Zooming around with jet packs and living in rocket-shaped buildings seemed our destiny during the space-age-obsessed 1950s and '60s. With civilian space travel now nearly a reality, how do today's starry-eyed architects see the future?
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Well, it turns out a survey of morphing city skylines reveals abstract structures inspired by nature or cultural symbols and engineered to reach higher, glow brighter, curve, and swoop.
These futuristic buildings are not only visually arresting, they offer novel solutions to the challenges that lie ahead, such as harvesting water from clouds and creating high-rise rooftop forests. They also give us a glimpse of what our future holds—for the moment, at least. If only someone could get to work on those jet packs.
Tjuvholmen Icon Building, Oslo
Renzo Piano designed this arts and culture center, which debuted in 2012 along a disused harbor southwest of Oslo’s city center. Bridges link three buildings—a museum, office space, and culture center—across canals formed from reclaimed land, and a sculpture park gently slopes toward the sea.
The entire project is developed along a new promenade that starts at Aker Brygge and ends on the sea at a floating dock, providing unbroken visual contact with the water. It looks, from above, like a docked spaceship, with a curved roof that dips down to meet the parklands.
Palazzo Lombardia, Milan
Milan's Garibaldi-Repubblica district got an infusion of 21st-century cool when this ecofriendly curvilinear office tower was completed in 2011. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the 525-foot-high building connects light-filled office space with outdoor areas.
The largest of the public spaces, Piazza Città di Lombardia, is covered by a roof composed of transparent “pillows” made from ETFE film (a fluorine based plastic), while other high tech/environmentally sensitive features include green roofs, active climate walls—two layers of separated glass containing rotating vertical blades to provide shade while maximizing transparency—and a geothermal heating system.
Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas
Opened in December 2012, this 180,000-square-foot facility, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, is itself a feat of scientific ingenuity. His firm Morphosis Architects set a goal of creating an attractive urban environment that also adheres to green principles.
Hence features like a 54-foot, continuous-flow escalator contained in a glass-enclosed, tube-like structure that extends outside the building—along with landscaping (courtesy of Talley Associates) that includes a roofscape planted with drought-tolerant species, an interactive water feature, and a “Leap Frog Forest” of glowing amphibians.
Galaxy Soho Building, Beijing
Given China’s reputation for bold and speedy construction, it’s no surprise that 2012 marked the arrival of this cool new building in the capital city of Beijing. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid—the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize—this 18-story office, retail, and entertainment complex consists of four domed structures connected by bridges and platforms, crafted from aluminum, stone, glass and stainless steel. Inspired by nature, the flowing lines and organic forms create a lusciously harmonious effect.
The Crystal, London
This dynamic, low-rise glass building—touted as one of the world’s greenest at its 2012 unveiling—hosts the largest exhibition on urban sustainability. Set in the Royal Victoria Docks, the heart of London's new Green Enterprise District, the building is inspired by crystalline forms, a reference both to “a multi-faceted urban world” and the Crystal Palace built for London's Great Exhibition in 1851, which showcased the latest technology from the Industrial Revolution. The Crystal’s present-day innovations include rainwater harvesting, black water treatment, solar heating, and charging stations for electric cars.
Burj Khalifa, Dubai
The world’s tallest building opened in early 2010 and remains one of the most talked-about structures. Why? Not only is the Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building (2,716.5 feet), it’s also the tallest free-standing structure, with the highest number of stories, the highest occupied floor, the highest outdoor observation deck, and an elevator with the longest travel distance in the world.
Then there’s the show-stopping architecture: a tower comprising three elements arranged around a central core, inspired by the spider lily and courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with consulting designer Adrian Smith. A Y-shaped floor plan shows off views of the Persian Gulf, and when seen from above, the building echoes the onion dome motif prevalent in Islamic architecture.
Ordos Museum, China
The copper-toned metal exterior and undulating shape of the Ordos Museum reflect the surrounding Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia. It’s the brainchild of the Beijing-based architectural firm MAD, known for fluid designs and imaginative urban solutions. The company intended the large-scale museum as “the irregular nucleus” for Ordos, a newly developed town that, as of 2011, already has its first architectural icon.
W57 Pyramid, New York City
Bjarke Ingels, head architect at the Danish firm BIG, has taken on his first North American project: W57 Pyramid, a 600-unit residential building between 10th and 11th avenues. Changing according to the vantage point, it appears as a kind of squashed pyramid from the West Side Highway side, and as a slender spire from West 58th Street. The high-rise is designed around an outdoor green space, and each apartment has natural daylight. Or as Ingels puts it: “The building is conceived as a crossbreed between the Copenhagen courtyard and the New York skyscraper—the communal intimacy of the central urban oasis meets the efficiency, density, and panoramic views of the tall tower in a new hybrid typology.”
Launch Date: 2015
The National Museum of Qatar, Doha
Qataris have high hopes for their tiny nation-state’s future as a cultural destination, with the National Museum of Qatar as its crown jewel. The original museum opened in 1975 in a restored palace built by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani; French architect Jean Nouvel is giving it a makeover inspired by the surrounding desert rose (crystallized sand that forms just below the desert surface). The series of buildings will consist of intersecting discs resembling petals, all clad with glass fiber-reinforced concrete panels, an effect both starkly geometric and lyrical.
Launch Date: 2014
Wine Museum, Lavaux, Switzerland
For sheer audacity, nothing beats these plans for a monument to the Lavaux wine-making region. Swiss firm Mauro Turin Architectes envisions cantilevering the museum from the side of a mountain overlooking the historic vineyards (some of which date back to the 11th century)—a feat of engineering those ancient vintners would surely never have imagined. Visitors will walk along a glass and steel walkway jutting from a rock in the mountainside, with glass sides creating unbroken views over the vineyards and out to Lake Geneva.
Launch Date: TBD
See more of the world’s most futuristic buildings.