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

Spain 2011
In southern Spain, just outside of the city of Granada is a vast compound of ancient buildings.

Known as the Alhambra, it is a conglomeration of 13th and 14th century palaces and gardens, the most spectacular and significant being from the days of the Moorish rule of southern Spain. The Alhambra is a breathtaking example of Islamic architecture; beautiful detailed decoration,

arched windows and colonnades,

fountains and mirror lakes,

and formal gardens.

Everywhere there is beauty. The whole place is simply astonishing, and in the way of all palaces and palace complexes, the Alhambra is truly magnificent.

From the south of Spain to the north, to Barcelona.
There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners. Antoni Gaudi.
It feels as if I’ve known about the work of Antoni Gaudi all my life. Certainly I learned about, and saw pictures of his buildings in high school art classes when I was a teenager and was immediately captivated. There is nothing ordinary about his work; it is all inventive, and incredibly creative, and magical. Every part of a building was a place for art.

Casa Batllo, an urban mansion built for the Batllo family in1904-06. The exterior,

and a glimpse of the interior.

Casa Mila, an apartment building known as La Pedrera, built in 1905-10. The exterior,

chimneys and air vents,

and the lobby.

Gaudi was responsible for the design and construction of other unique private homes in Barcelona, but the most astonishing of Gaudi’s buildings has to be the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia.

It almost defies description. The scale is enormous – 4500 square meters of interior space. The interior design is heartbreakingly beautiful, and the energy one of grace and blessing, even with hundreds of people wandering around in there. We were both completely stopped by the sheer beauty of this most reverent and unique expression of Gaudi’s astonishing creativity, spiritual vision, and passion.

It was begun in 1882. Since Gaudi’s death in 1926 different architects have continued with the building following Gaudi’s ideas; retired architects and builders volunteer their time. It is hoped the exterior will be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

My pictures of the interior don’t give any sense of the enormous size of the space, and the feeling of both spaciousness, and intimacy. Gaudi’s intention was that all the columns would give the impression of being in a forest, and there is the feeling of the cathedral-like nature of a forest, but there is also this huge open space in the centre with the altar at one end. The place is enormous without feeling cavernous. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or not, it doesn’t even matter if you’re religious or not, Gaudi’s basilica is one of the great gifts to the world.

Egypt 2015
Arab proverb: Man fears time. Time fears the pyramids. The pyramids were royal, revered burial monuments dominating the Plains of Giza far from the city. Insistent, unassailable, undeniable, sacred. Several thousand years later the pyramids still inspire awe. Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stone were cut and assembled to create the Great Pyramid of Khufu. It is an almost unimaginable feat. And that is for only one of the pyramids. There are two more of almost equally monumental size standing next to it, and several smaller pyramids throughout Egypt. There is nothing in the world like them.

Guatemala 2017
From Sagrada Familia, one of the grandest cathedrals in the world, to a modest village church. In San Pedro Las Huertas, a short distance from Antigua, we are impressed by the bold colour and beautiful Baroque details of the local church.

Japan 2018 and 2019
About two hours by train from Tokyo is the town of Nikko, and near Nikko there is an extensive UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of two shrines and a temple, with a total of over 100 buildings. The star of them all is the Tōshō-gū Shrine. The imposing entrance to the shrine is the Yomeimon Gate, symbolizing the passage from the mundane into the sacred. One should not pass lightly through a gate such as this, but these days most people do.

In 1950 a disturbed young monk burned down the five-hundred–year-old Rokuon-ji Temple in Kyoto. In 1955 it was rebuilt as a close replica of the original. Today the temple is known as Kinkaku-ji, or the The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Even having seen photos before hand, I am still not prepared for the shimmering splendour of it. I think the young troubled monk did us all a favour. I looked at photos of the building that he burnt down. It had lost almost all of its gold leaf and the old wooden building seemed ramshackle at best. The replacement, built in 1955 is a perfect little gem and an exquisite example of Japanese beauty.

Kiyomizudera Temple, one of the most celebrated sites in Japan, was founded in 778 CE. Spread gracefully over the side of a mountain in eastern Kyoto the temple comprises thirty Buddhist buildings. Most of the temple buildings have been burned to the ground and rebuilt time and time again. Those that still stand date from the 1600’s, a testament to the perseverance of the faithful, and the deeply held recognition of the site as sacred.

China 2018
It’s a three-hour hike from the road up the side of Emei Mountain, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, to Hongchunping Temple. The temple buildings, all weathered wood and grey slate tiles, have a timeless sense of belonging, as if the mountain has embraced them. It is a serene space with the patina of age highlighted by freshly painted decorative details.

From the top of the ancient city walls that surround the old city of Xi’an one can look down on the Yongning International Art Museum, an exquisite example of traditional Chinese architecture.

The Forbidden City. For a start it’s huge! Within the walls there are 980 separate buildings, all built in the same style, with over 8700 rooms. The entire complex covers over 180 acres, which is the size of about 136 football fields. The enclosing rectangular wall is eight metres high and beyond that is a moat six metres wide and 52 metres deep. For hundreds of years it was the closely guarded enclave of a very select few, catering to the whims and wishes of the emperor, the most important person in the land.

Canada 2018
Inaugurated in 1847, Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal is recognized as one of Canada’s outstanding heritage buildings. It is the headquarters of the Québec Crafts Council, as well as housing restaurants and boutiques featuring top-quality “made in Québec” creations such as crafts, fashions, accessories and jewellery, and reproduction Quebec furniture.

France 2019
You can see the steeples that loom above this glorious 13th-century building almost immediately you leave the train station, one a Gothic frivolity, the other austere Romanesque.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is built on the highest point in the area, a site that has been a place of worship since ancient times. There was a Celtic temple, a Roman temple, then five – five! – cathedrals since Chartres became a Bishopric in the fourth century. The cathedral that stands today was built from 1205 to 1270. We were held in thrall by this extraordinary building for almost two hours. There are the two contrasting steeples, flying buttresses, hundreds of sculpted figures depicting theological themes and stories, and both Romanesque and High Gothic sculpted portals. And that’s just the exterior.

The interior takes my breath away with its soaring beauty; it is almost a transcendent experience. This is, of course, exactly what the architects of the Gothic style were hoping to achieve.

One day nearing sunset, on our ramblings around Paris, we come across the metal and glass beauty of the newly restored Le Carreau du Temple, a classic example of 19th century French construction. Originally a covered clothes market, today it hosts events, fairs and short exhibitions.

Sacré Coeur sits like a confection of white meringue against the sky. This Roman Catholic Basilica is located on the summit of the highest point in Paris, the Mount of Martyrs (Montmartre), a place that has been a site of worship since the time of the Druids. It was built between 1875 and 1919.

It’s about a twenty-minute walk from Sacré Coeur to St Denys-la-Chapelle, the Chapel of St Denis, situated on the spot where he died. How he got there is the stuff of legends. The original Christian chapel on Montmartre was built in about 270 CE to honour St Denis who was the first Bishop of Paris. The story goes that after he was beheaded by the Romans, St Denis picked up his head and carried it on a twenty-minute stroll while his mouth gave a complete sermon. With the sermon over he closed his mouth and fell down dead never to rise again. And today on that spot sits the chapel that honours him.

It took a long time and many visits for Galeries Lafayette to get to the top of my Paris wish list. I didn’t understand why a department store would be a tourist attraction. Back in 1893 two cousins decided to establish a novelty store on Rue La Fayette. They called it Aux Galeries Lafayette. It was a great success, and after the purchase of several adjacent buildings and years of refurbishing, the ambitious and enormous Galeries Lafayette was officially opened in 1912. The architects designed the Art Nouveau store around a glorious neo-Byzantine 43-metre high dome. When I finally see it, it literally takes my breath away. I hardly know how to hold such splendour. How does one take it in, this artistic and creative brilliance? I can only stare in gratitude for such beauty. If all department stores looked like this I might go shopping more often.

In 2008 I go inside Notre Dame de Paris and shuffle along behind a few hundred other tourists. My only photos of that time are of the stained glass windows, and I have no memory of actually seeing the interior. We didn’t climb the tower because of the long line-up. On our 2019 visit I’m determined to see inside no matter how long I have to wait. It’s winter in Paris; there is no line-up! How sad and appalled I was by the fire just two months after we were there that has seen the closing of the cathedral until further notice. How lucky and grateful I am that I finally got to see the glorious interior, and climb the tower before that happened. May this Gothic grand dame of cathedrals be repaired soon and be better than ever. May the repairs be a gigantic perfect piece of kintsugi!

Malaysia 2020
The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building in Kuching was opened in 2009 and dominates the riverbank. The building is a nine-pointed star with a roof echoing that of a traditional Malaysian royal umbrella, a cultural icon of both Kuching and Sarawak.

Next post: New Westminster’s Columbia Street Festival – street performers, music, and foooooood! It’s an annual food truck festival. Best lobster roll! Best gelato!

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.