Top 10 Buildings of the Modern Era

The Choice of Architecture for a New Age

Every era has its giants, but when the world moved out of the Victorian age, architecture reached new heights. From soaring skyscrapers to dramatic innovations in engineering and design, the modern era transformed the way we think about building. The Phaidon Atlas of 20th-Century World Architecture (2012) presents an array of important structures, but architecture enthusiasts the world over have chosen these top ten buildings, naming them the most revolutionary structures of the recent past.

Lightwell in Casa Milà Barcelona, or La Pedrera, designed by Antoni Gaudi, early 1900s
Lightwell in Casa Milà Barcelona, or La Pedrera, designed by Antoni Gaudi, early 1900s. Photo by Panoramic Images/Panoramic Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi defied rigid geometry when he designed Casa Mila Barcelona. Gaudi was not the first to build "light wells" to optimize natural sunlight—Burnham & Root designed Chicago's Rookery with a light well in 1888 and the Dakota apartments in New York City had an inner courtyard in 1884. But Gaudi's Casa Mila Barcelona is an apartment building with a fanciful aura. Wavy walls seem to undulate and a comical array of chimney stacks dance across the roof. "The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God," Gaudi asserted. More »

Inside Grand Central Terminal in New York City
Inside Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Photo by Kena Betancur / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Designed by architects Reed and Stem of St. Louis, Missouri and Warren and Wetmore of New York City, today's Grand Central terminal building in New York City features lavish marble work and a domed ceiling with 2,500 twinkling stars. More »

The Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York City has jazzy automobile ornaments
The Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York City has jazzy automobile ornaments. Photo by CreativeDream/E+/Getty Images

Architect William Van Alen lavished the 77-story Chrysler Building with automotive ornaments and classic art deco zigzags. Soaring 319 meters / 1,046 feet, the Chrysler Building was the tallest building in the world... for a few months. More »

The Empire State Building takes center stage in New York City
The Empire State Building takes center stage in New York City. Photo by Harri Jarvelainen / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

When it was built, the Empire State Building in New York City broke world records for building height. Reaching into the sky at 381 meters / 1,250 feet, it rose above the newly built Chrysler Building. Even today, the height of the Empire State Building is nothing to sneeze at, ranking within the top 100 for tall buildings. The designers were architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. More »

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater House, also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater House, also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Photo by Archive Photos / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Frank Lloyd Wright fooled gravity when he designed Fallingwater. What seems to be a loose pile of concrete slabs threatens to topple from its cliff. The house is not really precarious, but visitors are still awed by the improbable structure. More »

Space-age entrance to Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright
Entrance to Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Rick Gerharter/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Frank Lloyd Wright redefined space with the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin. Inside the corporate architecture, opaque layers of glass tubes admit light and create the illusion of openness. "Interior space comes free," Wright said of his masterpiece. Wright also designed the original furniture for the building. Some chairs had only three legs, and would tip over if a forgetful secretary did not sit with correct posture. More »

Interior view, living room, the Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois
Interior view, living room, the Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois. Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div, LC-DIG-highsm-04518

Hovering in a green landscape, the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is often celebrated as his most perfect expression of the International Style. All the exterior walls are glass. More »

Sydney Opera House lights up as part of the Vivid Sydney Light Festival 2016
Sydney Opera House lights up as part of the Vivid Sydney Light Festival 2016. Photo by Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

Maybe the architecture is popular because of the special lighting effects every year during the Vivid Sydney Festival. No, Jorn Utzon broke the rules with his modern expressionist Sidney Opera House in Australia. Overlooking the harbor, the venue is a freestanding sculpture of spherical roofs and curved shapes. Designing the Sydney Opera House, 1957 to 1973 tells the real story behind this iconic architecture. More »

Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan
Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Archive Photos / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson rejected "bourgeois" ornamentation when they designed the Seagram Building in New York City. A shimmering tower of glass and bronze, the skyscraper is both classical and stark. Metallic beams emphasize the height of its 38 stories, while a base of granite pillars leads to horizontal bands of bronze plating and bronze-tinted glass. Its design has been considered one of the 10 Buildings That Changed America. More »

Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan
Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Getty Images / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, New York's original World Trade consisted of two 110-story buildings (known as the "Twin Towers") and five smaller buildings. Soaring above the New York skyline, the Twin Towers were among the tallest buildings in the world. When the buildings were completed in 1977, their design was often criticized. But the Twin Towers soon became a part of America's cultural heritage, and a background for many popular movies. The buildings were destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

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Some More Quirky Choices:

  • Chicago Title & Trust Building: The beautiful all-white constructivist style Chicago skyscraper by David Leventhal of Kohn Pedersen Fox NYC (1991)
  • The Palm Atlantis, Dubai, United Arab Emirates: It's awesome, sort of like the modern day Taj Mahal
  • Hancock Building, Boston: It's massive--but its parallelogram shape and blue glass exterior make it seem light as air. Also, it holds the complete reflection of the old Boston Trinity Church. Can the International Style have soul? Hancock, Boston, proves it's possible.
  • Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic: Residential? Nearly a century later, Villa Tugendhat still stands as Van der Rohe's most revolutionary yet practical design. It is far from perfect, but the ideas Van der Rohe developed here would find their way into decades of homes and buildings around the world. Non-residential? This is a tough one, but I have to go with I.M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid. I know plenty hated it when it came out, but it grew on nearly all but the grouchiest of critics. It's not just the beauty of function and function of beauty of the Pyramid, but the bold statement it made reiterating to the world that Paris was not only the the leader of the arts by tradition, but would continue to be such now and in the future (whether or not one agrees with the statement). I love it.
  • V.C. Morris Shop, 140 Maiden Lane, San Francisco, California: Prior to 1955 before the building had wear and tear, the shop was a hidden diamond, just off of Union Square in San Francisco. A Frank Lloyd Wright gem.
  • Cincinnati Union Terminal: I love Cincinnati Union Terminal and arch construction and all the mosaics. The exterior gets me every time. Whether you're just driving by or walking in the front or wandering inside, it's an experience. It takes you back to a simple time where there were big ideas.
  • Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas may be the best example of modern architecture's ability to innovate within a valued historical tradition, using both modern and timeless technologies and materials to merge building program, context and situational constraints into a seamless, near-perfect vision. Web link: http://www.thorncrown.com/
  • San Francisco: The TransAmerican Building (or the Pyramid building) is so beautiful and certainly defines the San Fransisco skyline.
  • Toronto City Hall: Viljo Revell's two curved towers with the "flying saucer" between them, Toronto's City Hall since 1965, is my favorite modern building. Its architectural style is classified by Emporis.com as "futurism" but it is my choice for most unique building of the 20th century.
  • The National Parliament, Bangladesh: The National Parliament building is one of the greatest buildings of modern architecture. Louis Kahn's spectacular design and concept of free space made it wonderful. To me it is one of the greatest architectural monuments of the world. And it should be enlisted in the top chart.