Global Weird and wonderful

UFOs and iced churches: the world’s most unusual buildings

“Ooh look, a rhombicuboctahedron!”

One of the joys of visiting another city is the chance to come across quirky, surprising and unexpected buildings. Boasting far-out shapes, awe-inspiring designs, and unique styles, these are the ones not to miss.

Atomium, Belgium

Towering over the Heysel Plateau, Belgium’s answer to the Eiffel Tower is a set of silver balls representing an iron molecule magnified 165 million times.

Atomium Brussels Belgium Flanders by bruno coelho, Shutterstock world's most unusual buildings
The ultra-modern silver balls of the Atomium are modelled on an iron molecule © bruno coelho, Shutterstock

Built for the 1958 World’s Fair, the 102m-high sculpture was never intended to be permanent but has become such a familiar fixture on the Brussels skyline that €27.5 million was raised to fund its renovation in 2006. It now includes an exhibition centre, classy restaurant and panoramic viewing station.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Bilbao’s spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim is, of course, the headline act in the city. Bilbao and its surroundings in the Basque Country suffered in the 1980s as part of a global industrial decline, exacerbated by regional factors, but it has since sought to reinvent itself as a service economy.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain by Noradoa, Shutterstock
Bilbao has seen the ‘Guggenheim effect’ © Noradoa, Shutterstock

The ‘Guggenheim effect’ is held up as the flagship project in this process. The ‘botxo’ – the ‘hole’, as then-polluted Bilbao was once called – is no more. 

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik

One of the tallest buildings in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja is a symbol of Reykjavik in its own right. Its architecture borrows from an ancient theme that honours a past hero, Hallgrímur Pétursson, by invoking nature with modernism.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland by VisitIceland world's most unusual buildings
Hallgrímskirkja is one of the tallest buildings in Iceland © VisitIceland

The design was finalised in 1937, construction began after the Second World War and the town was completed in 1974. It’s possible to climb to the top of this tower for an unforgettable panorama of Reykjavik.

Khan Shatyr, Astana

At 150m-high, the Khan Shatyr is the world’s largest tent, designed by British architect Norman Foster. Although from the outside the tent appears to be leaning precariously, on the inside you can clearly see the intricate and surprisingly attractive latticework of steel that supports much of the structure’s weight.

Khan Shatyr weird building Astana Kazakhstan by freedarst, Shutterstock world's most unusual buildings
Khan Shatyr is the largest tent in the world © freedarst, Shutterstock

This view is not unlike the inside of a beehive, and the precision with which each glazed panel interconnects with the next is striking. The complex is maintained at 24°C year round and includes a waterpark, indoor canals with gondolas, a mini golf course, a miniature train, designer label boutiques, a cinema and spa, restaurants, apartments and a large central performance space.

National Library, Minsk

Opened by the president himself on 16 June 2006, this most unusual building in Belarus’s capital makes for a really eye-catching sight in all of its futuristic splendour.

National Library Minsk Belarus by Kuprevich, Shutterstock world's most unusual buildings
The National Library looks even more impressive at night © Kuprevich, Shutterstock 

The correct term for its geometric shape is, apparently, a rhombicuboctahedron. Whatever the technicalities, it’s quite a sight.

National Library, Prishtina

The National Library at the heart of the university campus in Kosovo’s capital is one of the most architecturally interesting buildings in Prishtina, although not necessarily to everyone’s taste – a 2009 website classed it among the ten most ugly buildings in the world.

National Library Prishtina Kosovo by Leonid Andronov, Dreamstime
The National Library is easily one of Kosovo’s most interesting buildings © Leonid Andronov, Dreamstime

According to urban legend, the head of the Communist Party asked one of his aides at the official inauguration ceremony why the scaffolding had not been taken down.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana

Taking the form of a pyramid, as a structure with no denominational connotations, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation makes for an impressive sight. On a 15m-high earth-covered mound the 62m pyramid rises up, constructed of a steel frame, its lower levels covered in granite.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation Pyramid Astana Kazakhstan By Maykova Galina Shutterstock
The pyramid was built to host the Congress of World and Traditional Religions © Maykova Galina, Shutterstock

You enter from the east side of the structure, into the side of the mound. The first impression given on entering the pyramid is, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, one of much greater size inside than out. This is largely explained by the fact that the earth-covered mound is itself part of the structure.

Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang

Stabbing 330m high into the sky, the great unfinished Ryugyong Hotel can be seen from every viewpoint in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea by Suez, Wikimedia Commons world's most unusual buildings
The Ryugyong Hotel dominates the Pyongyang skyline © Suez, Wikimedia Commons

It has been speculated that this 105-storey pyramid inspired the Shard in London. Construction began in 1980 when Pyongyang hosted the World Student Games and, although recently clad in glass, it’s anyone’s guess as to when it will be finished.

The Blue Church, Bratislava

Although formally called the Church of St Elizabeth, this Art Nouveau building in Slovakia’s capital takes its name from the little ceramic tiles that cover its concrete edifice.

Blue Church, Bratislava, Slovakia by saiko3p, Shutterstock world's most unusual buildings
The Blue Church is often said to look like it is covered in cake icing © saiko3p, Shutterstock

With its light blue ‘icing’ and decorative elements, this architectural masterpiece is considered the most beautiful church in Bratislava. 

The Pineapple, Dunmore

Absolutely extraordinary, eccentric, witty and a brilliant creation, The Pineapple is a two-storey summerhouse built for the fourth Earl of Dunmore. The seamless stone blend from classical architecture to rampant fruit is magic, on a par with the fur coats turning to fir trees in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is also an elaborate joke.

The Pineapple Dunmore Scotland by mountaintreks Shutterstock
Built for the fourth Earl of Dunmore, The Pineapple is an elaborate, architectural joke © mountaintreks, Shutterstock

The fourth Earl of Dunmore was governor of Virginia where sailors used to stick a pineapple on a gatepost to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore’s attitude, on being forced home in 1777, was that as governor he would have the biggest pineapple of the lot to mark his own reluctant return. It is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and leased to the Landmark Trust. At the time it was built, pineapples were practically unknown in Britain.

UFO Tower, Bratislava

Built in 1972, the UFO Tower is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge that has one pylon and one cable-stayed span.

UFO Tower Bratislava Most SNP Slovakia by DUOMEDIA
The UFO Tower is one of Bratislava’s iconic sights © DUOMEDIA

The asymmetrical structure has a main span length of 303m, and the unique attraction is the flying saucer-shaped object housing a restaurant, bar and lookout platform above.

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