10 Innovative Architects to Watch

By: Shanna Freeman  | 
Like Gaudi and other architectural free spirits before them, today's innovative architects think outside the box. Want to learn more? Check out our Futuristic Architecture Pictures!

Key Takeaways

  • These architects not only focus on aesthetic and unique designs but also incorporate sustainability, environmental responsibility and social conscience into their projects.
  • From using the harsh desert landscape as inspiration to developing low-income housing with high-profile homes, these architects blend artistry with practicality to create meaningful spaces.

I'm not a student of architecture, but I can certainly appreciate a beautiful, well-designed building. Most of the ones I go into on a regular basis are pretty utilitarian. The house I live in, for example, is a 1970s-era split-level (a style which, incidentally, is often credited to the hallowed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright) and has its own charm, but it's not something that would turn heads because there are plenty of them around.

Architecture can be an art form, but it also presents special challenges because the result has to be functional as well as attractive. Although every building has some of the same features, architects are constantly finding unique and unusual ways to put their own twist on it. Innovative architects design with an understanding of the environment and how best to carve out our space within it, while creating striking and functional spaces. In our list of 10 innovative architects to watch (by no means a top 10 because there's no way to compare), you may not see any names that you recognize -- yet. But that doesn't make their accomplishments any less impressive.


10: Lance O'Donnell

Hailing from Palm Springs, Calif., Lance O'Donnell has taken design inspiration from his rugged desert surroundings, as well as the city's progressive architecture and community feel. O'Donnell built upon the work of amazing architects like Don Wexler (who led the modernist movement in the mid-century), and ended up collaborating with Wexler for several years. O'Donnell's style is modern, but also incorporates a sense of sustainability environmental responsibility.

His own family house is indicative of his style -- with clean lines, open spaces and an exterior that allows it to blend into the surrounding hills. It's also eligible for platinum LEED certification. O'Donnell focused on energy conservation, incorporating passive cooling and heating systems. For example, he oriented the home and its windows to cut down on air conditioning use in the summer, while also bringing it a lot of light and retaining heat in the winter. It incorporates concrete, metal, glass, and wood. O'Donnell has also remodeled numerous homes to make them more environmentally friendly and modern.


9: Alejandro Aravena

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena has become internationally known for pursuing two very distinct paths of design: low-income housing as well as high-profile homes and public spaces. He not only has his own architectural firm, but he's also the executive director of Elemental, a company that works on projects like housing and infrastructure. It's a for-profit company, but has a social conscience and works with the Universidad Catolica de Chile and COPEC (Chilean Oil Company). Aravena is also a professor at the university.

One of his first house projects was also called Elemental -- designed for 100 families in the Chilean desert with a budget of just $7500 per family (including the land). The row houses have a modular look and feel, while built to withstand the harsh weather and blending into the environment. Aravena has also designed educational facilities, including dormitories and dining halls for St. Edward's University in Texas.


8: Lola Sheppard

In April 2012, Canadian architect Lola Sheppard was the recipient of the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada's Young Architects Award. Nine years ago she co-founded a Toronto-based experimental design practice that has a mission of "design as a research vehicle to pose and respond to complex, urgent questions in the built environment" [source: The Architectural League]. Since then she has not only pursued this mission with the firm, but also taught, lectured, and consulted at several different universities around Europe and North America.

Sheppard goes beyond traditional architecture; she's also concerned with infrastructure. One of her projects, called "Next North," involves building within the culture and the environment in the Canadian North. She also works on finding better ways to use spaces like parking lots and unused areas, or "orphan spaces." A dock in Memphis became a terraced park-like area inspired by the city's musical heritage, while a community in Toronto became the testing ground for a concept inspired by slips at a marina. Crosswalks and tiny parks were blended to create pedestrian areas with multiple uses.


7: Junya Ishigami

Architect Junya Ishigami poses at an exhibition in Tokyo on March 21, 2012.
Koki Nagahama/Entertainment/Getty Images

Junya Ishigami, a Japanese architect, got his start with the firm SANAA, a groundbreaking and award-winning group of architects, before striking out on his own in 2004. It didn't take long for Ishigami to begin making headlines of his own. Wallpaper Magazine called him "one of the most controversial architects to come out Japan -- or anywhere." Why is he so controversial? Ishigami does a remarkable job of blurring the line between architecture and art, becoming famous first for installations like "Balloon," a huge aluminum structure filled with helium that was part of an art exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

His experimental architecture isn't just limited to exhibitions, however. In 2007, he designed a glass building for the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. The walls are entirely glass from corner to corner, supported by steel pillars throughout the inside, with a simple flat roof. The pillars help define the space and create natural groupings to display art projects. Ishigami also designed a clothing boutique in New York City that was pie-shaped with huge windows. He does not draw a distinction between projects like these buildings and the installation called "Architecture As Air" that exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery at Kensington Gardens in London. A curved line of 53 carbon-fiber columns appear to be suspended in air, but are actually held up by transparent beams.


6: James Ramsey

James Ramsey has a slightly different background than many young architects. Yes, he has a degree in architecture (from Yale). He went to Europe to study design (in his case, cathedrals). But then he spent time working at NASA as a satellite engineer, as part of the team responsible for designing satellites like the Cassini. Ramsey went back to architectural design and taught before founding his own firm, Ramsey Architecture and Design (RAAD), in 2004.

Most of Ramsey's designs are homes. There's the Shore House, situated on the water and looking like it belongs there as much as the boardwalks and docks in the area, with its weathered wooden piles and boxy, open structure. He's also designed several lofts and apartments in older buildings, in areas like Soho and Chelsea. These contrast exposed brick with sleek modernist touches and white space. But it was Ramsey's unusual "LowLine" project that garnered him lots of attention. There's a very popular elevated park on the West Side of Manhattan called the High Line that was once an abandoned railroad trestle. Ramsey and partner Dan Barasch have proposed a similar park in an underground former trolley terminal, using skylights and fiber optics to channel enough natural light to grow plants. Known officially as the Delancey Underground, it's still in the planning stages as of this writing.


5: Philippe Rahm

Swiss architect Philippe Rahm is based in Paris, France, and is also a visiting lecturer at Princeton University's School of Architecture. He has received numerous awards and honors around the world for his distinctive brand of architecture -- often described as meteorological architecture -- and has designed everything from private homes to office buildings

In 2008, he designed apartments for the IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung, or International Building Exhibition) in Hamburg, Germany. They weren't just any apartments, though. They were convective apartments; as in, efficient in transferring heat using air currents. Not only are they oriented and built to route warmer air inside during the winter and cooler air inside during the summer, the apartments also have thermal zones within. Do we need every room to be the same temperature? For example, the warmest room inside is the bathroom at 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius), with the kitchen in the middle at 66 degrees F (19 degrees C) and the laundry room the coldest at 59 F (15 C).


4: Jeanne Gang

Inspired by the waters of Lake Michigan, the rippling Aqua Tower's design also buffers it against Chicago's strong winds and even has bird-deflecting elements.
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 2011, Jeanne Gang was chosen as a MacArthur Fellow -- also known as a "Genius Grant" -- which is given to individuals in various fields who show special creative potential and promise. Just a few years before, she was an American Institute of Architects fellow. Although she worked in several different cities, ultimately Gang settled in Chicago, where she saw a lot of potential for her architecture. While the field tends to be dominated by men, but Gang is distinctive among all architects for designing buildings that make a major impact on the landscape.

In 2010, a residential skyscraper designed by Gang opened in Chicago. At 86 stories tall, Aqua is the tallest building to be designed by a female architect and the biggest project to be led by one. Aqua has a sort of rolling quality due to its irregular, curved balconies, which just as much as 12 feet out from the building in some places. Gang stated that they were inspired in part by the limestone outcroppings in the Great Lakes Area. Gang also kept sustainability in mind. The balconies help shade the building, and there's energy-efficient lighting and a rainwater collection system.


3: Robin Lee

Until early 2011, Robin Lee was half of the architectural firm NORD (Northern Office for Research and Design) based in Glasgow, Scotland. Now he runs his own firm under the name Robin Lee Architecture operating out of both London and Dublin. Lee has degrees in both architecture and sculpture, which gave him a different take on working with materials within their means. Thanks to CAD (computer-aided design), architects can basically create any form that they want. But in a December 2011 interview with Architectural Record, Lee stated that he wants "to develop a position in terms of form that has rigor to it."

Lee showcased that philosophy with his most recent project, completed by his new firm -- the Wexford County Council Headquarters in Ireland. The building was constructed of stone and glass, but used in a different way than you'd expect. The stone building is wrapped in an envelope of glass panels, separated by aluminum mullions, or dividers. It gives the building a unique look, but the glass is also insulating, keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The interior has a light and airy feel with wood, glass and walls and floors of Irish blue limestone.


2: Annabelle Selldorf

Annabelle Selldorf and her team renovated and modernized New York's Neue Galerie art museum.
Ben Hider/Entertainment/Getty Images

It might be surprising to hear that an architect jumped at the chance to design the recycling facility of a major city -- it doesn't sound very glamorous. But Annabelle Selldorf, who typically designs art galleries, homes and stores, liked the challenge. The result was an attractive facility with green space, solar panels, and a wind turbine that helps supply it with energy. There's also a visitor center that draws people to learn more about recycling.

Selldorf's previous work has been described as "an intriguing combination of discipline and seduction, authority mixed with charm, equal parts modesty and authorship" [source: Wall Street Journal]. While the German-born architect (based in New York) describes herself as a Modernist, she doesn't always stick to its minimalist esthetic. Yes, there are the big, white open spaces and the exposed elements like concrete and wood, but there are also flashes of color and nods to history. She designed a townhouse in the East Village, for example, that is mostly white but has colored panels here and there for maximum impact. Selldorf is also innovative in the technological sense; she designed an apartment building in New York at 200 Eleventh Avenue that has a separate elevator for your car.


1: Estudio Barozzi Veiga

Estudio Barozzi Veiga, or EBV, isn't a person -- it's a partnership. Fabrizio Barozzi and Alberto Veiga founded their firm in 2004. Barozzi is an Italian native, and Veiga is Spanish. They're both currently professors at the International University of Cataluña (UIC) in Spain. When you visit their Web site and look at the images of their projects, you'll be struck by the fact that most of the photos are black and white. That's a conscious decision on the part of Veiga and Barozzi -- form and shape are the most important factors to them.

In 2011, EBV's design was chosen to replace the building for the museum of fine arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, known as the Musee Cantonale des Beaux-Arts. For this particular project, they state that "the relationship defined between the buildings and the public space is more important than the buildings themselves" while also "maintaining an emotional and symbolic relation with the past." It runs parallel to the railroad tracks, defining the space and creating a public area. In contrast to its monolithic, stark exterior, the museum incorporates two different elements of the original 1911 building -- the facade of its central nave as well as an exterior door.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do these innovative architects incorporate sustainability into their designs?
These architects integrate sustainability by using eco-friendly materials, optimizing energy conservation and designing with the natural environment in mind to minimize impact and promote green living.
What impact do these architects have on the future of urban planning?
Their innovative approaches and sustainable practices are shaping the future of urban planning by creating more livable, environmentally friendly cities that prioritize community well-being and resource efficiency.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Innovative Architects to Watch

Like I mentioned at the beginning, architecture is not in my background, nor is it a particular interest of mine. But when looking at the work of some of today's most innovative architects, I can still be blown away by their creativity. I always figured that architecture, no matter how beautiful, ultimately has to be functional. But architects like Junya Ishigami made me question what "functional" really means. Does it mean "habitable"? I'm not sure anymore, but I do know it strengthens my belief that architecture can certainly be art.

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