You can scan social media and admire great architecture and design from afar, but there's something to be said about seeing a great work in its natural environment. With summer travel season at its apex, there's plenty of time to get site-specific with pilgrimages to architectural masterpieces or make time for urban innovations during your next long weekend out of town. We've assembled a list of some of our favorite tours, sites, and buildings for architecturally minded travelers to add to their itinerary, organized west to east and including new openings of note. We can’t cover it all, but this should be a good start.Read More
Architecture tourism: The best U.S. buildings, parks, and museums to visit this summer
Tours, parks, and buildings for architecturally-minded travelers to add to their itinerary
A pioneering residential development along the northern coast of California, the Sea Ranch, which features the landscape designer Lawrence Halprin, architect Charles Moore, and graphic artist Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, among many others, was an attempt at a pastoral utopia for the middle-class Bay Area intellectual. The development of the original site—and the timber-clad, shed-roofed buildings nestled within it—have deeply influenced modernist design. Key trends, such as vernacular modernism that incorporates local materials and graphic interiors, can all be traced back to this singular project. Note that the development is still a private community; those wanting to visit can access public beaches and trails or rent a house there to take advantage (the Lodge at The Sea Ranch is also due to reopen in late 2019), but visiting renters should take care to respect the rights and privacy of current homeowners.
Considered the first major work of postmodernism when it was completed in 1982 (not to be confused with earlier, example-setting buildings like the Vanna Venturi house), the Portland Municipal Services Building exemplified the style’s playful re-interpretations of classical design elements. Architect Michael Graves saw the project as a ”symbolic gesture” to reclaim design from Modernism’s staid, boxy, glass-and-steel grip. Wrapped in several colors and featuring bold design flourishes—including keystones, pilasters and belvederes—the 15-story building made a case for creativity in architecture. The debate still rages on: Is such a design choice engaging recontextualization, or whimsy light on symbolism? Currently, the building is in the process of a contentious $195 million “reskinning,” which city officials say will remove, strengthen, and replace the facade; preservationists feel many of the materials used in the replacement will compromise the form and facade of the building.
Golden Gate Bridge
Even when it’s shrouded in the Bay Area fog, this 1.7-mile suspension bridge, arguably the most famous in the country, still attracts cyclists, crowds, and onlookers marveling at one of San Francisco’s most recognizable symbols. Learn more about this infrastructure marvel at Curbed San Francisco, then plan a visit.
It may seem a little short to be the forerunner of today's skyscrapers, but when it was built in 1918, the Hallidie Building was the first of its kind with a glass facade. A recent multi-year restoration project restored a bit of the nearly century-old structure's shine.
According to Curbed San Francisco editor Brock Keeling, the long-anticipated expansion of one of the city’s signature cultural institutions has been both an “unabashed success” and “standout in the neighborhood.” Snøhetta’s 10-story contoured facade, an update on the classic Mario Botta building, was inspired by San Francisco's characteristic fog and choppy Bay waters.
One of the symbols of Seattle, this space-age observation tower, built for the 1962 World’s Fair, just completed a $100 million renovation last fall. Visitors to the local icon, whose designers left a large footprint on Seattle architecture, will be able to check out a new 360-degree observation deck, complete with a glass floor and excellent views of Mt. Rainier.
Gas Works Park
A revolutionary creative reuse project, and a “beautiful way to remember a toxic past,” this Seattle park, designed by architect Richard Haag, reimagined a coal gasification plant on the city’s waterfront as an active park and children’s play place. Landscaping and repurposing of different sections of the abandoned industrial facility have made this one of the more unique parts of the city’s landscape.
The inspiration for Xanadu in Orson Welles’s classic film Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon was built on family land where he would take camping trips as a child. Architect Julia Morgan designed the ranch and hilltop estate based on the newspaper tycoon’s eclectic tastes, including Spanish themes. "La Cuesta Encantada" ("The Enchanted Hill") became a sprawling enterprise, complete with the nation's largest private zoo, a movie theater, the Neptune Pool (which contained the façade of a Roman temple Hearst imported from Europe) and a private power plant. A perfectionist, Hearst often ordered different sections to be redesigned and rebuilt; Morgan started pitching ideas in 1915, but the project still was incomplete by the time Hearst died in 1951.
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
One of the defining examples of “parkitecture,” the rustic style of design found throughout the National Park System, the Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel) has hosted generations of tourists. Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in 1927, the building was made to match its surroundings, and reflects the natural splendor that makes Yosemite so compelling.
Anybody convinced that modern design means cold edges and a stark palette need only peek inside the exuberant home Ray and Charles Eames designed for themselves in 1949. Commissioned as part of Art & Architecture magazine’s Case Study program and placed amid a eucalyptus grove in the Pacific Palisades, the prefab exterior, a Mondrian-like assembly of off-the-shelf parts—colorful panels, glass, and steel—conceals a playful and living room. The inspiring, oft-photographed space, an artful array of toys, tchotchkes, and furniture, embodies the couple’s imaginative and all-encompassing design philosophy.
The LA County Museum of Art's first-ever architecture acquisition, the Sheats-Goldstein House high in the hills of Beverly Crest, designed by John Lautner and owned and loved for decades James Goldstein, is one of the most spectacular houses in Los Angeles: triangular concrete jaws held open by walls of glass, and filled with transparent sinks, built-in leather furniture (including a bed), outdoor corridors with no rails, and windows that look into the pool.
A radical departure from architectural convention at the time it was built in 1922, R.M. Schindler’s experiment in shared space, separated by sliding glass panels, came from an unlikely inspiration: a vacation village at Yosemite National Park. The layout of those shared campsites gave Schindler the idea of creating a live-work space appropriate for two families, a pair of L-shaped apartments with two studios and a utility room apiece. While it may not look it from the road, the home’s then-unique blurring of interior and exterior created a precedent, Also known as the Schindler Chace House, since his friend Clyde Chace and his wife were the first family to share the home with Schindler (Richard Neutra was next), this unique building was a early Modernist classic.
Pierre Konig’s classic midcentury modern design for the Stahl family has become an icon of California cool, perhaps the most instantly recognizable of the Case Study homes that helped defined this era of modernist architecture. Tour spots for this hillside home are hard to come by, so make sure to reserve well ahead of time.
One of LA’s true gems, the Griffith Observatory boasts some of the best views in the city, from sunset panoramas and the excellent framing of the nearby Hollywood Sign to the celestial wonders found inside this astronomy center. The best part is, it’s still free.
Frank Lloyd Wright Hollyhock House
A '20s masterpiece that may have set the tone for California modernism, Wright's most famous California project was reopened to the public in 2015 year after a painstaking restoration; an entire year was spent just studying and mapping out the updates that needed to be made to the former home of an oil heiress.
The Broad Museum
Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design for this Los Angeles museum, a serrated, 120,000-square-foot home for contemporary art, adds to the collection of cultural institutions on Grand Avenue. Inside, the curvaceous interiors and broad galleries make for a “fascinating museum experience,” according to Curbed critic Alexandra Lange.
The Gamble House
A lot of weighty associations are attached to this airy Pasadena home and its gabled roofs: it’s the finest surviving example of architectural duo Greene and Greene’s work, an exemplary California bungalow, and a high point of the Arts and Crafts movement. But its romantic silhouettes, Japanese influences, and exemplary woodwork also point to an early example of Southern California cool, a thoroughly modern attempt to create a building wedded to the climate (note the numerous sleeping porches). Commissioned by David Gamble, an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, and designed in 1908, the summer home has become one of L.A.’s most-loved residences.
On April 20, 1970, this recreation space became the site of a successful protest against a city plan to build a California Highway Patrol substation on land where the government promised to build a community park. It’s since become an important historic site for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, a National Historic Landmark, and contains the Chicano Park Monumental Murals, a massive and multicolored collection of street art.
Built in 1970, Robert Smithson’s 1500-foot long curlicue of mud, salt crystals and rocks is considered an icon of land art and statement on the nature of entropy. The sculptor, who declared that museums were simply "mausoleums for art,” scouted out locations in Utah for this work, and settled on Rozel Point, in part due to its red hue and nearby industrial remnants. To construct the huge outcropping into the lake, he hired a local construction company to push 6,650 tons of material into the water. "That was the only thing I ever built that was to look at and had no purpose,” said the contractor in an interview. "It was made just to look nice.” Despite the size, it's part of the small minority of projects in our Land Art map that's actually finished.
Summer is all about finding your own utopia, right? If you're headed through Arizona, make a detour to this utopian eco-city started in the '70s, a prototype-in-the-making for a more sustainable way of life.
David & Gladys Wright House
Designed for Frank Lloyd Wright's son, this spiraling home in Phoenix has been called a precursor to his Guggenheim design, and an epitome of site-specific architecture in the desert. A non-profit foundation is set on preserving the home.
Originally designed and built in 1937 as a reflection of the desert landscape (petroglyphs discovered onsite formed a basis for a motif found throughout), Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter camp for the Taliesin Fellowship offers a striking model of his philosophy, and functions as the home of the foundation that protects his legacy. This was a workshop for Wright, both a center for instruction and a constantly evolving creation (after returning each summer, he would quickly circle the site, hammer in hand). In the midst of a large-scale restoration effort, this is one of the 10 Wright projects nominated for UNESCO World Heritage recognition, along with the original Taliesin in Spring Green, WIsconsin.
Aspen Art Museum
Shigeru Ban's elegant, lattice-like structure became one of the country's most talked about cultural institutions upon opening, though local reactions were mixed.
Denver Art Museum
A mysterious, Late Modernist fortress, this seven-story addition to the Denver Art Museum is the only building in the United States designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti. Castle-like and clad in glass tiles, the 24-sided slate gray structure is enigmatic, befitting a space of creative expression and contemplation. The architect said of his design, “Art is a treasure, and these thin but jealous walls defend it.” Last January, the museum broke ground on a $150 million renovation of the campus, timed to finish in 2021, the 50th anniversary of Ponti’s design.
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United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel
Master planned in the ‘50s by a Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) team led by the then 34-year-old Walter Netsch, the legendary Air Force Academy outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has become a National Landmark, due to its sharp layout and striking Cadet Chapel, a transcendent religious building that looks like a fleet of jet straining towards the heavens. It’s a picture of streamlined steel, strength, and fearlessness, all set against the backdrop of the Rockies and an azure mountain sky. Be sure to visit before September 1, when planned repairs on the roof are set to begin.
The Judd Foundation spaces in Marfa, Texas, may appear more museum than home, especially considering the numerous studios and architecture offices spread among the sprawling town centered on a former Army base turned art mecca (don’t forget the famous middle-of-nowhere Prada store courtesy Ballroom Marfa). But the private residence of Donald Judd, set inside La Mansana de Chinati, or The Block, a former Quartermaster Corps office turned city block-sized development, is an adobe walled-home complete with a garden and Judd-designed furniture. Set within the larger complex, which provides unheard-of space to artists, the home suggests not merely a sense of freedom and Southwestern flourishes. Taken as part of a larger vision, Judd’s home and studios represents a different model of art, creative practice, and large-scale installations.
Klyde Warren Park
This award-winning parkland bridges different neighborhoods of downtown Dallas by virtue of a deck design set above the Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
Dallas Pritzker District
It's not an official landmark, but as this article pointed out, Dallas has the most acclaimed architecture per square mile of any major American city, if judged solely by Pritzker Medals: I.M. Pei (Meyerson Symphony Center), Rem Koolhaas (Wyly Theatre), Renzo Piano (Nasher Sculpture Center), Norman Foster (Winspear Opera House), Philip Johnson (Thanks-Giving Square) and Thom Mayne (Perot Museum of Nature and Science) are all represented. If you're time-starved and looking to check a few names off the list, the Dallas arts district gives you bragging rights in just a few blocks.
Fair Park Dallas
The rides within Dallas’s Fair Park have earned legendary status over the years. But perhaps the most striking creations within this famous fairground, outside of the increasingly elaborate deep fried treats, are the buildings themselves, Art Deco masterpieces first unveiled during the Texas Centennial Celebration of 1936. The park played host to the state’s massive centennial birthday party, then the biggest party in Texas history. Twenty-six of the original buildings built for that headline-generating celebration remain, making the Dallas landmark one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the country.
Frank Lloyd Wright described his lone high-rise as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest,” an apt way to paint a picture of this asymmetrical beauty, comprising 19 stories of angular walls that look different from every angle. Based on a design for apartments in Manhattan the architect created in the ’20s, the basic idea was transplanted to Oklahoma when Harold Price, owner of a local oil and chemical concern, hired Wright to create his first skyscraper. Opened in 1956, the copper-clad tower dominates the skyline. Visitors can now stay in a hotel in the top half of the building.
Menil Drawing Institute
The latest addition to the Menil Campus, an exceptional collection of art housed in a series of superb buildings, this new design by Johnston Marklee is worthy of the already high bar set by the work of other architects such as Philip Jhnson and Renzo Piano. The husband-wife team “have succeeded brilliantly,” argues Curbed critic Alexandra Lange, “taking Piano’s long lines, the bungalows’ peaked roofs, Johnson’s palm court, and creating a building that is simultaneously secretive and spectacular.”
Saint John's Abbey and University Church
This modernist church is rightfully praised for its bell tower, a raised plane of concrete and crucifix that looks like a stone sail. But architect Marcel Breuer made the interior of the building, illuminated in part by a honeycomb of hexagonal stained glass, just as noteworthy.
While there certainly are grander, more opulent plantation homes across the South, it’s hard to imagine one that offers both architectural history and a true reckoning of what these buildings represented to those who toiled in the nearby fields. The centerpiece of the first museum in the United States dedicated to telling the story of slavery, the architecturally significant grand French Creole mansion on the grounds, seems meant to be glimpsed at from inside the recreated slave jail. The home sits amid a collection of slave cabins, artwork, and a granite memorial etched with the names of 107,000 slaves who were forcibly brought to the state before 1820. Since re-opening in 2014, this plantation has stood apart from other such buildings on River Road.
Eero Saarinen’s simple yet profound design for this stunning monument still inspires after decades, a stainless steel symbol of St. Louis and the American West that welcomes countless tourists and roadtrippers every summer. The 630-foot-tall catenary arch is still the world’s tallest. The recently-opened, 91-acre Gateway Arch National Park, featuring a renovated landscape, park, and museum, attempts to add more angles to the Arch experience.
Considered a seminal example of postmodern landscape design, this joyful, earnest celebration of Italian design was conceived of as a tribute that rises far above Disney-style kitsch. Architect Charles Moore was tasked with creating public space that touted the achievements of the large Italian-American community in New Orleans. The resulting set piece is filled with colonnades, a clock tower, a minimalist Roman temple, and a public fountain in the shape of the Italian peninsula. Conceived of as a redevelopment project for the city’s Warehouse district, the space initially fell into disrepair after it opened to the public in 1978, but has since been preserved, in a recent series of renovations that wrapped last year.
Jazz Houses: Where They Lived
The artistry of Big Easy jazz pioneers lives in smokey clubs and second lines across the city. But to see the building where they actually called home, a recently updated app from the Preservation Resource Center can help guide you to hundreds of locations, including the residences of Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden.
Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House was designed, in the words of the famous Modernist, to "bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity.” Sadly, nature has been getting a little too close to this landmark lately, as flooding of the Plano River has recently threatened the home, and preservationists have begun debating potential ways to relocate or preserve the structure. While nothing is happening immediately, it still may be a good idea to visit while its still in its original state.
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory
These glass-covered conoidal domes have served as Milwaukee’s own set of retro-futuristic greenhouses for decades, recreating both arid and tropical climes year-round for residents of the lakefront Midwestern city. While these giant bubbles, created by hometown architect Donald Grieb, may seem like they owe a great deal to Buckminster Fuller, they have a number of unique structural characteristics, including a cast-in-place concrete undercarriage. Gelb’s striking concept has become a massive maintenance headache, and was closed in 2016 for repairs. In 2018, it was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which should hopefully help secure more resources for repair.
Milwaukee Art Museum
One of the largest museums in the country, Milwaukee's lakefront art museum is also a work of art in itself, thanks to the beautiful brise soleil of Santiago Calatrava's design. The Spanish architect has riffed on these forms, shapes, and colors before, but he's rarely achieved this kind of grace. Perfectly positioned on the Lake Michigan shore, it looks like a massive bird perched on the waterfront.
A radical church done in reinforced concrete, considered by many to be one of the first modern buildings in the world, the Unity Temple boldly challenged and redefined ideas about religious architecture, and a recent renovation showcases the full beauty of Wright's creation. Part of Wright’s bold approach was informed by the relatively small budget, which pushed him toward to more cost-effective choice of concrete, and a tight lot, which resulted in the cubic shape. But his artful use of space within the main sanctuary—arrayed with mathematical precision around rich wood, stained glass, and furniture of Wright’s own design—offers a perfectly proportioned place of repose and tranquility. A recently completed restoration only underscores this building’s incredible design.
Those comparing Chicago's 606 park to New York's Highline perhaps have it half right; an abandoned elevated rail track turned showcase park, it does offer a new view of the city. But by adding cycling access and threading together a string of vibrant neighborhoods on the city's new northwest side, the 606 does an even better of altering the way residents get around.
James R. Thompson Center
If you’re taking in Chicago and its wealth of magnificent architecture this summer, don’t overlook this postmodern gem, which may not be around next time you visit. A towering pedestal of multicolored steel and tapered glass, the James R. Thompson Center takes up an entire downtown block, and could easily be mistaken for a retro-futuristic stadium from the 22nd century. The structure’s colossal atrium certainly doesn’t dispel that notion. Designed by Helmut Jahn, the ambitious structure, nicknamed “Starship Chicago,” was meant to embody a new vision for government offices and agencies when it opened in 1985. And while the building has its share of detractors—the former governor and namesake of the building called it “a scrap heap,” and current governor J.B. Pritzker’s plans to sell it are currently moving forward—it’s become a rallying cry for preservationists (one of the National Trust’s most endangered buildings), and a symbol of the fragility of Chicago’s rich postmodern architectural heritage.
360Chicago John Hancock Observatory
A signature part of Chicago's skyline, the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed John Hancock Center provides some of the best views of the city. While it officially changed its name to 875 North Michigan Avenue while owners await a new deal for naming rights, it’s doubtful Chicagoans will give up the original title anytime soon. Perpetually locked in a panoramic arms race with the Willis Tower, the city's tallest structure, the Hancock upgraded its 94th-floor observatory, now called 360 Chicago, with stadium benches, and previously added TILT, a movable glass box that leans visitors over the city streets 1,000 feet below.
Chicago Riverwalk and Architectural Boat Tours
Visitors to Chicago often flock to the Lake, and for good reason; it’s one of the city’s greatest natural resources. But increasingly, the Chicago River is becoming a public space worth adding to your itinerary. A series of parks, concessions, and performance spaces installed along the river over the last few years has made it an engaging and enjoyable addition to downtown, a new waterfront gem that shows how urban public spaces are evolving. And, while Chicago Architecture River Cruise is a cliche, it’s a cliche for a reason; the entertaining and engaging tour, the ideal way to scope out the city’s incredible buildings, was named the country’s top tour by TripAdvisor.