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14 Famous Figures Every Architecture Student Should Study

December 16th, 2010

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Some buildings truly do stand the test of time and have been and are admired today, in generations past, and likely will be for years to come. The architects behind these famous works are people you really should get to know as an architecture student, not only to help you shape your own designs, but to make you well-rounded and familiar with the men and women who've shaped our cities and the buildings they created. Here are fourteen famous names you should know to inspire and inform your future career in architecture.

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright: There are few names bigger in American architecture than Frank Lloyd Wright. Over his lifetime, he would go on to design thousands of buildings, with over 500 completed. One of his most famous buildings is Fallingwater, a home that is built into the landscape, exemplifying his iconic idea of organic architecture. Wright was also a leader in Prairie School of architecture and worked on everything from schools to skyscrapers and furniture to stained glass during his career. He has been called "the greatest American architect of all time" by the American Institute of Architects, so any well-rounded student of architecture should be familiar with his work.
  2. Frank Gehry: Few can resist the appeal of the curvilinear forms found in the distinctive work of this well-known architect. This award-winner has designed major public spaces the world over and was called "the most important architect of our age" by Vanity Fair. Students should familiarize themselves with one of Gehry's most famous works, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. This amazing space has been recognized as one of the most influential works of architecture in the world, though Gehry's other work in LA, Seattle, Chicago, Prague and Toronto are also worth noting. Unlike many other architects on this list, Gehry is still living and working today, with a building in lower Manhattan to be completed in 2012.
  3. Le Corbusier: Referred to simply as Le Corb in architecture circles, this Swiss architect, designer and painter is famous the world over for helping herald in a new era in modern architecture, today referred to as the International Style. While later critics have often harshly criticized his works, there is no doubt that they were influential. Known for his sparse spaces, clean lines and highly functional design, Le Corbusier designed buildings throughout the world most staying strictly within his famed "Five Points of Architecture." While his works and his ideals on urban planning may have been flawed, he remains someone worth studying both for his good points and bad.
  4. Michelangelo: Most know Michelangelo from his work in painting, as with such famous works as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Yet he was much more than just a painter. He was a poet, an engineer and an architect, the archetypal Renaissance man. While Michelangelo's achievements mark the pinnacle of High Renaissance creativity, he only has two buildings of note to his name as an architect: the Laurentian Library and the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Why study a man who contributed so little to architecture in a practical sense? Because Michelangelo was one of the best when it came to blending art and architecture to create breathtaking, unified spaces that not only employed the latest in engineering advances but were decorated with awe-inspiring sculptures as well. While the style of the Renaissance may no longer be en vogue, students can still learn from this Italian master.
  5. Antoni Gaudi: When one looks at a building designed by Gaudi, the first word that often comes to mind is playful, often followed by organic, unique and perhaps even crazy. No matter what you think of Gaudi's work, you can't help but admire his individuality, creativity and ambition. This Catalonian architect is perhaps best known for his Modernist cathedral in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia. This epic structure was begun in 1882, but sidetracked by the Spanish Civil War, the death of Gaudi and countless other problems; it's still being constructed today. Adorned with intricate carvings and resembling a sand castle, few who visit this cathedral can resist its appeal or deny its beauty. Gaudi's other famous works, the Casa Mila and the Casa Batilo, are also worth studying for their use of materials, curving forms and whimsical adornments.
  6. Louis Sullivan: Called both the "father of modernism" and the "father of the skyscraper," Sullivan had a major role to play in the development of modern architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan was part of the Prairie School, and many of his designs reflect elements of this style. What truly makes Sullivan stand out, however, is his refinements of the steel-framed buildings that allowed skyscrapers to extend upward, while adorning him with elements that emphasized the vertical in these new urban giants. Students can visit some of Sullivan's creations in Chicago and New York and see where today's super high buildings got their start.
  7. Rem Koolhaas: This Dutch architect and architectural theorist may spend a good deal of his time these days teaching at Harvard, but he's no slouch when it comes to architectural design. Koolhaas won the Pritzker Prize in 2000 and was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. Koolhaas, along with his firm OMA, was responsible for designing many influential buildings, most notably the Seattle Central Library, Prada in Beverly Hills and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. Of course, these buildings alone aren't the only reason to study Koolhaas. His work in architectural theory is highly regarded and is a must-read for anyone seriously studying architecture or art history.
  8. Mies van der Rohe: If you're looking for an architect whose work embodies the adage, "form follows function" then look no further than this famous German-American architect. Mies, along with big names like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, was part of an enterprising young group of architects that helped establish what we know today as modern architecture. His stripped down buildings focus on open spaces and minimalist, modern materials, and he referred to his work as "skin and bones" architecture. Winning numerous honors throughout his career, Mies designed some of the most famous buildings of the modernist age. Students shouldn't miss out on studying his work with the Farnsworth House, a private commission in a rural setting, simply and artfully composed of glass and steel.
  9. Filippo Brunelleschi: You may not know his name, but you've likely seen the work of this Renaissance architect. Once of the foremost designers in his day, Brunelleschi was an innovator who earned as much highly regard in his own time as he does today. Inspired by Greek and Roman ruins, Brunelleschi soon became a master of basilica and cathedral design. One of his most famous pieces is the massive dome that sits atop the Duomo in Florence, a mathematical and engineering feat unrivaled in its time. Working within the constraints of the city fathers, limited technology and on a project no one had dared attempt before, Brunelleschi managed to create a dome that stands to this day. His work on this building, and others in Florence, is worth a look for any architecture student.
  10. Imhotep: When you think of Egypt one of the first images that pops into your head is of the pyramids. For that, you have this ancient Egyptian architect, engineer and physician to thank. While serving under Pharaoh Djoser, Imhotep designed the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, the first tomb of its kind and one of the largest ever built out of stone. While later architects would refine this pyramidal form, Imhotep was the first to employ it and also the first to use columns and innovate a new way of dressing buildings with stone. His achievements didn't go unnoticed at the time, and upon his death he was elevated to the status of a god, one of only a very few commoners to ever hold this honor in ancient Egyptian society.
  11. Charles and Ray Eames: Most may be familiar with this brotherly duo through their famous Eames chair, but they were also a force to be reckoned with in architecture as well as furniture design, graphic design, fine art and film. Born to an architect father, these brothers were surrounded with a love of building from their earliest years, a love that would translate into a long and successful career for both of them. Well-known the world over for their work, students should familiarize themselves with this powerful duo. Works of note include the Eames House in Pacific Palisades and the Bridge House.
  12. Adolf Loos: Many architects on this list represent the face of American Modern architecture, but Loos was using many of those same innovations in design overseas in Europe. He reviled the intricate decorations of the Art Nouveau and set about creating buildings that were simple and functional. He believed that the progress of society had to do in part with the deletion of ornamentation from everyday objects, and that it was a crime to force craftsmen to waste time in its creation, as it would only too soon grow obsolete. Ironically, however, Loos' own buildings were not always devoid of decoration, but employed it in ways he felt were natural rather than superfluous.
  13. Ieoh Ming Pei: Perhaps better known as I.M. Pei, this Chinese-American architect is a master of modern architecture and a name every student should know. Over his lifetime, Pei has won a number of awards including the AIA Gold Medal, the Pritzker Prize, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Design Museum. All this fuss about his work isn't for nothing. Buildings like the JFK Library in Boston and the Louvre pyramid have helped to cement his place in architectural history for ages to come. Other great works include the Bank of China Tower and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  14. Zaha Hadid: It wouldn't be fair to create a list of famous names architecture students should know without including at least one woman, and Hadid is very deserving of the honor. Architecture has traditionally been a male profession and Hadid was one of the first women to truly break through, winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004– the first woman to hold this honor. Influential in both her theoretical designs and those which have actually been constructed, Hadid has made a name for herself internationally. Students should check out her modernist creations in Zaragoza, Spain, Leipzig, Germany and Cincinnati, Ohio as well as the recently completed Guangzhou Opera House in China.

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