The New Seven Wonders

Since ancient times, mankind has celebrated—and ranked—its greatest architectural achievements. Critic MARTIN FILLER can't resist his own update.

To spur concern for the preservation of international landmarks, Swiss adventurer/activist Bernard Weber recently announced plans to create (via the results of an online vote) a contemporary version of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Pharos of Alexandria, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. Nice idea, but too late—the World Monuments Fund's 100 most-endangered roster already does that. And its short list, with such shoo-ins as the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and Machu Picchu, is too obvious. But what about Seven Modern Wonders of the World? With the jury still out on so much of 20th-century culture, there's plenty of room for debate, as there can be no definitive list in these pluralist times. Here, a septet, in no particular order, of worthy candidates.

Chrysler Building (1928–30), New York, by William van Alen
The skyscraper—America's quintessential contribution to modern architecture—always embodied ambition and power, but it first attained true sophistication with this Art Deco showstopper (briefly the world's tallest building). While hard-line traditionalists and modernists abhorred its zany ornament and populist appeal, Depression-weary dreamers embraced Van Alen's radiant addition to the skyline because of its jaunty optimism. It took the numbing conformity of postwar shoebox office towers—starved to glass skin and steel bones—to win belated respect for the Fred Astaire of high-rises.

Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (1927–32), Thiepval, France, by Edwin Lutyens
The unprecedented magnitude of 20th-century warfare made conventional monuments pitifully inadequate. Though classically correct, this pathbreaking modern memorial delivers a scathing subliminal message about the insane waste of World War I's most futile battle. The relentless pileup of triumphal arches, inscribed with the names of the 73,357 dead, frames a chillingly hollow center. Lutyens's cathartic evocation is rivaled only by Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut (1950–55), Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier
How ironic that the cool technocrat who declared the house "a machine for living in" also created modernism's most compelling sacred space. The exalting uphill trek to this isolated shrine makes everyone a pilgrim, just as the mysterious, irregular interior makes everyone an instant believer—in Le Corbusier. Slashed and stained with light, the cavelike sanctuary short-circuits reason and churns your gut in the same way Chartres Cathedral does. The buildings are alike in how they exploit the holy terror underlying religious instinct.

Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (1962–83), Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Louis Kahn
It's a wonder in itself that an impoverished nation could produce the finest 20th-century capital complex. The paradox deepens when you consider that this was no whim of some megalomaniac dictator but the product of a democratic people who built it largely with their own hands and in the process created an incomparable treasure for their country. The geometric majesty of the central National Assembly hall—a towering cluster of concrete cylinders and cubes—is a rare, modern example of monumentality that is equal to the most imposing edifices of classical antiquity.

Fallingwater (1934–37), Bear Run, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright
Many ideas central to modernism began in domestic design, but few houses built in the last century are wonders. (Philip Johnson's Glass House was merely a stunt.) One perpetual jaw-dropper is this masterwork by America's greatest architect. By flinging a stack of cantilevered balconies over a waterfall and melding structure with nature as never before, Wright blew away all his earlier efforts to break out of the box and nailed his late-life comeback.

Viaduc de Millau (1993–2001), Tarn River Valley, France, by Norman Foster
Forget the undeniably eye-catching yet overwrought bridges of Santiago Calatrava, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of engineering. Foster's viaduct is the infrastructure tour de force of our time. Taking modernism's belief in the unsurpassable beauty of exposed structure literally to new heights, the tallest columns supporting this mile-and-a-half-long span between two plateaus are equivalent in height to the Eiffel Tower, and the cable-strung masts soar another 90 feet above the road. This stunning highway through the sky merits that overused adjective: wonderful.

Sydney Opera House (1957–73), Australia, by JØrn Utzon
Decades before Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, this instant icon proved that contemporary architecture could capture the imagination of the masses and symbolize a city as memorably as did the Pharos of Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes in ancient times. As with those early wonders, a harborfront site adds considerable drama. But here the famous fan-out of dazzling white saillike roofs demonstrates the power that abstraction possesses in evoking specific images while freed from the burden of representation.