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Extraordinary, iconic, and unusual buildings; a collection of images from around the world

Japan 2018
Ainokura. In a remote valley surrounded by mountains are three historic villages. The Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama regions get the third-highest average annual snowfall in the world, so the traditional houses have very steep roofs. Most began life as simple farmhouses and many are still occupied. Walking through the villages I feel as if I’ve landed in a fairy tale or the setting for a fantasy novel about another world. The wood and thatch houses hug the land as if they have always been there, strong, stable, and comforting. They are surrounded by sweet gardens and an aura of love.

Tokyo. The mirror building, a shopping mall, is everything I’d expected from having seen a gazillion pictures of it on the Internet. It must be one of the most photographed buildings in Japan, and rightly so. It’s quite extraordinary. The entrance is a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria, a tunnel of mirrors at all angles that creates a surreal fanciful hallucination, and if you look closely at the first photo down at the bottom on the right you can see the street.

Tokyo. The Audi Forum seems impossible. And perhaps it is. It was completed in 2006, but I notice that all the windows from top to bottom are draped inside with black plastic, and there is a railing across the front of it. Maybe they’re just renovating. I can’t find any recent information other than it’s reported on Yelp that the building is closed. Either way it’s one of the most unusual buildings I’ve ever seen, and is (was?) justifiably a noted Tokyo landmark.

Italy 2011
Italy is full of beautiful cathedrals, and we went to six of them, each spectacular in its own way. In Milan we had no idea! We were going to meet a friend. We hadn’t thought of the cathedral, or even really knew there was one, but we stepped out of the metro and there it was right in front of us – so unexpected and magnificent. We both went WOW! at the same time.

We made plans to meet friends in Orvieto for the day, arranging to meet in front of the duomo. We drove from Tuscany, but had no idea where the duomo was, so just kept driving, deeper into the town, up and up, over narrower and narrower roads, eventually following signs to the duomo. And suddenly there it was. Right in front of us. It took our breath away with its completely unexpected grandeur and beauty.

India 2012
Jama Masjid is the biggest mosque in Delhi. It was built in the 1650’s at a cost of one million rupees. It has three great gates and two 40-metre high minarets constructed with strips of red sandstone and white marble. The courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 people. It’s a very imposing building, which, as with most religious buildings, seems to be the point.

Agra. The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife; it also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. The opening photo was taken in the evening light from across the river behind it. Even the main gate is spectacular!

And the mausoleum itself? It is as beautiful and magnificent as all the hype; a resplendent offering to love.

Jaipur. The Amber Fort and palace was commissioned by one of the Rajput Maharajas in the late 1500’s with successive rulers adding to it. One of the Maharajas apparently had 25 wives, 60 “girlfriends” and 150 children. It reminds me of one of the Chinese emperors who literally died of too much of a good thing. Either way this fort and palace is a pretty spectacular legacy of the times. To give you an idea of the size those tiny bits of colour on the far right of the photo are elephants going up the ramps.

Vietnam 2013
Cao Dai is a Vietnamese religious movement that incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism. Their aim is for universal peace and harmony. Their Great Temple, about an hour from Ho Chi Minh City is a wonder to behold. So is their daily service complete with chanting and traditional Vietnamese music. And they’re willing to let hoards of tourists wander through the entrance halls and upper balconies during the service. It was riveting. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Myanmar 2013
This is Karaweik Palace, a major Yangon landmark. It was built from 1972 to 1974 so it’s not some ancient archaeological wonder, just a modern fantastical wonder. The building mainly contains a buffet served with traditional dance performances. We wanted to go but it was fully booked.

On our last evening in Bagan we climbed, just before sunset, to the top of one of the biggest pagodas. In every direction thousands of pagodas dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. So many of them! The mind can hardly take it in; the sheer numbers and scale of it. For about 250 years, between the 11th and 13th centuries, the rulers and wealthy subjects of the Bagan Empire built over ten thousand pagodas, temples and monasteries. Mainly due to earthquakes “only” something over two thousand remain. Well let me tell you, two thousand is plenty! Two thousand is mind-boggling. They dot the landscape like something from another world, both insistent and ethereal.

At the Phaung Daw U Pagoda at Inle Lake there are five lumpy gold Buddha’s, sitting in the middle of a big “stage”. Men have been placing so much gold leaf on them for so long, in prayer, supplication, devotion, hope, yearning, reverence, and maybe even in surrender, that the original forms are no longer recognizable. They are lumpy piles of gold, in a splendiferous setting complete with whirling and flashing lights and beautiful altar offerings. If you google Phaung Daw U Pagoda there’s plenty about the lumpy Buddhas and about a festival the pagoda is host to, but little about the building itself.

Turkey 2015
We wander for hours in searing heat around the ancient ruins of Ephesus, a city that was once second only to Rome. There is much that we take for granted that they also had – glass containers, ceramics, indoor heating, complex water systems for homes and fountains, even public toilets. I’m always astonished by how advanced ancient civilizations were. The greatest treasure of Ephesus is the magnificent Celsus Library. It once held twelve thousand scrolls and was the third largest ancient library. We are suitably impressed by its magnificence, grand beauty, and cool interior.

Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is an enormous underground reservoir built in 532 CE as a water storage system. Three hundred and thirty-six marble and granite columns, nine-metres high, support the domed roof; it has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, which was transported via aqueducts from a forest nineteen kilometres away. We have no idea what to expect. We descend into an eerie golden darkness. As our eyes adjust to the light we see before us a cavernous space, multiple soaring columns and a rich orange light, all of which is reflected in the water. The whole effect is startlingly beautiful.

The Suleymaniye Mosque sits atop one of Istanbul’s seven hills, dominating the skyline, an unmistakable iconic landmark for the entire city. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, it was built in the 1550’s, and although it is not the biggest of the Ottoman mosques, I am still impressed by its size and splendour. The interior is one of golden spaciousness and soaring beauty.

The Byzantine cathedral of Ayasofya is the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey. In all of Turkey. In popularity it outranks all other museums, Topkapi Palace, Ephesus, the Blue Mosque, and the extraordinary landscapes of Cappadocia and Pamukkale. It was built 1500 years ago as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in what was then Christian Constantinople. Its dome is second only in size to the Pantheon in Rome and soars 55 metres (180 ft) above the marble floor. It is truly epic in size; unfortunately the interior has the sad feeling of grimy neglect.

Sultanahmet Camii is known as the Blue Mosque because of the hand-made blue tiles covering the walls of the interior. We enter a huge, silent, and serene space. It is overwhelming in its beauty, comparable to any of the grand temples and cathedrals of the world. There are only a few people inside when we first enter, and in such an enormous space it feels as if we have the place to ourselves. I stand awed, slowly taking in the spacious whole, and the gorgeous details. Light streams in through the many stained glass windows. It is glorious.

Jordan 2015
Petra. After walking two kilometres through a narrow canyon we finally emerge into an open space. Al Khazneh, known as the Treasury, stands before us with its clean Hellenistic lines. It is like an epiphany, and surely the most spectacular and astounding sight in all of Jordan. The Treasury, carved directly from the rock, was the tomb of King Aretas III, and displays the extraordinary engineering skills of the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled in the area more than two and a half thousand years ago.

There is an ageless rock-cut path of more than eight hundred steps, the processional route to The High Place of Sacrifice of this ancient civilization. It leads up in the hills where the views are glorious, and where the Ad-Deir Monastery is hidden away. It is one of the great monuments of Petra, another grand Nabataean tomb, similar in design to the treasury but much bigger.

Egypt 2015
Luxor is the Egyptian city that lies atop the ancient city of Thebes. From about 1500 to 1000 BCE it was one of the most spectacular cities in Egypt. Its big draw today is the great temple at Karnak, which I still remember learning about in art classes in school, and was thrilled to finally see in person. Pictured, Luxor Temple, which was built to celebrate ancient Egypt’s Opet Festival, was connected to Karnak by an avenue of 700 sandstone sphinxes, many of which still survive.

Mexico 2016-17
The magnificent pyramid of Kukulcan, the serpent god, is the most iconic structure at Chichén Itzá, and dominates the site. It was used for religious ceremonies including human sacrifice. The Maya believed that the sacrificial victim would bypass the dark and treacherous underworld and thus be able to go directly to Tamoanchan, a place of misty sky and beautiful flowers. I guess the promise of heaven made it a little easier on the victim.

In marked contrast to the ancient pyramid of Chichen Itza is La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the parish church of San Miguel de Allende. Its soaring pink towers dominate the town square. Zeferino Gutiérrez, a stonemason with no formal training in architecture, designed the towering pinnacles in the late 19th century. Apparently he based his design on a postcard image of a Belgian gothic church, and instructed his builders by scratching plans in the dirt with a stick. What he created must be one of the most beautiful and magical churches in the world.

Thanks to Toff Bolton, who commented on the post Just One Person for the suggestion to do this post. I have so many buildings to share that in a few weeks I’ll do a second post.

*Frank Lloyd Wright

Next post: Vancouver urban wildlife – coyotes, racoons, squirrels, herons, and much more.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.