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5 of the World’s Most Unique But Lesser Known Architectural Marvels

Truth be told, most of us recognize the names of sports stars, trashy reality television personalities and mass murderers far more than we do those of internationally acclaimed architects. 

At least in the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright may be the most well-known architect, but most Americans probably know more about handsome ‘70s serial killer Ted Bundy.  

That said, one need only gaze at some of these relatively obscure architect’s most impressive works to appreciate their splendor, regardless of whether we know (or care) who designed them in the first place. 

We’ve all heard of the Empire State Building in New York, Big Ben in London and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, but though the lesser known architectural marvels on this list may not match them in terms of history or scale, their innovative designs put them in a class unto themselves. 

Let’s take a look. 

The Dubai Frame 

The Dubai Frame is an architectural landmark in the city’s Zabeel Park that’s often referred to as the world’s biggest picture frame. 

Unlike traditional buildings that are solid throughout, the aptly named Dubai Frame does resemble a large picture frame, but instead of a painting or photograph residing between its sides, top and bottom, there’s nothing but empty space through which viewers are able to gaze at the impressive city spread beyond. 

Standing nearly 500 feet (150 m) tall and 310 feet (95 m) wide, the glass-clad, aluminum, steel and reinforced concrete structure frames approximately 160,000 square feet (14,400 m) of prime Dubai skyline, and it’s positioned in such a way to include numerous icons that represent both the city’s traditional and contemporary sides. 

The Frame was the brainchild of globally renowned architect Fernando Donis, founder of an architectural firm that bears his name with offices in multiple countries. 

Donis’ and his team have designed some of the world’s most noteworthy buildings over the last few decades, including the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing in 2002, the new Jeddah International Airport in Saudi Arabia, and the Dubai Renaissance tower, for which they won a number of prestigious awards. 

Donis’ design for the Dubai Frame was the winner of a competition initiated by German elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp and the government of Dubai in 2009, primarily to create “a new face for Dubai,” and to fill the large void which the open structure now occupies. 

According to Donis, early on in the design phase he realized that the city was already full of iconic structures, and rather than adding yet another that could end up getting lost in the crowd, he proposed a unique one that wouldn’t compete with the others directly, but pull them together. 

In addition, Donis’ design would celebrate the thriving desert city, while simultaneously and subtly constraining its propensity toward unchecked sprawl.

The groundbreaking design was selected from more than 900 entrants by a jury of 11 judges ranging from well-known international architects and the chairman of the International Union of Architects (UIA), to a regional executive from ThyssenKrupp, a local government official and a wealthy Sheik.

According to the terms of the contest, Donis was supposed to win $100,000, but as late as 2016 when construction was well under way, he still hadn’t been paid, and therefore filed suit against both the City of Dubai and ThyssenKrupp Elevator.

Donis’ suit claimed that he hadn’t received a contract or due compensation for his design, and that in essence he’d had his services and intellectual property stolen. 

By the time The Frame officially opened in January of 2018 Donis still hadn’t been paid, which led to a new moniker being coined – “The biggest stolen building of all time.” 

Cube Houses

When Piet Blom died in 1999 he was lauded as one of 20th century Europe’s most influential architects.

Born in Amsterdam in 1934, Blom studied at the city’s Academy of Arts and spent most of his working life designing eye catching non-traditional structures that turned much of what everyone thought they knew about architecture on its head. 

Though descriptions of Blom’s Cube Houses, or Kubuswoningen, range from kitschy must-miss tourist traps to far reaching architectural breakthroughs, even now they’re often cited as some of the continent’s most recognizable structures despite being designed and built four decades ago.   

The Kubuswoningen are located in the Oude Haven, one of Rotterdam’s most historic neighborhoods near the capital city’s port that was largely destroyed during the early years of the Second World War.

Even as late as the ‘70s much of the port was in dire need of rebuilding when Blom was enlisted to help redevelop the area and give it a decidedly less utilitarian and more contemporary feel. 

To this end, he strove to shatter the myth that a house needed to look like a house.

But though he was excited to put his concepts into action in Rotterdam, the project’s scale, prominence and construction challenges were constant sources of concern, as were ever present bureaucratic issues, a recession, and delays resulting from archaeological sites discovered while digging the foundations. 

Nonetheless, the undertaking, which in part consisted of more than three dozen bright yellow houses set on-point like diamonds tilted forward at more than 50 degrees, was completed in 1984. 

Each askew house was positioned atop a hexagonal pillar representing a trunk, whereas the living portion of the structure itself mimicked the upper foliage of a tree, which when viewed together made a kind of urban forest that bore stark contrasts to other nearby structures in form, texture and color.

The units themselves were built with traditional masonry, windows, roofing and siding, but the unique design gave the project a surprisingly small footprint which left expansive open areas underneath the apartments that made everything seem much more spacious than it really was.   

Each cube house or apartment contains a ground level entrance, three floors, and a small open rooftop area that many residents use for gardening and sunbathing. 

At just 1,100 square feet (102 square m), the homes are generally large enough for minimalist families, though due to the steeply angled ceilings and walls some of the area isn’t particularly usable. 

Alternately characterized as surrealist and cubist, the entire development consists of two other distinct sections including a 13-story apartment tower and other less dramatic cube inspired buildings.  

All told, the project contains 270 dwellings, dozens of shops, abundant walkways and public spaces, and parking for approximately 300 cars. 

The Interlace 

The Interlace Buildings in Singapore
The Interlace Buildings in Singapore by Jérémy Binard is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Interlace in Singapore is an expansive cutting edge residential development project spread across nearly 2 million square feet (180,000 square m) of some of the world’s most prime real estate.

Comprised of more than 1,000 apartments of varying sizes, when it was built more than a decade ago the project incorporated a number of innovative features not typically found in the area, including abundant green spaces with ample seating and plush landscaping, as well as bike and walking paths spread over an extensive greenbelt connecting both business, residential, retail and recreation areas.

Designed by German urbanist architect Ole Scheeren, principal of Büro Ole Scheeren Group with offices in Berlin, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, The Interlace won a coveted award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s inaugural worldwide Urban Habitat Award in 2014 in recognition for its contributions in social and urban sustainability.

Previously, design and architecture in Singapore was generally characterized by tall yet relatively isolated apartment towers that tend to exist semi-autonomously, and restrict rather than promote free movement. 

But by comparison, the Interlace’s non-traditional layout explores more cohesive and well-rounded approaches to metropolitan habitation that include elements of the natural and manmade worlds like had never before been done in the tropical urban setting. 

Together they’re located on a slightly elevated and treed 20 acre (8 hectare) tract bordered by some of the city’s busiest roads and expressways. 

The Interlace project is comprised of 31 individual apartment blocks, each of which is six stories tall, but unlike other more traditional buildings where each apartment block would be neatly stacked next to and on top of one another, Interlace’s units meet at both acute and obtuse angles that are both odd and aesthetically pleasing at the same time. 

By its nature the design creates numerous protrusions and overhangs that result in inviting spaces both above, below and amidst the units themselves. 

Together, the blocks are arranged hexagonally around eight expansive courtyards, and in many respects resemble what a child, yet unbound by convention, would make with wooden building blocks. 

Depending on the distance and angle from which they’re viewed, Interlace’s individual blocks are often shrouded in shade, awash in sunlight, or seemingly floating unsupported in space.

While maintaining the privacy of individual apartment units through the generous spacing of the building blocks, the design also features abundant communal spaces. 

Though standard apartment designs are more utilitarian and use space more efficiently, Interlace’s residents enjoy lifestyles that are the envy of many neighbors in towering buildings nearby. 

Of his own design, Scheeren said that it addressed shared social concerns in contemporary society while preserving elements of cohabitation and requisite privacy. 

What’s it all mean? 

Namely a hefty price tag, sometimes upwards of 5 million USD per unit. 

The Vessel 

By most standards, New York’s Hudson Yards sports some pretty impressive numbers. 

Tucked away on approximately 30 southern Manhattan acres (12 hectares) between Time Square to the north, Greenwich Village to the south, the Hudson River and New Jersey to the west, and the Empire State Building to the east, it’s a relatively new development project with a price tag purportedly north of $25 billion when land acquisition, design and construction costs are factored in – a figure that has even some of the most price-jaded New Yorkers scratching their heads.  

Hudson Yards features more than a dozen buildings, and though nearly all of them are taller and were designed by more well-known architects, it’s The Vessel – the unique structure located on a 5 acre (2 hectare) plot near the development’s epicenter – that’s stolen the spotlight in recent years. 

Built according to plans created by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, the intricate bronze-hued glass and steel inverted honeycomb building’s noncorrosive sheeting is naturally reflective and even mirror-like when polished, making it a particularly majestic sight on sunny days. 

The Vessel rises 16 stories above the ground below, and includes more than 150 flights of stairs, 80 landings, and 2,500 steps that visitors can climb all the way to the top if the elevator is already full. 

It’s been described by casual observers, architects, locals and tourists in both flattering and unflattering terms ranging from contemporary interactive sculpture to doner kebab and alien rib cage. 

But though The Vessel alone cost around $200 million, even before construction began it was shrouded in mystery and misinformation. 

Heatherwick beat out a number of other prominent designers during the initial phases of the project, but even after his plan was announced as the winner, The Vessel’s developer went to great lengths to keep it a secret. 

To that end, most of its largest component steelworks were fabricated thousands of miles away in northwest Italy in a construction yard surrounded by a massive fence erected to thwart gazes from nosy passers by.  

When the pieces were completed, they were then shipped to New York’s port, and ultimately by tug and barge down the Hudson to the construction site.

But though construction was similarly obscured in New York early on, eventually the form began to reveal itself. 

The Vessel resides squarely at Hudson Yard’s focal point, to which the eyes of all visitors are instantly drawn first, forcing them to take stock of what they’re seeing and spend a moment or two contemplating its splendor, or lack thereof, before moving on to other attractions. 

Perhaps Heatherwick group leader Stuart Wood summed The Vessel up best when he said, “It expands upward, the inversion of all the buildings around it.” 

And most agree that this inversion to which he refers creates a pleasant balance that probably would’ve been glaringly absent had the space been filled with yet another skyscraper. 

Sadly, due to its height and open construction, it’s been the site of multiple suicides over the past few years, and was temporarily closed in January of 2021 when another young man jumped to his death. 

Lotus Temple 

Designed by architect Fariborz Sahba, The Baha’i House of Worship, more commonly known as the Lotus Temple, is widely regarded as one of India’s most noteworthy examples of contemporary architecture. 

But ironically, Sahba isn’t an Indian, but an Iranian who in 1976 was selected by the Baha’i Faith’s international governing body to design the Lotus Temple – an undertaking that along with his role as project manager took more than a decade. 

The Lotus Temple is far from a household name in most corners of the globe, but as one of the world’s most visited religious sites it attracts over 3 million visitors annually from all nationalities, races, faiths and even castes.  

Located on a nearly 24 acre (9.7 hectares) plot near South Delhi’s Nehru Place, the colossal house of worship’s lotus-like form symbolizes a number of the  Baha’i Faith’s major tenets, namely simplicity, clarity, harmony and unity. 

With his design, Sahba sought to make a temple that was both acceptable and familiar to Indians, without relying on traditional architecture. 

To simplify this approach he settled on the elements of light, water, and the ubiquitous yet beautiful lotus flowers that are ever present symbols of tranquility and peace all across the East. 

The temple comprises three distinct rows of massive white petals that tower more than 110 feet (34 m) over the plain below. 

The concrete petals are clad by textured white marble panels, the innermost two rows of which curve inward forming a dome over the temple’s cavernous interior, while the outermost petals arch outward creating multiple porticos or canopies that ring the structure and mark each of its nine entrances.

The structure was designed with multiple translucent glazed skylights, through which sunlight passes much like it does through lotus petals, bathing the interior in soft warming light. 

The temple is also surrounded by nine vast reflecting pools over which visitors can approach from various directions on elevated walkways.

When viewed from a distance, these pools create the illusion that the temple itself is actually floating on the surface of a quiet pond, which lotus plants do in nature. 

Inside, the temple has a seating capacity of 2,200, but unlike other houses of worship on the subcontinent it’s free from statues, carvings, idols, photographs and priests. 

Inside, the interior floors are also covered with white marble and most of the stairs and walkways are finished in red sandstone which creates a pleasing contrast. 

The central hall has a diameter of 110 feet (34 m), nearly identical to its height directly over the podium that’s ringed by nine arches that provide most of the structure’s main support. 

Controlling temperature in a massive building in such a hot environment isn’t cheap or easy, but the temple’s design facilitates natural cooling when fresh air passes over the exterior pools and is drawn into the building’s basement before being pumped up into the temple itself. 

World-renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson described the Lotus Temple as “one of the most remarkable achievements of our time, proving that the drive and vision of spirit can achieve miracles.” 

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