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Top Architects of the last 100 years

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

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The past hundred years have produced some towering figures of the architectural world, each embracing various movements that have cemented the past century as the most disruptive and creative of recent history. Here we run down our five favourites.

Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer grew up in a wealthy family and always had a natural talent for the visual arts. He once recalled, “My mother said I used to draw in the air with my fingers. I needed a pencil. Once I could hold one, I have drawn every day since.” He graduated from Barnabitas College, Rio de Janeiro, in 1923 and started working for his father at a typography house. Niemeyer later joined the architecture office of Lucio Costa, an influential architect, who designed much of the layout for Brasilia. Together, Niemeyer and Lucio worked with each other on many buildings between 1936 and 1943, including the Brazilian Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair.

Niemeyer’s position as a rising star in the world of architecture was confirmed when he was selected as a part of the team to design the United Nations building. But it was his designs and developments of civic buildings for Brasilia in the late 1950s, that Oscar Niemeyer is best known for. These buildings include the Presidential Palace and the Ministry of Justice building. He is a legendary figure in modernist architecture and over 78 years, he’s designed approximately 600 projects. Today, he is currently Brazil’s best-known architect.

Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)

Earning a reputation as one of the top female architects, Zaha Hadid was born into a wealthy Iraq family in Baghdad, in 1950. Her father was an executive and founder of a liberal Iraqi political party. Hadid’s interest in architecture began when she visited the ancient Sumer region of Iraq with her family, the site of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. In 1972, she moved to London to pursue her architecture passion, studying at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.

Hadid’s first major building was the construction of a fire station in 1993-1994 in Germany. She also designed Ohio’s new Centre for Contemporary art, which was completed in 2003, and by the mid-2000s, she had become a prominent architect. Her efforts were rewarded when she received the Pritzker Architecture prize in 2004, the first woman in history to be given the award. She also designed the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, and currently her designs are set to be built for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Frank Gehry (1929)

Known for his post-modern designs, Frank Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929. Even at a young age he was creative and interested in building materials, as he used items he found in his grandfather’s hardware store to build imaginary cities and homes. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1949, he attended the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, where he eventually graduated.

Gehry’s earliest commissions were all in Southern California, designing the Santa Monica Place and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in the early 1980s. He also designed many homes during this period, such as the Norton House in Venice. As Gehry became more prominent in the architecture world, the scale of his work increased dramatically. In 1997, Gehry’s career soared to new heights when his design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened, and it was hailed as a masterpiece. This is a clear example of his unconventional and striking aesthetic style. His other best known works include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Gehry continues to be one of the world’s leading contemporary architects.

Phillip Johnson (1906-2005)

Phillip Johnson was part of the generation of American architects that revolutionised the approach to design, introducing modern architecture and an “international style”. Johnson graduated from Harvard with a degree in Philosophy in 1930, but suspended much of his education to travel to Europe. He visited Chartres and the Parthenon, and many other ancient monuments, becoming increasingly fascinated by architecture.
His best-known work was his design for his own home, The Glass House, which was built in 1949. The house was an exercise in style and minimal structure, and Johnson used it as a weekend retreat, which he lived in for 58 years with his partner. His other renowned work includes New York’s Seagram Building (1959), which he designed in collaboration with Mies van der Rohe. He continued to design many other buildings throughout his lifetime, such as the Sheldon Museum of Art, the JFK memorial, Sony’s former headquarters and the AT&T Building.

Renzo Piano (1937)

Piano’s first commission was in 1969 to design the Italian Industry Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. This was a key point in Piano’s career and it was during this time that he met British architect, Richard Rodgers. The pair went on to establish an architectural firm, working together from 1971 to 1977. Piano has since designed some great buildings, such as the New York Times building and the California Academy of Sciences. He also more recently designed The Shard in London, arguably his most renowned work. He has received many awards and in 2013, he was appointed senator for life in the Italian senate because of his “outstanding cultural achievements”.

So, over the last 100 years, we have seen an array of great architects, each with their own unique style and vision. There are many young architects working today who could one day feature on this list, such as Alok Shetty, who started his own design firm at the age of 19, and has since developed flood-proof houses in his native, Bangalore. He has been referred to as one of the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. Exciting times lie ahead for the next 100 years of architecture.

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