There may be many deep and philosophical reasons why people travel, but a common yet simple motivation is to conquer as many landmarks as possible around the world.

Architects are one such group of travellers. Call it an occupational hazard, but the ability to explore a landmark or building intimately can invariably lead to new inspiration and award-winning designs. So for this story, we asked the experts to identify landmarks that left an impression and explain how they have been inspired by these architectural wonders.

For Hsu Hsia Pin, co-founder of EHKA Studio, the breathtakingly beautiful Taj Mahal that he visited during a school trip in 2004 subconsciously delivered a powerful sense of separation and contrast.

“It is located in a small and historic city that is not so urban… crazy and very messy,” he explained. “But when you go past the gates and enter the compounds of the Taj Mahal, everything is completely manicured and so silent. You only see the sky and the Taj Mahal — you don’t see the other buildings — and it is like you are entering into another realm.”

Taj Mahal in Agra, India

According to the 35-year-old, the layering of spaces contributed to this sense of “separation”. “You have to enter through a number of gates and there is a change of elevation. You are walking downwards and this accentuates the departure from the outside world.”

Reflecting on his own works, Hsu did not directly link any project to his experience at the Taj Mahal but noted that there were several elements of Sushi Mitsuya restaurant, an omakase (chef’s selection) restaurant in Singapore, that incorporated “separation”. To accentuate the intimate setting and feeling of being a guest in the home of a host, EHKA Studio used screens to set apart the main dining space from the public space; the designers also situated a separate stone counter for the diners to have their sake before the main meal.

He added: “The experience of space around us will always impact the way we design. What we imagine is what we have experienced.”

Switzerland’s Therme Vals hotel and spa complex, an award-winning design by Peter Zumthor, was another landmark that captivated Hsu when he visited in 2008 while on vacation with his wife. While “not very decorative”, the design was clean and the focus was on space and tectonics, he noted, explaining that tectonics in architecture referred to how space is crafted using planes, volumes and play on form.

“The architect made the whole space feel like it was carved out of a cave. There was light coming in through cracks and the water reflected on the stone walls and ceiling, contrasting their solidity.

“The materiality of the space was very powerful. When you stand there you feel very nice,” he surmised.

MKPL Architects founder Siew Man Kok singled out the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City and the Forbidden City in Beijing, as landmarks designed to “exult over the presence of a higher order of things”.

Sun rays fall through the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Credit: CC BY SA 3.0 (Jraytram, 2008)

Siew added: “St. Peter’s Basilica taught me how the enclosed internal space can be so uplifting whilst the Forbidden City Palace taught me how external space can be designed so powerfully and beautifully, all at the same time.”

Elaborating on the uplifting mood of the basilica, the 51-year-old attributed it to a combination of lighting quality, volume of space and sculptures adorning the walls and ceilings. “The sculptures are bigger than human and by placing the sculptures in that very tall space, it gives you the impression that the space is still very human.”

Context, ‘feel good’ also key
No two landmarks are identical because they are created in different societies and at different times. Landmarks that have the ability to reflect the context and yet have a timeless appeal can make for a remarkable architectural expression.

Labelling the Centre Pompidou in Beauborg, Paris, as an “aspirational building”, Gabriel Chen of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers said the building is a statement of social change. It was built from 1971 to 1977 by winners of an architectural design competition in the style of high-tech architecture and has an intriguing design of an exposed skeleton of brightly-coloured tubes.

“There was a social revolution at that time and it was all about what one can actually do to change society, to create something, to somehow defy conventions and that’s what this building managed to do,” the 55-year-old director at the architectural practice said of the landmark, which he has visited a number of times.

“You see this building in Paris, it makes sense; if you see this in London, it [will] not make sense. This building serves its purpose in that space. It’s a very site-specific response to the context.”

Another edifice that Chen has a vivid impression of is the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, which he stumbled upon after completing his A-levels in England in the 1970s. To him, it possessed a space that makes the visitor feel comfortable and welcomed; to put it another way, it achieved a delicate balance of fundamentals such as air, daylight, height and width — something extremely tricky in architecture.

“[The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts] is a box-like building — no big deal. But the inside [has] that… balance. When the daylight is very harsh, the blinds start moving to close a little bit. The air flow is very, very quiet and the heating is very nicely tuned. It was one of those early designs that I liked very much.”