10 Most Famous Architects Who Ever Lived

By: Jane McGrath  | 

Frank Gehry poses in front of his Santa Monica, Calif., home. See more home design pictures.
George Rose/Getty Images

Master architects typically don't get the respect and celebrity of other artists like painters. Yet their work arguably has a greater effect on us in the long term. Buildings shelter and protect us throughout our lives for home, work and play. And architecture is essentially the art we live in. Even if we've never been in any of the buildings designed by master architects, we've probably been in plenty that incorporate their influences.

Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture "the mother art," explaining: "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. Some have been known for their iconic work 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.

10: Michelangelo

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 the 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. It stands as one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world and inspired many imitators, such as the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. However, the dome itself was not completed by the time Michelangelo died. Scholars still debate on how much the ultimate construction deviates from Michelangelo's plans.

9: Mimar Sinan

A view of the Süleymanive mosque at dusk.
A view of the Süleymanive mosque at dusk.
Wilfried Krecichwost/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Michelangelo's contemporary in the Ottoman Empire was Mimar Sinan. Working in the 16th century, he worked on 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.


His masterpieces include the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, as well as the Süleymanive mosque in Istanbul. Selimiye includes a massive central dome supported by eight pillars and encompassed by four minarets (spires). Inspired by the Hagia Sophia, Sinan designed the Süleymanive mosque with a central dome supported by four half-domes. The original structure incorporated not only worship space, but also a hospital, madrasahs (Islamic schools), baths and shops.

8: 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 Theater at Oxford and visited Paris to study French and Italian baroque styles. In 1666, Wren had completed a design for the St. Paul's Cathedral dome. 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, he 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.

7: Louis Henri Sullivan

Louis Henri Sullivan was one of the first architects to design skyscrapers.
Louis Henri Sullivan was one of the first architects to design skyscrapers.
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Known for the principle of "form follows function," Louis Henri 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). His 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.


Another architect we'll explore later, Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked under him for six years, cited Sullivan as a major influence.

6: 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. His 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. Summing up his philosophy, he described a house as "a machine for living in."


5: Antoni Gaudi

Gaudi's most famous work, the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia, is lit up at dusk.
Gaudi's most famous work, the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia, is lit up at dusk.
Allan Baxter/The Image Bank/Getty Images

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-guarde, 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, remains unfinished to this day.

4: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Born in Germany in 1886, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (commonly know 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, he 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, he 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.


3: Ieoh Ming Pei

I.M. Pei speaks at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City in 2004.
I.M. Pei speaks at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City in 2004.
Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Born in 1917 in China, Ieoh Ming 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 calls the "impossible dream" [source: PBS]. His designs are considered a continuation of the International Style popularized by architects like Le Corbusier. However, he'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, evidenced Brutalism [source: Palmer].


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's East Building. He is perhaps best known for the controversial glass pyramids in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris, built in 1989.

2: Frank Gehry

Born in Canada in 1929 and having moved 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, Calif., which opened in 2003 and is known for not only its unique structure but also superior acoustics.


1: Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, pose for a portrait in Spring Green, Wis.
Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Olgivanna, pose for a portrait in Spring Green, Wis.
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Most agree that Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous architect of the modern era, if not all of history. Along with Louis Henri Sullivan, his early mentor, he 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, completed in 1909. 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.

Want to learn more about history's famous architects? See the links on the next page.

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.

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  • 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
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  • Feely, J. "History of Ottoman Architecture." WIT Press, 2011. (March 25, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=vgp46TUFK7wC
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  • MoMA. ""The House on Stilts." MoMa.org. (March 25, 2012) http://www.moma.org/modernteachers/lesson.php?lessonID=24
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