“Fuelled by the wave of modernism and the rise of fantasy in popular culture, the mid-century space race would backdrop a new breed of innovative design talent, who took extraterrestrial inspiration as a cue to push preconceived boundaries.”
In a much-quoted muse on faith, turn-of-the-century poet Gilbert K. Chesterton scribed the words, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” The buildings of Chesterton’s times were grandiose and stately; but even in the limitless fantasies and mythology he pondered, the writer could surely never have contemplated the space-age architecture we’ve grown accustomed to today.
It’s true that architects and visionaries had pushed the envelope of design long before the dawn of the 1900s, but as art and architecture continued to collide under the guidance of modernist pioneers like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, in the decades that followed the manmade landscape was changed forever. Fuelled by the wave of modernism and the rise of fantasy in popular culture, the mid-century space race would backdrop a new breed of innovative design talent, who took extraterrestrial inspiration as a cue to push preconceived boundaries. And, by the mid-1970s, nothing in design was out of bounds.
Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, along with Gianfranco Franchini, saw their extravagant Centre Georges Pompidou completed in 1977 – Rogers later defined its inside-out style with the Lloyd’s building, completed in 1986. By the 1990s, boundaries would be shifted again with the advent of a movement called deconstructivism, architects like Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind taking the art to new, distorted heights.
Dramatic, otherworldly, unconventional to a new extreme – only one thing can now be supposed: in 2017, ‘there are no rules of architecture’. To castles in clouds and beyond…
1. MMM (Messner Mountain Museum) Corones by Zaha Hadid
“There are 360 degrees,” proclaimed Iraqi-British ‘starchitect’ Zaha Hadid in a 2003 interview, “so why stick to one?” Indeed. Hadid’s aesthetic was, and continues through her practice to be, the manifestation of extreme architecture. An architect that embraced artistic ideals, unafraid to defy convention for fear of not ticking boxes, there are plentiful Hadid buildings that could be called upon to represent bold movements in construction and design. However, this museum, perched 2,275m up on the edge of a plateau in Italy’s South Tyrol range, takes the biscuit for sheer spectacle.
The last of six mountaintop museums curated by the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, MMM Corones embodies Hadid’s renowned space-age appeal, but does so amid rugged terrain. It juts from an unforgiving landscape with drama and theatrical whimsy, a breathtaking viewing platform cantilevered over a valley at 2,275 metres above sea level. Extreme in aesthetic, extreme in setting.
The architect divided opinion during her lifetime, and the blueprint she set continues to do so today. One thing is for sure: her sci-fi approach to architecture has taken the art to an entirely new level. Whether the naysayers like it or not, Hadid’s bold ability to defy convention has been copied around the world, and the landscape of extreme architecture is all the more sensational for it.
2. Fordypningsrommet, Fleinvær by TYIN tegnestue Architects
Put together by TYIN tegnestue Architects, a young practice whose work is entwined with notions of sustainability and hyper-locality, Fordypningsrommet – north of the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian archipelago of Fleinvær – is a small series of houses-cum-shelters fuelled by creativity. Their founder, Norwegian composer and musician Håvard Lund, forms part of a culturally-aware committee who vet potential talent as to whether they qualify for a complimentary stay.
Hugging the island’s topography, the huts – built using Kebony (a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwood) – are minimal but contemporary, offering a mindful retreat for truly getting away from it all. No cars, no shops, plentiful chance to catch natural wonders like the Aurora Borealis, infinite peace. “This place is not about business, but health,” says Lund: words that will resonate as you walk down a private pier to a sauna in complete seclusion.
A world away from Hadid’s bold declarations, this artist’s retreat is a back-to-basics beauty where an unforgettable landscape encircles guests who attempt to reconnect with nature in its rawest capacity.
3. Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri
Noting the importance of the natural world in urban situations, Milan’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) is one of a rising number of architectural projects that encompass biodiversity, vegetation, and an urban ecosystem – architects and designers seeking to right the wrongs that urban settings have had on the environment at large.
Architect Stefano Boeri’s vertical integration of nature into the Milanese skyline operates in relation to policies for reforestation and naturalisation of large urban and metropolitan borders – two residential towers, of 110 and 76 metres in height, host 900 trees and over 20,000 plants, a wide range of shrubs and floral plants distributed according to the sun exposure of the façade. Extreme and beautiful, Boeri’s garden skyscraper not only beguiles in the form of spectacle, but also provides valid inspiration for others to bring nature into the urban environment.
Boeri recently announced plans for a similar project in the Chinese city of Nanjing, two neighbouring multipurpose towers that expand on his Milan concept. Boeri, though, is not stopping there. Oh no. “We have been asked to design an entire city,” the architect told The Guardian in February, “where you don’t only have one tall building but you have 100 or 200 buildings of different sizes, all with trees and plants on the façades. We are working very seriously on designing all the different buildings. I think they will start to build at the end of this year. By 2020 we could imagine having the first forest city in China.” Now that is extreme architecture.
4. Kunsthaus Graz by Sir Peter Cook and Colin Fournier
A founding member of Archigram – an avant-garde, neo-futurist architecture collective from the 1960s – British architect, professor and writer Sir Peter Cook has been a significant figure within the international architectural world for more than half a century. In collaboration with architect Colin Fournier, Cook’s biomorphic behemoth on the bank of the river Mur, in the southern Austrian city of Graz, is one of the planet’s most fascinating museums. Kunsthaus Graz is a bulbous brute of unrefined beauty.
Referred to locally as the ‘friendly alien’, the multi-disciplinary cultural venue is most definitely otherworldly – a quirky reminder of the personality that can be injected into architecture. “It’s rather amusing going up this very ordinary thing and disappearing into the unknown,” Cook says of ascending the travelator that whisks you from street level to the floating alien. “The exhibit area is completely immersed in the unknown; it’s a mysterious space.” Higher still is the Needle, a walkout section that offers stunning views over Graz. “So the city is, in a sense,” Cook continues, “the museum’s primary exhibit”, reminding us of the importance of context in building design.
5. House for Essex by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture
Following on from Cook’s unabashed objection to convention, artist Grayson Perry’s collaboration with architectural practice FAT is an embodiment of the sort of thing that happens when art meets architecture. The national treasure was unrelenting in his flow of imagination, with the architects able to comply with every fanciful whim. A House for Essex, located in Wrabness near the banks of the River Stour, is a modern take on the traditional wayside pilgrimage chapel, conceived as a tribute to a fictional ‘secular saint’.
Commissioned as part of Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture programme, the eccentric abode is available for rentals – making the critically- and popularly-acclaimed artist’s outrageous ode to Essex one of the most singular stopovers in the world. Dedicated to the life of fictional working class hero Julie Cope, the idea dates back decades, Perry and his daughter imagining characters and sketching the houses they might live in. Finally brought to fruition, A House for Essex imbibes the notions of people from Essex; Perry’s long studies of class and character transposed to real-life architecture that screams extreme.
6. Museo Atlantico, Lanzarote, by Jason deCaires Taylor
Located just off the island of Lanzarote, Jason deCaires Taylor’s Atlantic Museum covers 2,500 square metres of ocean bed, accessible only to those willing to dive the 12 metres necessary to enter. Inside they are rewarded with a series of installations that challenge our wasteful, technological and selfish existence. More than an attraction for tourists, the underwater museum – Europe’s first – is a call to action.
Three years in the making, Museo Atlantico opened at the beginning of this year with a series of installations that focus on humanity and its uneasy connection to both nature and itself. There are those that address capitalism: Deregulated sees the corporate world’s arrogance toward nature typified by suited men in a children’s playground; a see-saw represents a petroleum extraction pump, and a dolphin ride speaks of the burden we place on marine species. Those that address the refugee crisis: The Raft of Lampedusa, a contemporary take on Géricault’s 1818 painting, is an eerie, motionless dinghy that pays tribute to those abandoned by society. Those that help us readdress our self-obsessed addiction to technology: Disconnected positions a selfie-taking couple next to the former work of human tragedy. And those that remind us of the absurdity of it all: Crossing The Rubicón consisting of a large group of hopeless figures heading for a doorway in a 30-metre-long, four-metre-high wall, nature flooding around this pitiable barrier.
DeCaires Taylor’s sculptures will attract corals, increase marine biomass and fish species, and divert tourists from fragile natural reefs – but for all the damage we do on land, it’s the futility of humanity examined here that is most intriguing. “We forget we are all an integral part of a living system at our peril,” states the artist. And let that be a reminder that the most extreme, most incredible and august architect is nature itself.
A traveller with a nose for curiosity, Lisa Davidson co-runs online culture-led travel magazine We Heart and has an insatiable appetite for the hidden corners of cities, long empty beaches and well-crafted cocktails.