It may be the grand palazzi lining Venice’s canals, the Pantone-coloured walls in Buenos Aires’ La Boca neighbourhood, the circular Maasai villages, the ancient beauty of Angkor Wat, the monumental pyramids of Egypt or the timeless serenity of the Taj Mahal.
No matter what building it is, even if you have no interest in angles and planes, let alone in architecture or engineering, it’s nigh impossible to travel anywhere without engaging with them in some significant way.
They are, after all, human artefacts, redolent of a specific place and imbued with stories that can make us celebrate being human or lead us to despair for our species. As Winston Churchill once remarked: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
With these thoughts in mind, we asked our most well-travelled writers to reflect on the one building, putting aside the most obvious candidates such as those above, that have left a profound impression.
As you’ll see, their choices are as varied physically as they are experientially. Most aren’t even particularly well-known and some are by no means monumental.
What they share in common is their power within four walls or more to change the perspective of the traveller fortunate enough to encounter and experience them. – Ute Junker
MATRIMANDIR, PONDICHERRY, INDIA
A visit to Matrimandir’s Inner Chamber takes three days to arrange. Photo: iStock
By Nina Karnikowski
“To lose patience is to lose the battle,” Mahatma Gandhi once said, words I found myself repeating like a mantra as I waited three days to enter the Matrimandir.
This 29-metre golden sphere marks the geographical heart of Auroville, a township of about 3300 people from more than 60 countries, living without money or ownership outside South India’s Pondicherry.
When my husband and I arrive in town earlier that week, we are told by the charming French manager of our bougainvillea-draped hotel that if we see only one thing in Pondy, it absolutely must be the Matrimandir. “It’s magnificent,” she gushed, “and … it will change you.”
We promise to go, expecting to jump in a tuk-tuk, zoom 20 minutes to Auroville, see this sacred contemplative space and be back at our hotel by lunch. Wrong.
Arriving in Auroville, we must first apply online to visit the Matrimandir’s Inner Chamber. If our application is accepted, we must then return the next day, in person, to pick up tickets. We can enter the day after that.
As complicated as this process sounds, it also renders the Matrimandir even more enticing. Patience, patience, patience. This is now a battle we want to win.
Finally, day three arrives. We congregate alongside two dozen other travellers in the Matrimandir gardens and are told it took 37 years to build, and that the creators took inspiration from the renowned Indian seer Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, The Mother, who founded Auroville in 1968.
After receiving strict instructions about not speaking or wearing shoes or touching anything, we are ushered inside.
The interiors are straight from a 1960s sci-fi film, with stark white marble walls and carpets, and a walkway snaking up the circular walls towards the Inner Chamber. Inside that all-white room is nothing but a glass globe, suffused by a single ray of sunlight falling from the ceiling.
As I sit and stare into that glowing orb for the 15 allotted minutes, the frustrations of the past three days melt away. Everything does, in fact.
Maybe it is the silence, maybe the Zen ambience; maybe the collective energy of the tens or possibly hundreds of thousands who have sat in that chamber over the years. But something shifted inside me on this day.
I swear I’ve been more patient ever since.
Entry to the Matrimandir’s Inner Chamber is free, and only available on Saturday mornings for outside visitors. Requests must be emailed via their website three days prior. See auroville.org
YOSHIDA-SANSO RYOKAN, KYOTO, JAPAN
Staying at Yoshida-Sanso is like checking into a museum or a samurai movie. Photo: Yoshida-Sanso Ryokan
By Brian Johnston
In a tourist world that venerates the new, luxurious and designer-led, I once found it easy to get carried away by the latest glass hotels with their rooftop bars and insta-arranged restaurants. But flash hotel buildings often are easily forgotten and can end up teaching you more about international corporate culture than local life.
It is Yoshida-Sanso, a ryokan, or traditional Japanese in Kyoto, that finally focuses my vague discontent. I don’t only check into a building here but into history and culture.
The former imperial villa is built of cedar wood, hunkers under copper roofs and has sliding windows that look onto gardens that encouraged my inner Zen.
Inside, tatami mats and calligraphy scrolls combine with unexpected art deco stained glass and lamps. Imperial chrysanthemums unfurl a motif on door handles and roof tiles.
This is like checking into a museum or a samurai movie, except that this gentle piece of Japanese culture is alive and well in the hands of kimono-clad owner Kyoko Nakamura and her daughter, Tomoko. They pour tea, present me with a poem and serve a multi-course kaiseki-style dinner that feels like a meditation.
We expect everything to be perfect in hotel buildings, but Yoshida-Sanso has wobbling wooden floors and paper walls. There’s no bling: ryokans are austere.
Low furniture is like a penance but my reward is the chance to be immersed in tradition and ritual, to see that its minimalism lies only in the physical building and its contents. The culture is rich and rewarding.
At Yoshida-Sanso I feel the crazily rushing world slow for two days. I did not know a building designed for mere accommodation could encourage living in the moment.
Since then I try to pick at least one hotel with architectural interest that goes beyond the predictable and predictably 21st century. I don’t want my hotels to be a blur of steel cubes and infinity pools. When I get an alternative I’m always rewarded.
Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso has three main-house tatami rooms and a stand-alone garden annexe. Rooms from $1320. Non-residents can book lunch or dinner, or visit the onsite Cafe Shinkokan. See yoshida-sanso.com
CAPE COAST CASTLE, CAPE COAST, GHANA
Millions of captives passed through here on their way to a life of slavery in America. Photo: iStock
By Catherine Marshall
This is a seemingly uncomplicated structure, a 17th-century castle put together with seashells and sea-sand, laterite and palm oil, sedimentary rocks and bricks carried as ballast in the ships lured here by West Africa’s vast riches.
Earlier iterations have long since dissolved beneath the bastions and spurs now anchored to the headland: the Portuguese feitoria, established as an ivory and gold trading post in 1555; the Swedish timber fort that subsumed it. What remains are subsequent expansions by the Danish, the Dutch and the British.
Darkness resides deep within this edifice, though it billows chastely against the sky, its lime-washed walls a benevolent beacon for ships at sea.
Decades ago, as a young student of African politics, I’d learned about these “slave castles” – around 40 of them – scabbing the shoreline of Cape Coast, today known as Ghana. Millions of West African captives passed through them on their way to a life of bondage in the Americas.
Their stories have long haunted me; though my ancestry on the African continent runs generations deep, I am an irrefutable beneficiary of imperialism. Now, descending beneath the castle’s lofty chapel into the diabolism of this most notorious of slave-hold’s dungeons, I’m finally able to absorb history at its source, pay my respects, bear witness.
“The Europeans were up [above] with their Bibles, and the Africans were suffering down here,” says guide Mark Tetteh.
He has closed the dungeon’s doors behind us and snuffed his torch, blinding me. I must intuit this castle’s soul, its spectre: the air displaced by lintels, the bodies compressed by ballasted bricks, the stone floor compacted with centuries of excreta, the chapel above bearing down like a demon.
Light infiltrates eventually, at the end of a passageway where the arched “Door of No Return” opens to the sea.
Shackled slaves would shuffle through this portal, turn to see Africa one last time, descend into the holds of waiting ships, voyage to their destiny. Did the jumble of fishing boats and swooping lapwings and radiant sky stay burned in their memories?
“The slaves did not get to return,” Tetteh says. “But their descendants are coming back. They come from the US, Jamaica, Brazil, Suriname.”
Others, like me, come not to mourn a savagery committed against our forefathers, but to reckon, if ever we can, with their unforgivable complicity.
Cape Coast Castle is around three-and-a-half hours by bus or car from Accra the Ghanian capital, and is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm. Tickets are $7 for adults. See visitghana.com/attractions/cape-coast-castle
MARINA BAY SANDS, SINGAPORE
Marina Bay Sands’ 150-metre rooftop infinity pool is an Instagram magnet. Photo: Stephen Chin
By Rob McFarland
Let’s start with the superlatives. When it opened in 2010, Marina Bay Sands (MBS) was reportedly the world’s most expensive standalone resort, costing $S8 billion ($8.26 billion).
The three-towered structure contained the world’s largest atrium casino and was topped by a 12,000 square metre observation deck that housed the world’s longest rooftop infinity pool — a 150-metre Instagram magnet — plus the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, a gravity-mocking structure that extended 65 metres beyond the towers.
As well as a 2561-room hotel, there were two theatres, a science museum, a luxury shopping mall and more than 60 dining options, including seven by celebrity chefs. From an engineering perspective, it was one of the most challenging construction projects on the planet.
What none of those superlatives prepared me for was the emotional impact of seeing it for the first time in person.
When I visit MBS a few months after it opens, I’m astounded by the sheer audacity of it.
Rather than follow the developer’s request to build yet another gargantuan horizon-obscuring tower block (a prospect Israeli-born CanadIan architect Moshe Safdie described as “unbearable”), Safdie envisaged a house of cards-style structure with three leaning towers.
The spaces between the 55-storey towers would create giant “windows” overlooking the sea and the vast observation deck would provide unparalleled 360-degree views of Singapore’s skyline.
That thousands of people collaborated to solve the countless logistical, technical and organisational hurdles to make this a reality still fills me with awe.
Since then, there have been other similarly ambitious projects, boundary-pushing structures of unimaginable scale and physics-defying forms.
But for me, MBS will always be the first modern, man-made structure that stopped me in my tracks; that made me reflect on the extraordinary creativity and ingenuity of our species. Even today, 12 years later, it still looks both arresting and improbable – like a sketch from the future that somehow floated back down to earth.
SkyPark observation deck at MBS is open to the public daily from 11am to 9pm. Tickets cost $S26 for adults, $S22 for children. Hotel rooms from $S539 per night. See marinabaysands.com
NASIR AL-MULK, SHIRAZ, IRAN
Grand courtyard of Nasir al-Mulk, Iran’s famous Pink Mosque. Photo: iStock
By Ben Groundwater
It began two weeks before in Tehran, on a highway near the airport, speeding towards the urban crush of the Iranian capital in a battered taxi with a driver who definitely wasn’t looking where he was going.
He reached across to the glovebox mid-drive and pulled out a book and was flipping through its pages as he negotiated Tehran’s notorious vehicular snarl.
Eventually he turned to me in the back seat. “Welcome,” he said, glancing back at the book, one hand still on the wheel, car still doing at least 100. “Welcome to Iran.”
That was the first inkling. A taxi driver reading a phrasebook, putting both of our lives in danger in order to welcome me to his country in a way I would understand. Hundreds more repeated the sentiment over the next fortnight. Literally hundreds.
Tehran is ugly, but fascinating.
Esfahan, my next stop, is stunning, with its blue-domed mosques, tree-lined boulevards and ancient bazaar. Yazd is another world, with mudbrick houses and towering monuments. Persepolis is a window into a rich, ancient civilisation. And all along the way people are so kind, so friendly, so welcoming.
Nothing should surprise me now that I’ve reached Shiraz. The truth of Iran has been laid bare, the beauty and the sophistication and the kindness that almost overwhelms the visitor.
But then there’s Nasir al-Mulk, the Pink Mosque. It’s still shocking that such beauty exists in a country so maligned.
I arrive in the morning, when I’ve heard the sun will be positioned right, step into the mosque’s interior and witness an absolute riot of colour, every hue imaginable, spread in a kaleidoscopic blanket as sunlight pierces stained-glass windows, shatters into a million pieces and settles on Persian rugs.
The mastery of design here is incredible; the use of colour, contour and light is unimaginably beautiful. It is repeated throughout the mosque, from the pink-tiled exterior and to the intricately decorated alcoves to that magical dance of colour.
This is Iran’s finishing touch, its last word. This country is not what I thought. This world is not what I thought. This is not a place of austere black and white but one of nuance. Of colour.
Since the writer’s visit, Iran has received a “do not travel” recommendation from the federal government. See smartraveller.gov.au; visitiran.ir
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM, PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is proof of how even the most prosaic of constructions can move us. Photo: iStock
By Anthony Dennis
When foreign tourists visit Phnom Penh many head to the Killing Fields located a relatively short distance from the Cambodian capital, some enticed by garish tour group signage or guidebook entreaties.
It is there, among those infamously stacked skulls, the most heinous of sculptural effects, that they are able to learn firsthand of the barely quantifiable evils of the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime which reigned between 1975 to 1979.
In truth, to pay homage to horror, those visitors need only venture into the anonymous backstreets of the city to the lesser-known S-21 interrogation and detention centre, still ringed by its barbed wire-entangled, concrete perimeter wall.
Today this is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum where 15,000 to 20,000 people from all corners of Cambodia were imprisoned and where a “workforce” of 1720 was required to keep the torture centre operational.
It was here I encountered the starkest proof of how even the most prosaic of constructions can move us, leaving visitors, myself included, with memories scorched by any time spent here, especially as one struggles to comprehend what the buildings had been and what they had become.
Built in 1962, the three-storey complex was once the utilitarian Preah Ponhea Yat High School, a centre of education which ultimately became a centre of re-education. As I wander the compound I cross the quadrangle around the main buildings, where children once played and where later, victims of the Khmer Rouge would be routinely hanged atop gallows, adapted from former playground equipment, all for the still living prisoners to witness.
For me, the mundane nature of the architecture is in its own way powerful, in that its spareness serves to concentrate the visitor’s uncomprehending mind on the events that occurred here.
Even though the museum is largely funded by generous international donations, most of them from Germany, a country still burdened by its own genocidal history, any temptation to inject audio-visual gimmickry has commendably been avoided.
Ultimately, this starkly furnished and adorned museum, with grim torture rooms – once humble classrooms – consisting of metal bed frames with chains attached, is testament to the banality of brutality. Tuol Sleng’s objective is to see visitors like me who depart it as “messengers of peace”. I duly humbly deliver the message.
$US5 tickets available only at museum. Visitors must wear respectful clothing. Guided tours available at the cost of a guide donation. Open daily, 8am-5pm. See tuolsleng.gov.kh
PALACE OF THE REPUBLIC, BERLIN, GERMANY
The Palace of the Republic was dismantled in 2006. Photo: Getty Images
By Ute Junker
Architecturally, it was no great shakes. The showcase building of the German Democratic Republic – as East Germany was officially known – was just another one of those marble-and-bronzed-glass boxes that sprang up like mushrooms in the 1970s. But East Berliners loved the Palace of the Republic not for its aesthetic and not because it was where the country’s parliament sat, but for its role as the capital’s premier entertainment centre.
The People’s Palace, as it was popularly known, housed 13 restaurants and bars, a concert hall, theatres and the only bowling alley in the country. Its lobby was lit by a thousand lamps and was open 24 hours a day. The People’s Palace, in short, was where East Berliners went to have fun.
By the early 2000s, when I was living in Germany and regularly visiting reunified Berlin, the People’s Palace was a shell of its former self. Literally. The discovery of asbestos inside led to the building being stripped of all its fittings and furnishings, including 18,000 square metres of marble, and a fierce debate raged over its future. When the government resolved to tear it down and replace it with a replica of the Prussian palace that had once stood here, many East Berliners were devastated.
I had long been interested in how cities change, but this was the first time I had the chance to report on that change. I spoke to urban planners and historians and delved into the building’s back story, discovering that 65 million people visited the building during its 14-year lifespan, that bookings for the bowling alley were only taken on one day of the year, and that two of the six lanes were always reserved for Communist Party bigwigs.
I also interviewed plenty of East Germans. When they talked about the bowling alley — or the wine bar, the milk bar, the beer room, the espresso bar — their eyes would glow like those lamps in the foyer. I learned that for people who had weathered so much social and political upheaval, the destruction of the People’s Palace felt like an attempt to destroy last vestige of the city they had once recognised as their own.
It was the first time I truly understood that urban planning is about more than aesthetics or logistics. It is about whose stories are inscribed on the cityscape and whose are erased, who “belongs” and who doesn’t.
The Palace of the Republic was dismantled in 2006. Last year the Humboldt Forum, home to the city’s Ethnological Museum and Asian Art Museum, opened on the site. It features displays about the Palace of the Republic. See humboldtforum.org
FIVE MORE BUILDINGS THAT CHANGE LIVES
MONREALE CATHEDRAL, SICILY, ITALY
Buildings that provide hard-to-miss examples of cultural cross pollination ought to change the way we think of the world because no culture, art or architectural design emerges from nowhere. The cathedral in Monreale is one such building. Its stunning Byzantine, Islamic and Norman blend is an in-your-face reminder that societies don’t flourish alone or by unchanging. Finished in 1176, the cathedral is studded with Arab-inspired ceiling motifs and geometric floor patterns, and has a cloister that resembles the Alhambra. See visitsicily.info
SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE, ISTANBUL, TURKEY
It’s too easy for tourists to perceive old buildings – and even religions – as something of mere historic interest, confined to a guidebook. This magnificent 1557 building complex, comprising a mosque, school, library and courtyard, shows you otherwise. Prayer-goers bustle, children run and squeal, neighbours gossip. The sunset call to prayer is lovely. The tomb of the great sultan Suleiman the Magnificent attracts respectfully silent visitors who leave behind flowers. Look for the life and not just the history next time you visit monuments, and you’ll see that they aren’t just architectural shells but repositories of meaning and wonderful cultural continuity. See visit.istanbul
TEATRO DI MARCELLO, ROME, ITALY
This building in the Italian capital is by no means as famous as its Pantheon and nor is it as magnificent as its Colosseum. Yet Teatro Di Marcello reveals the full stratum of Roman history, the way this city is built up upon itself, layer after layer like the rings of a tree. You get to see that at this former theatre, built in 13 BC. Below its arched facade, see the ruins of a temple built in 433 BC. Above the theatre, right on top, are apartments built in the 16th century. People live here. Roman history carries on. See turismoroma.it
LA SAGRADA FAMILIA, BARCELONA, SPAIN
We don’t do this anymore. We, the human species, tend not to invest in projects like these, highly ambitious, multi-generational efforts constructed over more than 100 years. They once did this with cathedrals in Britain; with temples in Angkor. And now we just do it solely with La Sagrada Familia, architect Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Barcelona church that has been under construction since 1882. It is still not finished. Even now, it’s a breath-taking achievement, a building so grand and so creative and so wonderful that it will bring joy to any who enters it, for many centuries to come. See sagradafamilia.org
BAGSVAERD CHURCH, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
The life of Joern Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, was one of triumph and tragedy. Controversially departing the unfinished project in 1966, Utzon struggled for major commissions on his return to his native Denmark. Yet in northern Copenhagen he completed another masterwork in the form of Bagsvaerd Church. Surrounded by delicate birch trees, it externally resembles an elaborate yet austere agricultural grainstore. Inside, the 1976 Lutheran church is distinguished by a soaring ceiling with sides shaped to resemble ethereal rolling clouds tempering streaming light during daytime services. Visitors are welcome on selected days. See bagsvaerdkirke.dk