For as long as humankind have built cities, we have needed civic architecture. Places to manage our cities, to dispense justice, to converse with fellow citizens, to relax and enjoy art and culture, and even, to tend to nature's business. Public buildings have, and continue to be, a vital part of the vitality of a city.
As such, public buildings are often designed to make a statement about a city. They call to mind certain feelings, events or landscapes that resonate with residents and visitors. They accentuate or contrast with surrounding landscapes, and they often develop an identity all of their own.
In this article, we look at some of the most beautiful – and definitely the most interesting – civic buildings from all periods of history, and the role these buildings play in both the architectural identity of a city and in the everyday lives of that city's citizens. I hope you enjoy this selection of buildings, and that you'll add your own favourites in the comments!
1. The Balland Library, Seattle
Seattle is known for some pretty striking public buildings, but one of their most beautiful is the modern Ballard Library, built with sustainable, green design sensibilities. One of the Ballard's most striking features is its "green roof" – where native grasses are planted in a growing medium across the entire length of the roof. Construction finished in 2005, with a cost of almost $11 million.
2. Atonium, Brussels, Belgium
This strange conceptual building is shaped like a representation of the atomic structure of iron. Designed and created for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, the Atonium is now used for exhibition spaces. There's also a restaurant and a hostel for visiting school groups. Escalators connect the nine steel pods in this strange, retro-futuristic structure.
3. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand.
Awarded "Building of the Year" at the World Architecture Festival, the Auckland Art Gallery offers a truly unique experience for art lovers. Wooden tapestries mirroring the trees surrounding the nearby Albert Park flank wide, warm spaces where light and air filter down on contemplating visitors. A perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
4. Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia
The competition brief: Design a new civic precinct in downtown Melbourne. The winner: This geometric jumble of curves and angles that resembles the famous Guggenheim. Covered by geometric "shards", the design drew controversy during its construction when it was revealed one of the "shards" would block the view of the historic cathedral. Taking up 3.2 hectares – an entire city block – Federation Square offers public spaces and space for cultural events and exhibitions.
5. Kumutoto Toilets, Wellington, New Zealand
Designed by Studio Pacific, these twin structures aren't the skeletal remains of ancient dinosaurs, but public restrooms. The structural appendages, which were designed to resemble crustaceans in the nearby harbour, are cantilevered – providing natural ventilation and a real sense of science-fiction disbelief. Each base contains one accessible toilet.
6. Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, Lisbon, Portugal
Designed by Charles Correa, the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown is a world-renowned diagnostic and research facility. The concept of the space was to create a sculptural statement of contemporary science and medicine – a place where people can learn and heal. Situated by the ocean, the building consists of three distinct units: The first is a theatre, exhibition hall and offices, the second is the laboratories and spaces for doctors and scientists, and the third is a public amphitheatre.
7. The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Of course, what discussion of great public buildings would be complete without acknowledging one of the world's most interesting, and barbaric, entertainment theatres? The Colosseum seats up to 50,000 people and was the venue for gladiatorial contests in Ancient Rome. Fallon warriors, slaves, prisoners and political enemies fought with wild beasts, re-enacted famous battles (including ocean battles where the amphitheatre was flooded), duelled to the death or were publically executed. It is estimated more than 500,000 people died during the building's life.
8. Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Canada
Built for the 1976 Summer Olympics, the Montreal stadium makes a striking impression with it's 575 ft high leaning tower and futuristic "flying saucer" appearance. The stadium is still in use for baseball and football teams.
9. Civic Centre, San Francisco, California, United States
After a 1906 fire and earthquake devastated the city, a new Civic Center was built in the Beaux Art style. The central focus of the precinct is the beautiful City Hall, which is flanked by other buildings in the same style, including a museum, opera house, library and offices. Sadly, due to vandalism and vagrancy, the city has removed the inner park that ties together the buildings.
10. Vennesla Library and Culture House, Vennesla, Norway
Framed by 27 prefabricated laminated timber ribs, the curves of this building create an almost natural shape. The ribs expand and condense in shape throughout the building, creating both an open vaulted entrance and more intimate rooms. The library has also been designed to maximise energy efficiency, earning it an "A" in the Norwegian energy use system.
11. Institute for Sound & Vision, Hilversum, The Netherlands
The Institute for Sound & Vision houses three distinct entities: The National Audiovisual Archives, a public TV & Radio exhibition centre, and a professional research institute. The giant cube structure exists half above ground, half underground, where the archives are stored in temperature-controlled rooms. From the entrance, visitors are taken across a bridge where, if they look down, they can see a dramatic example of the depth of the vaults.
12. New Norwegian Opera & Ballet, Oslo, Norway
Completed in 2007 as a workplace and concert hall for more than 600 employees of the Norwegian Opera & Ballet, the New Norwegian Opera & Ballet hosts up to 300 performances each year. The concept of the Operahouse was to create a "carpet" of horizontal and sloping surfaces, to signify open access of the facilities to all, enveloping the "factory" space where the performances take place.
13. Experience Music Project, Seattle, Washington, United States
Some might argue that Frank Gehry's monolithic lump of clashing colours, odd textures and architectural faux pas has no place on a list of the world's "Most Beautiful" public buildings. But I disagree. Sure, it's kind of shaped like a haemorrhoid, but it has a real presence about it in the landscape. It stimulates and excites the imagination, and that's a wonderful thing for a museum to do.
14. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
Designed by Antoni Guadi in his signature Gothic/Art Nourveau style, the Sagrada Familia is perhaps Spain's most iconic building. Construction began in 1882 and slowed after the death of Gaudi in 1926. Currently, the structure is slightly more than halfway finished, with an estimated completion date of 2026. The Sagrada Familia is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
15. The National Library, Minsk, Belarus
Library, or extra-terrestrial craft? You decide. The building is shaped as a hombicuboctahedron (a fancy word for "diamond") to represent the value of the knowledge stored within. Each side is covered in glass panels, which sparkle in the daylight, and at night, nearly 5,000 colour-changing LED fixtures around the building create a remarkable light display.
16. Beijing National Stadium, Beijing, China
Built for the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing National Stadium is one of the city's most stunning landmark buildings. It is the world's largest enclosed space, as well as the world's largest steel structure, with more than 26km of unwrapped steel used in it's construction. Called "The Bird's Nest" because of the steel forms enclosing the space, the pattern is actually inspired by Chinese crazed pottery.
17. Don't Miss a Sec Restroom, Tate Gallery, London, United Kingdom
The second public restroom on our list, this unnerving cube designed by artist Monica Bonvicini features walls of mirrored glass. The cube, which sits outside the Tate Gallery in London, appears camouflaged thanks to the mirrored walls, but once inside, you can behold the whole world from your throne through the glass walls.
18. The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
From the edge of the Nervión river, the Guggenheim Museum is a sight to behold. Swirling structures and organic forms characterise this remarkable design, which not only changed the way the world conceptualised museums, but boosted the economy of Bilbao thanks to the ten million visitors that have graced its halls. Arguably, the museum is architect France Gehry's masterpiece, showing that architecture can change the identity and fortune of an entire city.
19. Stuttgard City Library, Stuttgart, Germany
Designed by Korean-born German architect Yi Eun-young, the Stuttgart City Library has suffered some serious controversy in its time. In a city of red-roofs and green spaces, the silver and white building definitely stands out. The innovative, airy design takes it's influence from the Parthenon in Rome, and features a linear multi-storey central space the draws natural light from the roof, flooding the building the light and air.
20. Bahá'í House of Worship (Lotus Temple), Delhi, India.
Open to the public for the purpose of worship and contemplation, this Lotus-shaped house of worship for the Bahá'í faith scooped up numerous architectural awards and remains a popular attraction in Delhi. The temples features many elements important to the houses of worship of the faith – it is a nine-sided circular building, with no altar or statues or other depictions of gods inside. The temple can hold up to 2,500 people.
21. Manchester Civil Justice Centre, United Kingdom
The headquarters of the Ministry of Justice in the North West of England would be the largest court complex to be built in the UK since the Royal Court of Justice in the 1800s. And it is also one of the most unique. The concept of the large, open, glass spaces was to literally display the accessibility and transparency of the courts and the justice system.
22. Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland
To rejuvenate the city's sleepy CBD, a huge redevelopment was planned, with the Harpa Concert Hall in the centre of a thriving metropolis of luxury apartments, retail spaces and an enormous hotel. But when the financial crisis hit much of the development was abandoned, and the government helped fund the completion of the concert hall. Made from steel, the structure is covered in geometric glass panels that catch the light, giving the building the appearance of an enormous, multi-faceted jewel.
23. Ren Building, Shanghai, China
Shaped for a Chinese symbol, the Ren building is a true architectural marvel. One part of the building emerges from the water, and houses a sport centre (including swimming pools and other water activities), and the other rests on the land and is devoted the spiritual enlightenment, and houses a conference centre, libraries and meeting rooms.
24. Museo Soumaya, Mexico City, Mexico
Museo Soumaya not only houses some of the finest artwork in Mexico, it is an artwork in itself. 28 steel columns hold up a windowless façade made from hexagonal aluminium tiles. Light is filtered through the shell, giving the space an otherworldly atmosphere. Standing 150 feet tall, the sculptural museum is a focal point on the city's landscape.
25. Elbe Philharmonic Hall, Hamburg, Germany
Architecture firm Herzog & De Meuron are on a mission to bring back a little ornamentation to modern architecture, and the Elbe Philharmonic Hall is a classic example of their vision. Due to be completed this year, the hall resembles a wave on the edge of the river, shimmering in the light of the city. This bold piece of architecture is part of a huge rejuvenation project happening in the city.
What is your favourite example of civic architecture? How do you think public buildings inform and change people's perceptions of their city? Let us know in the comments!