Sunshine and playing favourites

Recently my friend, writer Victoria Blake, recommended my blog for a Sunshine Blogger Award. I was very touched, especially as the Sunshine Blogger Award is about alerting people to blogs that make one feel sunnier about life. After all, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m always moaning about something or other but maybe there’s not a Curmudgeon Award.

I first met Vicky many years ago on a course. She was working in law at the time but wanted to take the plunge into the world of books. And the wonderful thing was that she did it, writing a series of visceral crime thrillers starring her private investigator, Sam Falconer, before moving on to biographies and historical subjects.  Vicky’s recent novel ‘Titian’s Boatman‘, which is partly set in C16th Venice, has now been reissued in paperback as ‘The Return of the Courtesan‘ (which you can buy here).

Anyway, the point of me telling you this is that I always found Vicky inspiring. Knowing someone else on a similar road  gave me the courage to believe that I, too, might be published one day. In other words, she’s one of my role models. What I especially enjoy about her novels is their strong sense of place, from Sam Falconer’s Oxford to Tullia Buffo’s glorious decaying Venice. When I suffer periods of hopelessness (which is part and parcel of a writer’s life) then I think of Vicky and see how she simply keeps on keeping on (to nab a phrase from Alan Bennett).

Vicky’s recommendation for this award came with a proviso – I had to answer a series of questions that she had set. Easy, I thought, until I read the first question: What is your favourite building? I didn’t get much further because, frankly, this question flummoxed me. So I’m hoping that Vicky will forgive me if I thank her for her commendation by trying to answer just that one question.

But how can I give one answer? How can we play favourites when there are so many glorious buildings in the world? What’s the criteria?

A building that changes your mood, perhaps?

  • Chartres cathedral: even with its newly-cleaned interior, this is a building that stuns you into silence the moment you push open its door. The best medieval glass in the world, a labyrinth, and layer upon layer of history.
  • Eileen Gray’s E-1027: hard not to smile at the sunniness and style of the French Riviera and the sense that the world would be a better place after the dreadful WW1. It showed that a woman was easily as good as, if not better than her male peers.  
  • Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore: Venice might be known as La Serenissima but if you’re trapped in the milling crowds outside San Marco then you need only gaze over to this vision to see serenity made manifest.

A building that evokes happy memories, surely?

  • Grand Garage Haussmann, Paris: I stumbled across this on my first day of a trip to explore modernist Paris. It seemed to sum up the joy of the motorcar and the glamour of the Jazz Age. I don’t think I stopped smiling throughout that whole trip.
  • Oak Park, Chicago: Walking these leafy streets is like being the proverbial kid in the candy shop. A seemingly endless array of Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I was in heaven.
  • Swiss chalets: Switzerland is one of my happy places, and staying in traditional chalets is one of my greatest pleasures. The museum at Ballenberg is filled with countless traditional buildings from every region of the country. Enough said.

A building that makes your jaw drop, then?

  • St Mary’s cathedral, Tokyo: Who wouldn’t be wowed by this? I was, as a teenager, when I studied it in books. When I visited it many years later it was smaller than I’d expected but I still went wow. 
  • University of East Anglia: a place of education for me on lots of levels, and a place that wowed me each day, from living in one of its concrete ziggurats to studying in Foster’s fabulous Sainsbury Centre.
  • Wudangshan, China: after years of studying feng shui, it was great to visit China. But it was on the sacred mountain of Wudang, birthplace of tai chi, that I really understood the beauty of buildings that work with the environment.

But there’s one building that soars above these examples. It’s the chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut that was finished in 1955. I love Le Corbusier’s early work because it sums up so well that period of the early 20th century when architects thought they had the answer to everything, from improving social conditions with new types of housing to addressing the changes that cars and planes were bringing. They weren’t always right but I love their sense of hope and certainty.

hope and certainty at Pessac 1926

I love Le Corbusier’s later work, too, because he tends to throw away his rigid beliefs and come over all emotional. What better building to represents this than his chapel at Ronchamp? With a roof that is inspired by a crab’s shell, it’s sculptural and confounding and eerily beautiful, constantly changing as you walk around it. It’s incredibly moving to stand in the coloured light spilling from the wall of differently-sized windows that seem to be hewn into the side wall, and to gaze up at the huge roof that appears to float, thanks to the tiny strip of glass that runs around the top of the wall. It’s a building that makes me gasp. It overwhelms me and yet there’s such a delicacy to it. It seems to sum up humanity, being at once humble and grand. Frankly, I think it’s the building of the century.

So I got there in the end – a favourite. I hope Ms Blake will forgive me for getting waylaid by that dreamy first question but I’m thankful for the question.

It would be presumptuous to fire the question right back at her so I’ll open it up to my audience and ask what is your favourite building and why? (Difficult, isn’t it?)


Categories: Architecture, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. She is right. I always feel better after reading you.

  2. Hi Colin,
    Great post. One of the most beautiful buildings I have visited, from an interior perspective, is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in the afternoon, when the light shines through the blue/green stained-glass windows.
    Amiens Cathedral is an incredible old church to visit (with the added bonus of having a ‘labyrinth’ to absolve sins and tributes to Australian soldiers who protected the building in the First World War.
    From a social perspective there’s the beloved Sirius building in the heart of the rocks with its wonderful community spaces.
    I’m also very fond of getting off the Hume Highway and seeing the beautiful buildings, especially Tarcutta RSL and lovely buildings at Holbrook.

    • Thanks, Jo. And what a diverse assortment you’ve put forward. I love Amiens, too, especially its soaring choir, and remember walking the labyrinth there with my partner, feeling very centred, ha. I don’t know Tarcutta RSL but I do remember stopping off in Holbrook, if that’s the place with the submarine parked by the road. The essence of Australian eccentricity. It will be fascinating to see if they manage to complete the Sagrada Familia as they keep promising but it just gets odder and odder. So many buildings to love!

  3. What a wonderfully heart felt post, Colin!
    Thank you.
    Having followed your passionate, informative and yes, very sunny, blog for years, I know a few of these buildings and how you feel about them. But how wonderful to have them listed all together. I love the photos and how each building inspires you. I particularly love the Chinese roofs, and of course, UEA, but if this had been a competition I think I would have guessed the winner(!)

    You are quite right, it is a very difficult question to answer. I have mulled it over, perusing Brunelleschi, Bramante, Palladio, Borromini, Rogers and the like in my mind’s eye but in the end have come up with a building that is probably more about the spirit of place you have mentioned before.
    It is the 13C Franciscan monastery of La Verna in the Casentino area of Tuscany. As you wind up the roads to this hill-top building, through the wonderful greens of the Casentino my heart begins to flutter. It is still a working monastery so you see the Franciscan monks going about their devotions, seemingly not bothered by tourists. And in one of the walls there is a door with a little sign outside saying that this is where St Francis received the Stigmata (the first of the Saints to do so) and you expect to open it up into an austere, plain monk’s cell. But instead you open up into a soaring wall of moss covered stone, peppered with trees and it is such a surprise. It is amazing how architecture can speak directly to one’s soul.

    • Your description of La Verna made me want to set out immediately for Tuscany. (The link is It seems so perfect for the story of St Francis – that soft, mossiness. And you’re so right about architecture that speaks to the soul. I believe that any building, from a humble cottage to the grandest structure has that ability if…well, it’s the ‘if’ that’s the thing. How do architects build soul into their work? It’s so personal, I think, and being in a certain place at the right time has something to do with that. Brancusi said that architecture is inhabited sculpture and there’s something to that…Goodness, I feel a PhD coming on!

      • I love the idea of the PhD – that would certainly be full of soul!

        I think being an architect is extremely difficult. There is no other art form where people inhabit it. There are so many variables and so when they get it right it is like some Herculean artistic achievement. But it is so wonderful to be in a building with that soul, that spirit, that feeling of being transported to a higher plane.

        I would also like to add Rogers’ Madrid Barajas Airport – bet you can’t guess why(!)

      • Yes, architects can’t win but so long as people have an opinion then I think that’s pretty great. I think creating a building that affects you the moment you step inside is rather like an author writing the perfect line, the painter the perfect stroke…Barajas? I’m guessing because it’s the gateway to a heap of Velasquez et al but also because it’s so colourful?

  4. What a glorious post Colin. I’m glad I asked the question! I’m very honoured to be a role model. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been called one! You’re so right about keeping on keeping on. My favourite building would probably be The Provost’s Lodgings, the house I grew up in in Queen’s college in Oxford. It was built by Erith, an exact copy of an eighteenth century house. It had a huge amount of light and a hall that ran through from one side to the other and there was a rumour that the ghost of a cavalier officer killed during the civil war rode through it at midnight, although none of us ever saw it. It also had a huge gold ball on the top of it which i loved as a child. There was also the fact it looked out onto another beautiful building The Queen’s college library. Your blog constantly inspires me to look up at the buildings around me because your love and attention to the detail of buildings and what they contribute is so enrolling.

    • How fantastic! I can imagine how wonderful it would have been to live as a child in a house with a gold ball on top! As to a charging ghost … I’m not surprised by your choice. Oxford’s architecture nourishes at every turn but, as you rightly point out, simply looking up wherever one is is always rewarding. Given that’s what I always do, it’s rather a marvel that I haven’t yet fallen down an open manhole although I have encountered a few lamp posts …

      • I was six when we moved into the house so you can imagine a golden ball was pretty magical! The library took more time to grow on me. I’m actually researching the Civil War in Oxford at the moment so maybe that ghost did some whispering in my ear way back then and the whispers are becoming manifest.

      • Now you’re beginning to spook me…:)

  5. Lovely post, Colin, and wonderful to see such a diverse set of choices

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