June 21, 2012 at 8:26 AM ET
These 14 cities — some iconic, others surprising — embody certain eras of architecture so much that they provide travelers with living, breathing (and free) design exhibits.
Perhaps the most iconic on this list, Miami Beach's Historic District comprises the largest collection of Art Deco architecture in the world. To transform Miami into an ultramodern and luxury tourist destination during the 1920s and 1930s, architects turned to Deco's symmetrical and geometrical patterns, floral and animal motifs, and pastel colors to invoke fluidity and movement, which are synonymous with the city today.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School
Mason City, Iowa
Inspired by the flat terrain and open sky of the Midwest, Wright's Prairie School was defined by bold, horizontal lines, low profiles, natural lighting, and an uninterrupted flow within and between interior and exterior spaces. He used this style when commissioned to design G.C. Stockman's house in 1908 (pictured here); neighbors (and some copycat architects) followed suit, which is why this small Iowa town has one of the largest collections of Prairie-style homes in the world.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tel Aviv's “White City” contains 4,000 International Style buildings, many of which were built in the 1930s and 1940s. To accommodate the influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe, German Bauhaus-trained architects integrated the modern style's affordable and functional building techniques with curved lines and a color well-suited for the Mediterranean climate to create a habitable city by the sea.
American Arts & Crafts
The early-20th-century American Arts & Crafts movement, whose ideals rest on hardwoods and artisanal handcrafting, found a natural home in the timber country of the Pacific Northwest. Nowhere are Craftsman bungalows more prominent than in West Seattle, home to the landmarked Bloss House, and in Seattle's Queen Anne district, where the movement’s simple construction, balanced proportions, and matching gardens provided a sweet departure from the ornate Victorians of that era.
Shortly after India's 1947 partition, Prime Minister J. Nehru tasked Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier with designing an organized, progressive city: one that would break from past traditions from the ground up. Its planned supergrid, exposed masonry and concrete, and the eccentric sculpture-work that peppers Chandigarh has made the city a study for planning and design students around the world. Pictured here is the Punjab and Haryana High Court by Le Corbusier.
It's hard to escape Renaissance aesthetics in Florence, the birthplace of the late-14th-century movement. The era's embellished but symmetrical and geometrical structures—columns and domes—and emphasis on realism and the human form departed from the irregular and severe lines of the Medieval period. They're most visible at Florence's Duomo and Basilica of Santa Maria Novella.
Gaudís Art Nouveau
Taking cues from modern Gothic and oriental techniques, the early-19th-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí wanted to create organic, urban spaces in the city he loved. A walk around Barcelona leads you through the largest concentration of his signature ceramic and stained-glass mosaics, as well as his undulating stonework and ironwork, which include Park Güell (pictured) and culminate in his unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Família.
A historic crossroads of culture and design, Istanbul's landscape provides a prominent display of its two conquering empires. Travelers needn't look farther than the Hagia Sophia mosque for the aesthetics central to both: the Byzantine dome and colored mosaics, and the Ottoman minarets and Islamic calligraphy.
Modernism and Post-Modernism
Columbus, Ind., has a population of only 44,000, but it's a surprising trove of Modernism: The town claims more than 70 buildings designed by star architects, including I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, and Richard Meier. Credit for this belongs to philanthropist and architecture lover J. Irwin Miller, who, in the 1950s through 1960s, commissioned a revamping of the local churches, public buildings, and his own estate, leading the American Institute of Architects to rank Columbus sixth in the nation in architectural innovation and design. (Pictured here is the North Christian Church.)
Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The hundreds of free-standing 1900s Victorian single-family mansions transport visitors to another time and city, when developer Lewis Pounds helped create an ornate, middle-class pocket south of Prospect Park (on farmland previously owned by the Van Ditmarsen family), replete with wraparound porches and manicured lawns.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Over the course of 10 years, Dubai's landscape has transformed. Home to the world's tallest building, the only seven-star hotel (pictured here, the Burj al Arab), and the only man-made archipelago modeled after the seven continents, Dubai's development has lured top contemporary architects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas to feed into its outdoor design frenzy.
The presence of , palaces with interior courtyards and gardens and open skylights, are specific to Morocco and essential to Islamic design because of their emphasis on privacy. The lack of street-level windows and the use of clay walls also lends to the feeling of intimacy and grace. The density of Marrakech's riads — combined with the city's mosques, minarets, and mosaics — makes it an exceptional place to view the Moorish architecture of the 12th through 17th centuries.
Poet Matthew Arnold once called Oxford the "city of the dreaming spires." Taking notes from earlier Medieval stonework, the towers of Oxford's mid-19th-century Gothic Revival skyline define the city, embedding it with a sense of gravity and academic prowess—just like its namesake university.
Although Chicago has the most LEED-accredited buildings in the U.S., Portland, Oregon, whose population is a quarter of the size, has the sixth highest number, making it the city with the highest concentration of green buildings. In addition, zoning regulations that preserve urban agricultural spaces, a bike-friendly layout, and energy-efficient homes whose designs take on organic shapes and materials make Portland — along with the design firms it is home to — a leader in sustainable architecture.
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