in to the deadening formula of more condo towers.
My list lacks any Canadian masterpieces - though Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom have given me several to consider - but here, at least, is an extraordinary work by Gehry, one of Toronto's most famous native sons.
The Great Pyramid
A beast of beauty and pure geometry, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and last remaining of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Scholars tend to agree that it was designed by Hemiunu, the pharaoh Khufu's vizier, over a 20-year period around 2,560 BC as the tomb for the fourth-dynasty ruler.
Though the city of Giza is an unfettered, dusty mess outside of Cairo, the Great Pyramid and its two neighbours - the heft, the scale, the absurd amounts of tonnage the labourers had to haul around - simply annihilate the banality of modern sprawl. Besides being huge and difficult to behold entirely, given the glare of the dessert sun, the Pyramids are where architecture of vision begins. The complex is 147 metres high with a base spanning more than five hectares. If you visit, bring your walking shoes.
What's surprising to first-time visitors is that the original white limestone surface has all but eroded away, leaving the stepped structure of the pyramids exposed and indicating the extreme precision with which the stone blocks were laid. None of the 2.5 million stones weighed less than a tonne.
To be sure, Khufu can be accused of being a megalomaniac. But he engaged hundreds of thousands of rural workers in his enterprise and created a stunning mark of civilization on the land.
In the last years of his life, American architect Louis Khan travelled across the globe, from the fat cat city of Philadelphia to a dusty battleground in Bangladesh, and there, against all odds, during war and peace, he created one of the world's greatest masterworks.
The $32-million parliament, or Sangsad Bhaban, is a monument of hope that rises up from a country that spreads flat, dry and poor in all directions. Constructed of concrete and detailed with marble, the National Assembly is framed against an oasis of water, palm trees and brick plazas.
As a young man, Kahn travelled to the great monuments of the ancient world and created his principles of architecture from the earliest examples of pure geometry.
His work, like Le Corbusier's and Barragan's, sculpted with light. He abhorred artificial light, and would work late into the afternoon in his Philadelphia office until darkness required him to give in to an electric bulb.
Quite simply, his work for American museums and academic institutions allowed us to see the power of light for the first time, but perhaps nowhere as powerfully as the National Assembly in Dhaka.
In a country that's known devastating hardship, Kahn undid the tragedy of life by framing a beautiful light. It enters the corridors like enlightenment and makes the National Assembly's chambers glow.
The culture of architecture runs deep in Bangladesh, a country where the per-capita income is about $380. Somehow, with a break for Bangladesh's liberation war, Khan's project was completed in 1983, 20 years after it was started and nine years after Kahn's death.
A recent decision by the High Court of Bangladesh safeguards the original vision of Khan's National Assembly building and the overall layout of the capitol. It forces the demolition of two nearly completed residences for the Parliamentary Speaker and deputy speaker, which were ruled to be gross violations of the architect's master plan.
Architecture is threadbare without a larger context. In Istanbul, layers of history are piled as deep as the oceans, so to experience the Hagia Sophia means plunging into the riches of the Byzantine era.
The church, designed as the new Cathedral of Constantinople by Emperor Justinian I and completed in the year 537, rises up from the river's edge as a series of interconnected domes and colonnaded walkways. When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in the mid-15th century, the cathedral was converted into a mosque and, during the 1930s, the Hagia Sophia became a museum.
We know all too well the evils that humankind is capable of, but the Hagia Sophia presents a powerful counterpoint: Constructed in a mere five years according to a centralized plan, the cathedral is detailed with jaw-dropping mosaics and decorative plaques in green, red and yellow marble.
Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus combined their knowledge of science, architecture and engineering to create an ideal of Byzantine architecture, the result of their joint venture can be argued to have influenced the design of all the traditional churches of the Byzantine, Slavic, Orthodox worlds built over the past 1,400 years. I wonder if they argued over their fees.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
A bike ride through intense heat, towering trees and farmers' fields leads to Angkor Wat. The main temple of the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire is introduced by a monumental rain forest that grows into and through the walled city. In this way, nature makes a creative invasion, enhancing the beauty of the hundreds of sanctuaries and temples through an artful state of decay.
Much like Sukhothai, the ancient capital of neighbouring Thailand, Angkor was designed in the 12th century as a moated and walled city built on a square plan. Angkor Wat's five sandstone towers rise 60 metres and are carved in the shape of lotus buds, and there is an endless array of other sanctuaries to explore, every one of them richly sculptured. Trails cut through the 200-square-kilometre site of Angkor, so take a sketchbook, and plan to settle into the spectacle for a few days.
Pack your bags
Luis Barragan House: 14 Calle Ramirez; 52 (55) 5272 4945. A two-hour, by-appointment-only tour of the house includes Barragan's residence, one next door, and another nearby (with its much-photographed indoor pool).
More information: http://www.barragan-foundation.com.
Notre-Dame-du-Haut: 33 (3) 8420 6513ww.chapellederonchamp.com (in French only). Guide tours are available for $30; general admission is $3 for adults.
Getting there: Ronchamp is about 300 kilometres southeast of Paris, and can be reached by bus from the nearby town of Belfort. The Ronchamp tourist office can be reached by phone at 33 (3) 8463 5082. BILBAO
Guggenheim museum: Abandoibarra Et. 2; 34 (94) 435 9080; guggenheim-bilbao.es. Admission is $15 for adults. Free guided tours in English are available Tuesday to Sunday.
The Great Pyramid: For more information, contact the Egyptian Tourist Authority in Canada: 1253 McGill College Ave., Suite 250, Montreal; 514-861-4420; http://www.egypttourism.org.
Getting there: From central Cairo, visitors can take taxis (remember to haggle, and don't get side-tracked); or public buses (Nos. 355 and 357, large, white, air-conditioned coaches with "CTA" on the side).
Most travel agencies and hotels in Cairo can arrange guided tours.
National Assembly: Although entrance to the Bhaban, the Main Building, is prohibited to unauthorized personnel, the Jatiyo Sangshad complex is open to visitors. For more information, visit http://www.parliamentofbangladesh.org.
Hagia Sophia: Sultanahmet; 90 (212) 522 1750. Closed Mondays.
Angkor: On the way from Siem Reap to Angkor, a tollbooth collects entrance fees: $25 for one day, $55 for three days, and $75 for up to a week.
Getting there and around: Visitors can reach Siem Reap either by plane (the town has a small airport that is serviced by Bangkok Airways, which offers flights from Bangkok and by Royal Air Cambodge with flights from Phnom Penh) or by bus. An interesting option is a trip by boat (the boats leave from a pier near the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh and travel up the Sap river (through the Tonle Sap).
Transportation to the Angkor site via car, minivan or motor-bike taxi can easily be arranged in Siem Reap.
More information: Ministry of Tourism: http://www.tourismcambodia.com; 855 (23) 216 666.