Contemporary architecture resists simple categorization or definition. It creates a unique, eclectic aesthetic that is difficult to explain in words but that nevertheless produces certain unmistakable feelings in all who witness it.

Though it can’t be precisely defined, there are certain buildings that can be taken as paradigmatic instances of the style.

Here are five such buildings and some of their outstanding contemporary characteristics.

1. Frank Gehry’s Home


The home of Frank Gehry in Santa Monica, California, immediately strikes one as the home of an innovative mind — and indeed it is. Gehry is one of the leading lights of contemporary architecture, and he decided to turn his talents to the task of creating his own home.

The home’s salient feature is an innovative use of materials. Common domestic building elements, like glass panes and chain-link fences, are used in all sorts of atypical ways.

2. The Vessel


The Vessel is a building that resists description but which makes an impression on everyone who sees it. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, it is shaped somewhat like a cocoon or a pine cone and is made up of twisting and winding paths that expand outward in ascending layers. More than anything, it conveys a sense of what architects call “monumentality” — an almost spiritual feeling that a given structure is massive, meant to stand for eternity and is an unmistakable symbol of the place in which it rests. The Vessel certainly does that for New York City.

Another great example of monumentality might be the Shard of London.

3. The Walt Disney Concert Hall


Those unversed in the aesthetic and design principles of contemporary architecture can be forgiven for feeling a bit confused when they first lay eyes on the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The building appears like it’s made out of a gargantuan accretion of different shapes — some rectilinear, some curved and some cylindrical — all piled atop one another.

As another one of Frank Gehry’s creations, its chief characteristic is a sense of playfulness. There’s no question that Gehry intended to shock and amuse people with such a building. Indeed, viewed from a distance, it looks like it may fall in on itself. It shows a willingness to break all of the rules.

  1. The Vertical Forest of Milan


One of the most pressing issues of our time is the environmental damage and degradation threatened by climate change. To stay relevant while opening up new spaces for creative activity, therefore, contemporary architecture likes to combine the artificial with the natural.

A perfect example of this is in the Vertical Forest of Milan, built by Stefano Boeri Architetti. These buildings literally have plants growing all over them and are shrouded in greenery. Other examples of this theme might include things roof gardens and passive or smart heating and cooling systems that are designed to be environmentally friendly.

  1. The Sydney Opera House


Related to the previous theme is contemporary architecture’s emphasis on establishing a connection to nature. This can be done by mimicking natural forms, blurring the line between interior and exterior spaces, and many other ways. The Sydney Opera House, with its seashell-like designs, is a sterling example of this.