Architectural Wonders: Building Innovation

Architects face such challenges as terrorism and costly energy, while designing ever-higher, technologically advanced buildings

Slide Show >>

Nearing the end of a year that has seen a new skyscraper win the title of tallest in the world and an innovative factory redefine what a manufacturing plant can be -- not to mention ongoing construction in China at a scale that makes the Pyramids look like an ant colony -- we felt inspired to come up with a list of new wonders of the world. But what raises a building from mere architecture to a marvel of innovation?

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius famously wrote that a building should have "firmness, commodity, and delight." In other words, it should stand up, it should do something, and it should look good. Meeting the first requirement can be as easy as running load-bearing analysis software and designing accordingly.

But with architects (and clients) venturing ever higher and experimenting with novel forms, basic engineering becomes a challenge. As for commodity and delight, most buildings succeed at one or the other. They are functional but not so pretty, or beautiful but inefficient.

So, in gathering a list of the most innovative buildings completed in the last year (give or take a few months), we find that Vitruvius' trio continues to embody the key challenges facing architects today. But they have new ones as well, like the threat of terrorism, escalating energy costs, and a world in which regional differences can be harder and harder to identify. The 10 buildings in the accompanying slide show are the year's best answers to the following questions:


How do you keep a building from falling down, especially during an earthquake, a typhoon, or a terrorist attack? Architects and engineers are year by year finding innovative ways to make buildings stronger, particularly those that present the most demanding problems of height, size, and security.


How do you make a building more useful, such as an office that encourages collaboration, or a factory that helps hone its own assembly line? Architects and their clients -- whether corporations, governments, or retailers -- continue to develop new methods of improving a building's function, often by rethinking traditional office arrangements, mixing disciplines, or changing a retail store's relationship to the street.


How do you measure beauty today? The most acclaimed architecture communicates the spirit of its purpose -- whether it's a powerful brand image, an ideal of good government, or a way to relate to nature.


How does architecture incorporate technology, and how does technology help create architecture? Not surprisingly, some of the most innovative buildings are also the most technologically advanced, whether in their sophisticated composite materials or the data infrastructure that allows work to get done.


How do you lessen a building's impact on the environment? More and more, sustainability -- reducing a building's energy consumption and making it relate to its landscape -- isn't an add-on to the architecture, but a necessary starting point for thinking about almost every other aspect of the building, from its materials to its location to how its uses are arranged.


How do you make a monument secure? By virtue of their prominence, nearly all the buildings on our list are targets, requiring creative ways of ensuring the safety of their occupants without compromising their symbolic meaning.

Sense of place

What does "local" mean today? Buildings are more meaningful when they're connected to their surroundings, whether through their materials, the cultural traditions they accommodate, or the way they blend in -- especially icons of globalization, like airports and office towers.

While not every building on our list is innovative in all of these ways, each stands out in its answer to at least one of these questions. Take a tour of BusinessWeek's architectural wonders of the world.

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