Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.” Indeed, buildings are both a practical necessity and an artistic expression of a culture. Architects make civilization not only possible, but also beautiful.
We’ll explore some of history’s most famous architects, (in no particular order of greatness). Some are known for their iconic works or lasting influence, while others shook the world with their innovative styles. We’ll start with a true Renaissance man who had incredible influence for someone who came to architecture late in life.
Although known today more for his painting and sculpture, Michelangelo was also a master architect. In fact, he was among the first to depart from the classical style and defy traditional expectations.
In 1523, Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to design a two-story library on top of an existing convent. Michelangelo employed radical principles to his design of Florence, Italy’s Laurentian Library, breaking rules of the classical style. For instance, he took practical elements, like brackets traditionally used as supportive structures, and uses them merely for ornamentation.
Michelangelo’s most famous contribution to architecture is probably the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City. It stands as one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world and inspired many imitators, such as the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. However, the dome itself was not completed before Michelangelo died. Scholars still debate on how much the ultimate construction deviates from Michelangelo’s plans.
15. Mimar Sinan
Michelangelo’s contemporary in the Ottoman Empire was Mimar Sinan. Working in the 16th century, Sinan designed more than 300 structures, including mostly mosques but also palaces, schools and other buildings. Unquestionably the most influential Turkish architect in history, Sinan perfected the design of the domed mosque, which was an important symbol of both political power and the Islamic faith in the Ottoman Empire.
Although born Christian, Sinan was drafted into the Janissary Corps and converted to Islam. After quickly rising in the ranks to chief of the artillery, he first displayed his talent in architecture by designing fortifications and bridges. He became Chief of the Imperial Architects in 1538 and began building mosques.
But before Michaelangelo and Mimar Sinan there was Imhotep, who lived who lived sometime between 2667 B.C.E. and 2648 B.C.E. Although he was born a commoner, Imhotep rose to become chief architect to Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty of Egypt and is known as the first architect, among other distinctions. Imhotep is credited with designing the pharaoh’s tomb, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The world’s first pyramid, according to Discovering Egypt, it consisted of multiple mastabas (flat-roofed structures with sloping sides that had been the traditional pharaoh burial structures) one stacked atop the next becoming smaller each time. The result is a 204-foot-tall (62 meters) step structure surrounded by a massive complex that overlooked Memphis, the ancient capital. The tomb lies below the pyramid.
To create the Step Pyramid, Imhotep invented new tools and equipment. While earlier mastabas had been made of clay brick, Imhotep used stone blocks, and the exterior was covered in limestone. Imhotep’s design influenced subsequent burial structures, culminating in the later pyramids like Great Pyramid of Giza. Thanks to his ingenuity, Imhotep, who was also recognized as a healer, was later deified, worshipped in Memphis and later by the Greeks, who associated him with Asclepius, their god of medicine.
13. Sir Christopher Wren
Under normal circumstances, Sir Christopher Wren would probably be known as a great architect, but he might not have gone down in history as among the most famous architects that ever lived. As it happened, however, Wren was in the right place at the right time, and he possessed the right talent.
Wren was a professor of astronomy at Oxford who came to architecture though his interest in physics and engineering. In the 1660s, he was commissioned to design the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford and visited Paris to study French and Italian baroque styles. In 1666, Wren had completed a design for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. One week after it was accepted, however, the Great Fire of London raged through the city, destroying most of it — including the cathedral.
The Great Fire created an unexpected opportunity for Wren, and he was soon at work on reconstruction. Although plans for a sweeping reconstruction of the city soon proved too difficult, by 1669, Wren was appointed surveyor of royal works, which put him in charge of government building projects. Ultimately, he had his hand in designing 51 churches, as well as St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other famous buildings designed by Wren included the Greenwich Hospital, which later became the Royal Naval College, and the façade of Hampton Court Palace, both in London.
12. Louis Henry Sullivan
Known for the principle of “form follows function,” Louis Henry Sullivan was anxious to break free from tradition and became influential in forging a distinctly American architecture. Similar to Sir Christopher Wren, Sullivan benefited from a great fire. The Great Fire of 1871 in Chicago resulted in a construction boom and afforded architects like Sullivan with work for the decades to come. As a young man, he worked briefly in the offices of famed architects Frank Furness and then William Le Baron Jenney. He was only 24 years old when he became a partner in Dankmar Adler’s firm in 1881.
As other architects like Jenney started implementing steel to allow for taller structures, the skyscraper was born. Sullivan was instrumental in creating a new functional design for these new, tall buildings rather than sticking with outmoded traditions. Because of this, some refer to Sullivan as the “Father of the Skyscraper” (though others ascribe this title to Jenney). Sullivan’s designs also incorporated both geometric shapes and organic elements. Although most of his work was done in Chicago, his most famous work is the 10-story Wainwright Building in St. Louis, built in 1890, and the 16-story Guaranty Building in Buffalo, built in 1894.
11. Le Corbusier
A Swiss-French architect born in 1887, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret made some of the most significant contributions to architecture in the 20th century. He and the painter Amédée Ozenfant began the publication “L’Esprit Nouveau” in 1920 and wrote under pseudonyms. Jeanneret chose a name from his family lineage: Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier embraced functionalism, rejecting excessive nonstructural ornamentation, and favored the modern materials of concrete and steel in his structures. He was particularly well-known for his houses and would become a major figure in the developing the International Style of architecture.
Le Corbusier’s designs used free-flowing floor plans, as well as column support that allowed for walls that could be placed independent of the structure. He placed his buildings on stilts, partly because he believed this to be conducive to a hygienic lifestyle. And finally, his buildings incorporated flat roofs that could accommodate gardens. He described a house as “a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier attained several patents during his life, including one for his characteristic horizontal sliding windows that would take up the length of a building.
10. Antoni Gaudi
Fueled by a faith in God and a love of nature, the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi developed a style all his own. Born in 1852 in the Catalonia region of Spain, Gaudi was a fervent Catholic who believed that he could glorify God by deriving his inspiration from nature, God’s creation.
Taking his cues from nature, then, Gaudi favored curves rather than straight lines, varied textures and vibrant colors. His unique and somewhat bizarre style was part neo-Gothic, part avant-garde, part surrealistic. The architect and his work soon became synonymous with the city of Barcelona. However, in the 1920s and ’30s, the architectural world favored International Style, which starkly contrasted Gaudi’s philosophies. So it wasn’t until the 1960s that Gaudi started gaining wide recognition.
The Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona stands as his most famous work. However, the cathedral was unfinished at his death in 1926 and, although work continued, the cathedral remains unfinished to this day.
9. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Born in Germany in 1886, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (commonly known by his surname, Mies) was one of the many modern architects to make the transition from the more ornate, traditional styles of the 19th century to the sleek, minimalist styles of the 20th century. After quickly establishing his reputation in residential work in his home country, he was chosen to design the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. He is also known for designing Barcelona chairs, cantilevered chairs with steel frames. In 1937, however, Mies moved to the United States, where he served as longtime director of (and designed the campus for) the School of Architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute.
While in the United States, Mies designed many well-known skyscrapers, including the Seagram Building in New York City and the Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago. As he sought to reflect the Industrial Age in his building designs, he often featured exposed structural steel. And always emphasizing that “less is more,” his designs display simplicity and elegance without excessive ornamentation.
8. Ieoh Ming Pei
Born in 1917 in China, Ieoh Ming Pei (better known as I.M. Pei) came to the United States in the 1930s to study architecture. However, by the time he graduated, he wasn’t able to return to China due to the outbreak of World War II. Instead, he stayed in the United States, eventually becoming a citizen in 1954.
In his work, Pei strove to bring together the modern and traditional — what he called the “impossible dream.” Pei’s designs are considered a continuation of the International Style popularized by architects like Le Corbusier. However, Pei’s also known for brutalism, an offshoot of the International Style that uses bold forms and utilitarian principles. For instance, Pei’s large, rectangular concrete blocks, like those used for his National Center for Atmospheric Research, completed in 1967, clearly shows influences of brutalism.
In the 1960s, Pei was selected to design the terminal at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, and he gained national recognition in 1974 when he designed the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington, D.C. He is perhaps best known for the controversial glass pyramid structure in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris, built in 1989.
7. Norman Foster
When he became the 1999 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Sir Norman Foster had not yet even completed some of his most iconic buildings. He was born in Manchester, England, in 1935 and studied at the University of Manchester and Yale University, where he earned a master’s degree in architecture. Before launching his firm Foster + Partners in 1967, he worked with Richard and Su Rogers, as well as his wife Wendy Foster, at the firm they founded together, Team 4.
He founded Foster + Partners in 1967, earning acclaim and recognition worldwide. Since that time, the firm has completed a variety of projects, including airports, cultural buildings, private homes and product designs, while earning more than 400 awards. Foster + Partners has buildings around the world, like the 1985 HSBC project in Shanghai that features feng shui-balancing cement canons on the roof, and one of the world’s tallest bridges, the Millau Viaduct in Southern France that Foster designed with engineer Michel Virlogeux. But visitors to London may be most familiar with his local projects like the Great Court of the British Museum, the Millennium Bridge, London City Hall and The Gherkin.
6. Arata Isozaki
Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was born in Kyushu in 1931. He was influenced by the destruction he saw during World War II and studied architecture at the University of Tokyo with an interest in rebuilding damaged cities. After apprenticing under Tange Kenzō, Isozaki opened a design studio in 1963 and theorized “an aesthetic to give form to the concept of obliteration, which he labeled ‘twilight gloom,'” according to the Museum of Modern Art. The Metabolist movement, which combined technology and utilitarianism, influenced his early work, such as the 1966 Ōita Prefectural Library. Varying his approach, he created many additional innovative structures, earning his first international commission in 1986, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
During the next several decades, Isozaki’s international projects included Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona; the Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida; the Qatar National Convention Center in Doha; the Shanghai Symphony Hall in China and many more. His projects total more than 100, and for his significant contribution to the field, he was named 2019 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
5. Eero Saarinen
Architecture is often known as a long career, and many of the greats have worked into their 80s or even beyond — take Frank Gehry (more on him below) and Norman Foster for example. But Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen did not enjoy that opportunity. He died at the age of 51 during an operation for a brain tumor before many of his best-known works had been completed. Born in Kirkkonummi, Finland, in 1910 to recognized architect Eliel Saarinen and Loja Gesellius, who was a sculptor, Saarinen studied sculpture in Paris then architecture at Yale University. He taught at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, hung out with the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, and worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.
Saarinen’s style was characterized by “curvilinear and organically inspired sculptural forms” that were new at the time. In addition to his work designing furniture like the Womb chair and Tulip table for Knoll, Saarinen is responsible for iconic structures like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, his first solo project. Like the arch, his TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport (previously Idlewild), was completed after his death. Saarinen was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1962.
4. Dame Zaha Hadid
Known for infusing projects with surprise shapes that defy physics, architect Zaha Hadid studied mathematics before earning the Diploma Prize from the Architectural Association (AA) in London in 1977. She was born in Baghdad in 1950, during a period of prosperity and modernization in Iraq, and knew by age 11 that she wanted to be an architect, according to The Art Story. After earning the AA diploma, Hadid became a partner at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture ( OMA) in Rotterdam, Netherlands, then formed her firm Zaha Hadid Architects in 1980, basing it in London.
She quickly “gained a reputation across the world for groundbreaking theoretical works,” according to The Guardian, however, she did not complete a major project in the U.K. until 2011 — the Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow, Scotland. Nevertheless, she designed the inaugural Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2000, and her buildings around the world continuously captured imaginations. Consider the Guangzhou Opera House, completed in 2010, which features a “contoured profile” that opens access to the riverside, or the swooping Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, which establishes a continuous, fluid relationship between its surrounding plaza and the building’s interior. For her contributions to the field, Hadid won the Pritzker in 2004, the first female architect to do so. At just 65 years old, she died in 2016.
3. Frank Gehry
Born in Canada in 1929 and moving to the United States as a teenager, Frank Gehry eventually became a leading force in the deconstructionist and postmodern styles of architecture. As opposed to the rigid, utilitarian tendencies of the international style, Gehry explores irregular forms and radical, expressive shapes.
He started gaining attention in the 1960s and 1970s, when his line of furniture made of corrugated cardboard became suddenly popular. By the 1990s, he honed his style and gained a reputation for designing seemingly organic, undulating, free-flowing structures. He designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in 1997 and was meant to resemble both a ship and a living creature. He also designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003 and is known for not only its unique structure, but also superior acoustics. In his 90s, Gehry continues to innovate new structures.
2. Sir David Adjaye
Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1966, Sir David Adjaye was exposed to many cultures and styles of architecture during his youth due to his diplomat father’s career. Eventually settling in London, the Ghanaian-British architect earned degrees from South Bank University and the Royal College of Art. He documented 54 African cities and published the images as “Adjaye Africa Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture.” He founded Adjaye Associates in 2000, now with offices in Accra, London and New York. In 2021, he was announced as the winner of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, a high honor in British architecture.
In addition to being influenced by his travels, Adjaye found inspiration in architecture’s ability to serve people and promote egalitarianism due to inequities faced by his brother Emmanuel, who was partially paralyzed, according to his firm’s website. After founding the firm, Adjaye earned civic commissions, including the Ideas Stores public libraries in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. In a partnership with Philip Freelon as Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group, the pair won an international competition in 2009 to design the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. Architectural Digest has stated Adjaye’s work features “historical motifs that culminate in decorative patterns,” a style brought to life in the museum’s façade.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright
Many people agree that Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous architect of the modern era. Along with Louis Henri Sullivan, his early mentor, Wright helped form a uniquely American architecture.
Wright favored the Prairie School of architecture, which came out of the Midwest United States and emphasized horizontal lines to blend with the landscape. One famous example of his Prairie style home is the Robie House, which was built in Chicago in 1910. Wright took this idea further, however, and promoted what he called organic architecture. This term refers to using both structure and materials to integrate designs with nature and the surrounding environment.
Wright was embroiled in scandal in 1909 after he left his wife and family for his mistress. But his career eventually recovered, and he would go on to design many of his signature masterpieces. In 1935, he designed Fallingwater, a home built over a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania. Wright was also responsible for the innovative design of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which features a rising spiral walkway rather than individual floors.
Originally Published: May 9, 2012
Famous Architects FAQs
Who is the most famous architect?
Many consider the architect Frank Gehry to be the most famous architect in the world. Some of his most famous works include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the MIT State Centre at Cambridge and Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
Who is the world’s greatest architect?
That is subjective but many people consider it to be Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was an American architect and interior designer who designed more than 1,000 structures. Born in 1867, his works are considered to be both functional and meaningful.
What are 3 types of architecture?
The three orders of classical architecture are doric, ionic and Corinthian.
What is today’s architecture called?
The architecture of the 21st century is called contemporary architecture since there’s no single style that is dominant. Rather, every architect is working on in several different styles.
Is architecture a good career?
Architecture is a very respected field with a high earning potential. However, job growth is slow and work can be hard to find. Qualifying is also tough.
Lots More Information
- Academy of Achievement. “Frank O. Gehry.” Academy of Achievement. Last Revised July 7, 2010. (March 25, 2012) http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/geh0bio-1
- BBC. “Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).” BBC. (March 25, 2012). http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/wren_christopher.shtml
- Berlin, Jeremy. “The Big Idea: Biomimetic Architecture: Gaudi’s Masterpiece.” National Geographic. December 2010. (March 25, 2012) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/12/big-idea/gaudi-text
- Brothers, Cammy. “Michelangelo, Radical Architect.” Wall Street Journal. Sept. 11, 2010. (March 25, 2012). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703453804575480303339391786.html
- Choay, Françoise. “Le Corbusier.” Encyclopedia Britannica. (March 25, 2012) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/137221/Le-Corbusier
- Elman, Kimberly. “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Principles of Organic Architecture.” PBS. (March 25, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/flw/legacy/essay1.html
- Feely, J. “History of Ottoman Architecture.” WIT Press, 2011. (March 25, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=vgp46TUFK7wC
- Heathcote, Edwin. “I.M. Pei: ‘I’m a Western Architect.” Financial Times. Feb. 26, 2010. (March 25, 2010). http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f75a20c4-2261-11df-a93d-00144feab49a.html#