Through architecture, we seek to understand, and contest, what it means to be human. These man-made structures are an embodiment of every epoch’s socio-cultural values and beliefs. And yet, there is an intriguing universality inherent in architecture – one in which we see our modernity intertwined with our past. Thus, so much of our architecture seemingly transcends to encompass a broader cultural meaning, one of enduring significance.
Here are 15 culturally symbolic structures around the world:
1. Lotus Temple – New Delhi, India
The Lotus Temple (also known as the Bahá’í House of Worship) is open to practitioners of all denominations. Through its pristine white exterior, this temple manifests as a beautiful example of architectural biomimicry. However, this gathering place does not just formally interpret the lotus flower, but symbolically, speaks as a space of unity, togetherness, and acceptance.
2. Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
This impressive temple complex is considered the apogee of Khmer power and artistry, an empire which spanned over centuries. In its entirety, Angkor Wat also reads like a microcosm of Hinduism, in which the spatiality of elements and the bas-relief sculpture of the complex corresponds to the enshrined beliefs. Today, it remains an important site of religious pilgrimage.
3. Al Khazneh- Petra, Jordan
Nestled amongst the sandstone cliffs of Petra sits one of the most elaborately carved temples, Al Khazneh (The Treasury). When programmatically contextualized as a royal mausoleum, the relief carvings of Al Khazneh are iconographic symbols of redemption, regeneration, and immortality. To contemporary audiences, this exterior facade of rose sandstone has undeniably become representative of the ancient city itself.
4. Machu Picchu – Andes Mountains, Peru
As one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, the citadel of Machu Picchu is a world heritage site of incredible cultural significance. The structures offer a physical tangibility to the Inca Empire; an ancient civilization perpetually shrouded in mystery and enigma.
5. The Pantheon – Rome, Italy
The Pantheon is undoubtedly monumental preservation of the Roman Empire, one that continues to captivate millions of visitors. And for good reason, there is a quietly palpable beauty to the interior as light streams through the oculus of the concrete dome; a testament to the architectural ingenuity of the Romans.
6. Statue of Liberty- New York City, U.S
This colossal statue was originally erected in honor of the friendship between France and the United States. However, its cultural importance is perhaps more so cemented through its transcension to a symbol of hope. To a city of emigrants, to those seeking a better life, the Mother of Exiles represents what could be: freedom.
7. The Great Wall of China – Beijing, China
For contemporary western civilization, this physical fortification has emerged as an emblem of China, of both tangible and intangible connotations. For not only was the Great Wall a symbol of physical strength, but also a representation of the emotional barricade to foreign power and influence.
8. Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Spain
Over a century in the making (and still counting), the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família must certainly be recognized as a vision of human persistence and generational collaboration. This Catalan Modernisme architecture is imbued with an abundance of Christian symbolism: the sculptural Glory, Nativity and Passion facades, and the towers envisioning Christ surrounded by the Evangelists – all of which culminate in an architectural masterpiece.
9. Christ the Redeemer – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This monolithic sculpture stands at nearly 40 meters tall above the city of Rio de Janeiro. The open arms of Christ signify openness to the people of Brazil, and others. However, over time, these religious connotations have universally translated to represent Brazil as a whole.
10. Dome of the Rock – Jerusalem, Israel
Dating back to the late 7th century, the Dome of the Rock preserves the historic and religious heritage for both Muslim and Jewish faiths – respectively believed to be the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son.
11. Pyramids of Giza – Giza, Egypt
Over four thousand years since their construction, the Pyramids of Giza have remained lasting symbols of Egypt’s venerated Old Kingdom era. These monumental tombs were dedicated to Egypt’s pharaohs in preparation for the afterlife, almost mediation between life and death. Built to withstand time, the Pyramids themselves are undeniably a preservation of every aspect of Egyptian life.
12. The Eiffel Tower- Paris, France
Intended as a temporary installation for the Exposition Universelle (1889), the unprecedented iron framework of the Eiffel Tower was immediately sensationalized as a symbol of France’s technological advancement; as a synthesis of architecture and engineering. Over time, the iconic open-lattice structure has acquired a much broader cultural significance, now synonymous with the city of Paris.
13. The Colosseum – Rome, Italy
The Colosseum remains one of the greatest monuments to the power of the Roman Empire. Although the ruins have come to gloriously romanticize Rome’s tumultuous history; the amphitheater, and its gladiatorial traditions are undeniably archetypes of Roman culture – representative of cruel brutality and a society fascinated with death.
14. St Peter’s Basilica and Square – Vatican City
Erected over the tomb of St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, St Peter’s Basilica can easily be surmised as one of the most venerated sites in Christendom. The square’s colonnades are often interpreted as the outstretched embrace of the church- which has come to welcome millions of tourists.
15. Taj Mahal – Agra, India
This Indo-Islamic mausoleum manifests as an undeniably romantic, architectonic beauty. Today, the familiar domed profile of shimmering white marble stands as one of the most universally celebrated structures; a national emblem of India, and a true wonder of the modern world.