Recently, I set myself the modest challenge to list the ten most joyous buildings I’ve ever seen. By joyous I mean in the simple sense that they make me feel happy. I love looking at them. They bring me a sense of delight, or elation, or contentment. I see the fingerprints of God all over beautiful design, no matter the motivation of their designer, and for me magnificent architecture, like all great art, draws me nearer to God.
The Celts believed that the veil between heaven and earth was three feet thick. But in thin places, they said, the veil has worn through. Heaven seems closer. They used the term to describe rugged, breathtaking places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky outcrops of Croagh Patrick. But for me meditating in the Cathedral of Brasilia or the Rothko Chapel is a thin place. As is laughing at Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or the nuttiness of Habitat 67.
Sometimes I’ve stumbled upon thin places in great architecture. Like finding the SR Crown Hall in Chicago. I hadn’t expected to be so touched by it’s elegance and simplicity. Other times, I’ve gone looking for a certain building, knowing it is famed for its transcendence, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Some of the buildings listed here I see every day. Some, I’ve seen just once. But all of them are truly beautiful.
I believe God transcends time and space, yet we seek God in very specific places and at very specific times. But if God is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Indigenous peoples of Australia wonderfully put it, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin? Maybe great design serves the purpose of bringing us to attention, of opening our eyes, and nailing our feet to the floor, insisting we be present, truly present to the divine.
Here’s ten buildings that have brought me joy.
The Enriquez House, Sydney
This house is in my neighborhood and I look at it every day as I drive over the Spit Bridge on my way home. As a kid I used to look up at it from my uncle’s boat and wonder what it was like inside. It’s the Teacup House (Stan Symmonds, 1964), also known as the Spaceship House or the Enriquez House (after the current owner). Symmonds himself described its design as ‘vendome’, a reference to Vendome Jewellery, a brand from the 40s to 70s that was known for high-end stones. The window frames are so huge because they represent the prongs that hold the jewel. His intention was to make a statement on the home being the jewel of life. They say a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and this little house has been bringing me joy nearly my whole life.
Fallingwater, Mill Run
I took my wife to Fallingwater for her birthday back in 2010. It’s a marvelous experience because Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of manipulating the scale of a space. It feels claustrophobic at first, but as you move in, the rooms reveal themselves. The scale changes, there are streams of light, the rooms feel vast even when, on paper, they are fairly modest in size. The great room on the ground floor seems to hover over Bear Run River and the 30 foot waterfall. Cantilevers; the stone hearth; the Japanese influences; it’s all sublime.
The Rothko Chapel, Houston
Designed by Philip Johnson in 1971, the Rothko Chapel is an octagonal non-denominational chapel in the suburbs of Houston. It has an eerie effect on you. On its eight walls are fourteen large, black but colour-hued paintings by the abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko. On first entering, it looks a little underwhelming, but I forced myself to sit there for an hour or so in open-eyed prayer and the impact of the space slowly works on you. Johnson wanted it to convey “a stillness that moves,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. Meditative, spiritual, peaceful, unnerving.
The Cathedral of Brasilia
The Cathedral of Brasilia was designed by my favourite architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and completed in 1960. You enter the church by descending a large ramp into a dark underground antechamber before rising into the cathedral and being swept up into its soaring, light-filled sanctuary with angels floating overhead. Niemeyer was a communist and an atheist, but he knew the Christian story and designed a building where believers are ‘baptised’ or ‘buried’ as they enter the cathedral and rise into the sanctuary to be ‘born again’ every Sunday.
The Dancing House, Prague
I don’t generally like postmodern architecture but the Dancing House in Prague just makes me smile every time I look at it. It is just so ridiculously out of place in its old Art Noveau neighborhood. Designed by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry in 1996, it comprises two towers resembling a dancing couple (Gehry referred to them as “Fred and Ginger”), and features 99 differently-shaped adjoined facade panels, and every room in the building is asymmetrical. It is completely, utterly bonkers!
Seattle Central Library
I arrived in Seattle late one night, went straight to my hotel room and threw open the curtains to be confronted by the strangeness of the Seattle Central Library. At night, it looks like a spaceship has landed in downtown Seattle. Designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2004, the 11-story library features a “Books Spiral,” where the collection spirals up through four stories on a continuous series of shelves (so as not to break up the Dewey Decimal System classification onto different floors or sections). It’s fun, functional, and at night it’s kinda cosmic.
The Sydney Opera House
You might have guessed that sooner or later I would include the most famous building in all Australia. The Sydney Opera House was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and opened in 1973. As a kid I toured the construction site for a school excursion. One of our daughters has performed there. And, of course, we’ve seen countless concerts there (including opera). I really love it. In fact, I can’t even imagine my hometown without this gorgeous, elegant, playful masterpiece dominating the cityscape.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg
I just so happened to be in Winnipeg when the Antoine Predock–designed Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened in 2014. I loved it as soon as I saw it. With its limestone ramparts, layers of curved glass, and tower of hope, the CMHR evokes the wings of a dove — the symbol of peace — enfolding itself. Why Winnipeg? Well I asked, and they told me the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 deeply affected the evolution of the Canadian civil rights movement, particularly the advancement of Aboriginal peoples, women, French speakers and workers. Cool.
S R Crown Hall, Chicago
I find this building so elegant and peaceful, I could look at it for ages. Intended as the College of Architecture building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed it as a simple, open hall with a suspended roof and no interior columns. And yet for all the glass and steel it feels warm and inviting. It definitely follows the modernist dogma, “less is more.” In fact, van der Rohe once described the building as “almost nothing.”
Habitat 67, Montreal
Habitat 67 was designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban neighbourhoods. He wanted to see if prefabricated modular units could be used to create beautiful low cost homes and got it built in time for the World Expo in Montreal, 1967. The result is this zany, whacky mess of stacked concrete “boxes” in variant geometrical configurations. Public housing never looked so good. Hilarious and clever.