Europe's most eye-catching buildings: adventures in space

Europe may be steeped in tradition but it boasts an eclectic mix of modern buildings, writes Steve McKenna.

Whenever Australians think of European architecture, ancient castles and churches tend to spring to mind. And for good reason. A seemingly endless chain of historical relics covers the lands from London to Athens.

But standing proudly alongside these blasts from the past are some of the world's most eye-catching pieces of modern architecture.

Most generate a love-'em-or-hate-'em reaction. Here is just a sprinkling, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Kunsthaus

Graz, Austria

Graz-born Arnold Schwarzenegger was used to dealing with on-screen extra-terrestrials during his Hollywood career but you have to wonder what he makes of the "friendly alien" that now looms over his home town.

It's the nickname given to the Kunsthaus, a multimedia complex built by Sir Peter Cook and Colin Fournier as part of Graz's 2003 European Capital of Culture celebrations.

The building - which lights up like a spaceship at night - is an example of "blobitecture", a modernist type of architecture that describes structures with a bulging, amoeba-like form.


It's a world away from the rest of central Graz, which, with its Baroque-style palaces and mansions, is one of Austria's most elegant cities.


The Pompidou Centre

Paris, France

An old modern classic maybe, considering it was built in 1977, but the Pompidou Centre still has the power to shock when you see it for the first time.

It seems to have had its insides turned out. Bright red, blue and green pipes and ducts are wrapped around the outside of this giant steel and glass building, which sticks out like a sore thumb in Paris's grand old Beaubourg district.

The centre was named after former president Georges Pompidou, who declared back in the 1960s: "I passionately wish that Paris could have a cultural centre that would be both a museum and a centre for creativity."

He got his wish. Behind the building's bizarre facade are some of Europe's greatest collections of modern art.

The Pompidou was part-designed by Sir Richard Rogers, who went on to produce modern London landmarks such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Millennium Dome (now known as the 02).



Rome, Italy

You'd think trying to build a modern cultural attraction in a city swamped with so much classical glory would be a futile exercise.

Zaha Hadid didn't think so. For the past decade, the Iraqi-born British architect has been polishing her most daring and innovative project yet.

The Maxxi is not the most colourful or quirky building from the outside - Hadid says she wanted it to be "fashion proof" - but inside, this ultra-futuristic temple of contemporary art and architecture dazzles with its swooping stairways and wave-like walls and ceilings.

Named after a play on Roman numerals for the 21st century, the new Maxxi can be found in Rome's Flaminio district, seven kilometres from the mighty Colosseum, and will be fully open to the public by next month.


30 St Mary Axe

London, England

Stuffy London was rocked to its foundations with the erection of the Gherkin in 2003.

Sir Norman Foster's glossy 180-metre-high phallic-shaped skyscraper - officially named 30 St Mary Axe, after its address - heralded the start of a new high-rise construction boom in the Square Mile previously comprised of fairly low-lying brick and marble buildings.

While the Gherkin was universally hailed by critics, some claim it has been overshadowed by Barcelona's Agbar tower, which was unveiled two years later and, when the sun sets, lights up in ripples of colour.

The Gherkin's defenders say theirs is still the best, is taller and has a far more impressive girth - although it's expected to lose its status as London's modern jewel by the towering, glistening Shard super skyscraper when it's completed in 2012.



Berlin, Germany

Another Foster effort, the new Reichstag is, for many, the icon of a modern, unified Germany.

Foster's huge, shiny glass dome caps a building that was partially burnt down in 1933 - an incident that proved to be one of the catalysts for the rise of Hitler's Nazis.

The dome gives visitors walk-around 360-degree views of Berlin's ever-growing skyline and has a viewing passage that funnels down into the parliamentary chambers.

Steeped in symbolism, the Reichstag claims to give people the chance to appreciate the German capital while keeping an eye on the country's democratically elected government.


Millau Viaduct

Aveyron, France

A far cry from the magical medieval brick bridges of Europe, the magnificent steel-crafted Viaduct is the continent's answer to San Francisco's Golden Gate.

Another Sir Norman Foster-designed gem - this time in association with French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux - it spans the Tarn Valley in southern France's rugged Massif Central region.

Spanning 2.5 kilometres in length, it's claimed to be the highest vehicular bridge in the world and is propped up by several concrete pylons that spear through the clouds.

One of them rises 343 metres - even taller than the Eiffel Tower.


Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao, Spain

For many, Frank Gehry's shiny, twisting masterpiece is the continent's most dazzling piece of modern architecture. Not only did it breathe new life into the Basque port city of Bilbao, it also raised the bar for his rivals when it was unveiled in 1997.

Although the Guggenheim houses an impressive dose of contemporary art, visitors are usually more amazed by its exterior, which is clad in glass, titanium and limestone and almost defies belief with its undulating appearance.

Canadian-born Gehry drew on Bilbao's history and tried to incorporate shapes of fish scales and ship hulls into the Guggenheim. It featured in the opening scene of the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough.


Opera House

Oslo, Norway

Sydney isn't the only city with an award-winning, Scandinavian-designed opera house.

Anchored against Oslo's waterfront, the ultra-shiny ensemble of marble and glass opened in 2008 to great fanfare and was declared Norway's most important cultural icon since Trondheim's Nidaros cathedral was completed in 1300.

Dubbed the Marble Mountain, the Opera House is covered by a stark white sloping roof, which is supposed to portray the snow-clad alps that pepper large parts of Norway.

While opera, theatre and ballet performances wow the culture vultures inside, snowboarders make use of the roof in winter and sunbathers and picnickers colonise it in summer.


National Library

Pristina, Kosovo

This one is unlikely to capture hearts and minds but it's still an outrageous sight.

Whereas Pristina's mosque-filled Turkish quarter oozes Islamic tradition and character, the capital's library - in the newer part of town - looks like it has landed from outer space.

Matted with a honeycomb-pattern mesh and capped with large white cupolas, when this surreal space-age building was completed in 1982 some people thought the builders had forgotten to take the scaffolding off.


The Bullring

Birmingham, England

Brummies - the nickname for the people of Birmingham - have been shopping in the Bullring area of the city in one form or another since the 13th century.

The area is now home to not just the largest city-centre mall in Britain but also the most visually striking - particularly the "blobitecture" section that houses Selfridges department store.

Inspired by a sequinned dress crafted by Spanish designer Paco Rabanne, the exterior is coated in more than 15,000 shiny grey aluminium discs and looks a bit like a giant golf ball that's been bashed out of shape.


Photos: Eye-catchers - Europe's coolest buildings