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Cities can be known for their cultural offerings, their pace of life or their public transportation systems, but some metropolises have a special quality or quantity of buildings that creates a unique urban thumbprint and resonates with people across the globe. These cities, often cited as the “world’s best” for architecture or design in such publications as Conde Nast TravelerBloomberg Businessweek and ArchDaily, may not all have universal appeal, but they do have a vibrant and unforgettable cityscape.

From Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, famous architects from the last 100 years have peppered the shoreline of Lake Michigan with their worthy creations. The Chicago School (and offshoot Prairie School) of architecture was one of the most influential of the 20th Century because their steel-frame constructions paved the way for the world’s first skyscrapers. Today, structures like Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and the Renzo Piano glass-and-light filled addition to the Art Institute of Chicago make this Midwest city the United States’ architectural trendsetter. 

The number and length of foreclosures citywide continue to drag down the real estate market, but Chicago is continuing to improve and rehabilitate parks and neighbourhoods, such as the new construction of Maggie Daley Park (part of Grant Park) and the Target department store that is being built on the site of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects, just 12 blocks from Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast. Condos in high-profile residential buildings like The Contemporaine, designed by architect Ralph Johnson and built in 2004 in the art gallery-filled River North neighbourhood, are highly sought after and start at around $400,000. The median price for a single family home in the buzzy Near North Side neighbourhood (which includes River North) is $1.5 million, while in West Town (which includes trendy Wicker Park) is $606,000. The median price for a condo in desirable Lincoln Park is $380,000, while to the north in more affordable Logan Square it is $240,000. In Near North Side, rents average around $2,780 a month for a two-bedroom flat, while in Lincoln Park a two-bed averages around $2,075.

In a city whose mere sidewalks are decorative and beautiful, it is no hard task to find beauty when you lift your eyes just a few metres. The famous Antoni Gaudi buildings, including La Pedrera with its facade that flows with Art Nouveau brilliance, whet the appetite for his stunning mosaic fantasy of Parc Guell and masterwork of the still-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia cathedral. From Mies van der Rohe to Jean Nouvel, almost every great architect of the modern era has left their mark on Barcelona's cityscape – from Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, a bullet-shaped skyscraper built in 2005, to the newly opened Las Arenas, a shopping centre built inside the famed, decommissioned bull-fighting ring, designed by Richard Rogers.

Although one of the most architecturally experimental cities in Europe, Barcelona is suffering from what ails the entire Spanish economy, which is currently in a deep recession. “The market is still going down but at a slower rate,” said David Franks, a sales agent for Lucas Fox estate agents. “There are many opportunities for investment at prime locations.” In central Barcelona, an 80 to 120sqm property costs between 300,000 and 600,000 euros. To attract more foreign investment, the Spanish government is considering giving residency visas to international buyers who purchase a property for more than 160,000 euros. The average rent for a three-bed flat in the city centre is 1,200 euros a month.

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