Credit: Alamy

The best buildings of 2017

From the Lego House to a spectacular public library, Jonathan Glancey rounds up the year’s most brilliant new architecture.

Lego House, Billund, Denmark by BIG

One familiar way of dismissing contemporary architecture is to say that this or that new building ‘looks like Lego’. Lego’s famous interlocking plastic bricks first went on sale in 1949 just as Modernist architecture, derived from the Bauhaus, went truly global and four-square, Cubist-like buildings lined city streets from Sydney to San Francisco. Here, nearly 70 years on, is Lego’s own feeling on the subject, the Lego House visitor centre in the Danish company’s hometown that really does look as if it is made of giant blocks of Lego. And, why not? After all, the Legoland theme park is virtually next door, while Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG has made its name with bold, highly expressive buildings that, rarely less than controversial, make perfect sense in the context of a brightly coloured Lego visitor centre that can be clambered over and explored in artful, knowing and playful fashion.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech by Studio Ko

Every year, from his first visit in 1966, the feted French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent spent time in Marrakech where he created his latest couture collections. Now, a museum devoted to his work and designed by Olivier Marty and Karl Fournier’s Studio Ko — which has a wealth of experience designing finely-crafted, minimalist Moroccan homes — has opened in the city. Its interlaced terracotta brick façade is designed to represent fabric, wool or tweed maybe, while the creamy smooth walls of the entrance lobby is silk-like. It is as if visitors are stepping into, or perhaps putting on, a bespoke building much, as they might an Yves Saint Laurent outfit. The conceit works, because throughout this complex of venues – galleries, auditorium, café, library and bookshop – the museum is a homage to architecture’s equivalent of clothing fabrics: laurel, oak, stained glass, glazed bricks, lacquered surfaces, marble and pearlescent tiles.

Hastings Pier, East Sussex, UK by dRMM

Strictly speaking, this renovated seaside pier was completed in 2016, when Suggs, the Hastings-born lead singer of Madness, screwed down the final piece of decking. But, this lithe and festive structure came truly alive in the popular imagination when it won the 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Turner Prize. Alex de Rijke and Sadie Morgan’s firm, dRMM, worked not only as designers but also very much as part of the local initiative, led by the Hasting Piers Society to bring fresh life to a Victorian attraction battered by storm and fire, all too often the fate of Britain’s delightful yet precarious seaside piers. A month after its Stirling Prize win in October 2017, the pier dRMM did so much to rebuild – with its new multi-purpose deck and ship-shape modern pavilions – was back in the news when the Hastings Pier Charity went into administration.

Juergen Teller studio, London, UK by 6a architects

Set in an inner suburban London street, this subtle yet unpretentious studio for Juergen Teller, the German-born artist and photographer, shows how much can be achieved on awkward and narrow city plots. An unassuming grey concrete façade conceals a building formed of three individual blocks – offices and archive, studio and a dining room, with private quarters above – punctuated by garden courtyards. Here, raw textured concrete is offset by abundant daylight, plays of shadows and greenery. The gardens, designed by Dan Pearson, echo those that sprouted naturally in London bombsites when, after the World War Two, London Pride (saxifraga) sprouted in and around buildings as ruined as those of Pompeii. In its sequence of courtyards, hidden from the gaze of neighbours, the Teller studio — as elemental as it is modern — is unexpectedly reminiscent of internally glorious ancient Roman houses, squeezed into densely occupied and often awkward city sites.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, UEA by Jean Nouvel

The first outpost of the Paris Louvre is this controversial £3bn art gallery.  It is set under an unforgiving sun on Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi and in the company of what, when complete in the 2020s, will be an octet of spectacular museums. Nouvel’s new Louvre takes the form of a stylised contemporary medina based on traditional Arab city centres, surrounded by walls and characterised by maze-like alleys. The museum’s 23 galleries are like individual city buildings shielded from the sun by the vast and intricate dome that appears to float above them. Comprising 7,850 perforated and interlaced steel-and-aluminium panels, the dome filters glorious plays of light into the museum’s temperate alleys. 

Napoli-Afragola railway station, Naples, Italy by Zaha Hadid Architects

This striking new station, one of 13 for Italy’s expanding high-speed rail network, writhes up and over eight railway tracks, connecting once-divided outer suburbs of Naples. It is both a spectacular, snake-like bridge expressing the dynamism of Italy’s 300kph railways and their equally serpentine trains and a main-line station complete with ticket offices, cafes, offices, along with haunting views of Mount Vesuvius. Because this is earthquake ­and volcano ­country, the intense and ingenious structural engineering of the building, by Italian State Railways’ engineers, is expressed throughout the forms of its dynamic architecture. While its sinuous structure appears seamless, the huge building is made up of individual parts that, if an earthquake occurs, will be able to move independently of one another. Most importantly, the Zaha Hadid-designed station is also a powerful symbol of how, economically, southern Italy might yet perk up.

Tianjin Binhai Library, Tianjin, China by MVRDV

The façade of this eye-catching Chinese public library resembles a giant eye staring back at the beholder, and, of course, at the legions of tourists who will want to photograph this most photogenic building. The pupil of the eye is a circular auditorium poised at the centre of a swirling five-storey-high, eye-socket-like library hall. The hall’s vertiginous white walls are adorned with books, many stacked so high that surely no one will ever reach them. Are some of them fakes? Yes, of course. Unreachable shelves are faced with aluminium panels printed in the guise of books. However odd and artful, this extraordinary library, designed by the Dutch architects MVRDV, has been designed to attract local people to the world of books. The dazzling lobby is served by visually-restrained reading areas and reading rooms, meeting rooms and computer rooms. Despite first appearances, the Tianjin library is a functional and purposeful building.

Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, Germany by Herzog & de Meuron

Opened to critical acclaim in January 2017, Hamburg’s long-awaited and hugely expensive Elbphilarmonie was, perhaps, the architectural highlight of 2017, certainly in terms of new civic buildings. It ticks so many boxes. Here is an operatic yet perfectly sane design bringing richly dynamic new life into an old urban dockland that had lost much of its purpose. Its diaphanous structure rises in crystalline waves above a bunker-like brick coffee, chocolate and tea warehouse, anchoring Herzog & de Meuron’s magnificent concert hall into the existing fabric of the German port city. The interior is an adventure, as those of all great concert halls and opera houses should be. And, this is a destination at which, especially on bitter winter days when Arctic winds whip across Hamburg’s waterfront, visitors can while away hours browsing, dining, drinking, staring at the views or, of course, listening to music in enticing, pitch-perfect conditions.

To comment on and see more stories from BBC Designed, you can follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. You can also see more stories from BBC Culture on Facebook and Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.