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Where to See California's Coolest Architecture
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Where to See California's Coolest Architecture

Take yourself on a tour of the coolest buildings in the state to understand why California architecture is so unique.

California.com

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5 min read

March 08, 2022

California is known for its wide variety of architectural styles. From cozy Victorian buildings in the north, to mid-century modern gems in Palm Springs, to craftsman homes in the Bay Area, there are endless places to see and appreciate California’s architecture. Take yourself on a tour of the coolest architecture in the state to understand why it’s so unique.

Famous Architectural Buildings in Northern California

The Transamerica Pyramid is a 48-story futurist skyscraper and the second tallest building in the San Francisco skyline.

Transamerica Pyramid

Location: Financial District, San Francisco
Architect: William Pereira

Built in 1972, the 48-story Brutalist-style triangular building held the title for the tallest building in San Francisco for several decades before the Salesforce Tower dethroned it in 2018. However, it’s still an iconic part of the S.F. skyline and ranks as the fifth tallest building in California.

Golden Gate Bridge

Location: San Francisco
Architects: Joseph Strauss, Irving Morrow, and Charles Alton Ellis

Considering its presence on almost every piece of souvenir in San Francisco, there is no doubt that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular architectural emblem of the Bay Area. This huge, one-mile-wide suspension bridge is not only a unique architectural landmark, but also perhaps the most photographed bridge in the world. But no matter how many times it has popped up on your screen, the impression of seeing it in person does not measure.

Sitting on the pinnacle of Nob Hill like a crown jewel is the breathtakingly beautiful Fairmont Hotel, a true San Francisco icon.

Fairmont Hotel

Location: San Francisco
Architect: Julia Morgan

The Fairmont Hotel was under construction when the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, causing it to be a victim of the firestorm that followed. Famed female architect Julia Morgan was hired to repair the building because of her innovative use of reinforced concrete, which could produce buildings capable of withstanding natural disasters. The hotel officially opened in 1907 as a symbol of San Francisco’s rebirth and is still an iconic part of California architecture history. 

Flintstone House

Location: Hillsborough 
Architect: William Nicholson

The most eccentric house in Hillsborough is definitely the Flintstone House owned by Florence Fang. Designed by William Nicholson in 1976, this cool architecture building was formed over inflated aeronautical balloons and covered with a coat of sprayed cement to achieve its shape. Fang has since added many quirky additions to both the interior and exterior of the house. The best way to see this unique architecture without disturbing Fang’s peace is by going north on Interstate 280 near Crystal Springs Road.

The Cathedral of Christ the Light was designed by architect Craig W. Hartman, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Cathedral of Christ the Light

Location: Oakland
Architects: Craig W. Hartman and Tom Milholland

The Cathedral of Christ the Light does not look anything like your average cathedral. This is likely due to the fact that it is the first cathedral to be built entirely in the 21st century. This famous architectural building welcomes the public with a sense of lightness and luminosity that is achieved through the innovative use of glass and wood. Believer or not, stepping inside this unique architecture is highly encouraged to fully embrace its details.

Sundial Bridge

Location: Redding
Architect: Santiago Calatrava

Another bridge that makes the list is the iconic Sundial Bridge near the Shasta Cascade. This functional work of art spans 700 feet over the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River and is striking to see in person. A perfect nod to human creativity and ingenuity, the Sundial Bridge is one of those structures that puts California architecture style on the map.

Cool-Looking Buildings in Southern California

Conceived by William Randolph Hearst, the publishing tycoon, and his architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle was built between 1919 and 1947.

Hearst Castle

Location: San Simeon
Architect: Julia Morgan

William Randolph Hearst’s estate is famous for its lavish appearance, but the architect who created it is even more notable: Julia Morgan was California’s first licensed female architect and was known for her diverse style. A structure like no other, this famous architectural building is somewhere you can spend roaming for hours on end.

The Getty Center

Location: Los Angeles
Architect: Richard Meier

The Getty Center is one of the best museums in Los Angeles and is also home to some of the most famous architecture in SoCal. Known for his abstract Californian architectural style, Richard Meier incorporated 1.2 million square feet of stone into the hilltop structure’s unique designs. The pearly white building sitting atop a hill opened its doors to the public in 1997. Ever since, it has garnered worldwide attention for its gleaming architecture, beautiful gardens, and breathtaking views overlooking Los Angeles.

Wayfarers Chapel, also known as "The Glass Church," is noted for its unique organic architecture and location on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean.

Wayfarers Chapel

Location: Rancho Palos Verdes
Architect: Lloyd Wright

Built by Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, the wondrous Wayfarers Chapel is one of the most stunning examples of Southern California architecture. Inspired by the redwoods of Northern California, Lloyd Wright is known for designing buildings that reflect the surrounding natural landscape. Also known as “The Glass Church”, this cool architectural building makes total use of its location on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean and brings the surrounding landscape inside seamlessly. Can you imagine how beautiful a wedding ceremony here can be?

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Location: Los Angeles
Architect: Frank Gehry

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a classic expression of modern architecture in Los Angeles. Designed from the outside in, Frank Gehry’s masterpiece is stunning from any angle. Most impressively, the design broke traditional boundaries by eliminating balconies and boxes—which supported social hierarchy norms—allowing all patrons to have a similar view of the conductor and musicians from every seat in the auditorium. If you ever have the opportunity, attending a concert at this famous architectural building is a must.

Griffith Observatory is a popular tourist attraction with a close view of the Hollywood Sign and an extensive array of space and scientific displays.

Griffith Observatory

Location: Los Angeles
Architect: John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley

Perched on a hillside overlooking Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory has become an icon of Los Angeles architecture and has been enjoyed by millions of visitors. The massive structure embodies the Art Deco style and is forever captured in some of Hollywood’s most popular films. Besides being renowned as one of the best pieces of California architecture, it also boasts a close view of the Hollywood Sign that’ll make you feel like you’re in a movie.

The Saguaro Palm Springs

Location: Palm Springs
Architect: Stamberg Aferiat Architecture

The entire city of Palm Springs is renowned for its mid-century modern California architecture, but the Saguaro hotel is a vibrant example of how the region’s architects find inspiration from the environment around them. While you’re in town, make sure to stop by 1100 East Sierra Way to see #thatpinkdoor for yourself.

Looking for more architectural gems in California? Check out:

- The Winchester Mystery House for famed San Jose architecture
- San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, Conservatory of Flowers, and Palace Hotel
- Dozens of Southern California icons, including the Bradbury Building, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Eames House, Gamble House, and intriguing Bachelor Mansion

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