10/17/2012 07:36 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

The World's Coolest Buildings (PHOTOS)

It's no surprise that the crowds pushing through New York's Soho neighborhood make it difficult to pause and admire the view. But plenty of pedestrians risk trampling -- or worse, scorn -- from harried locals to gawk at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Looming like a mysterious obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the boxy tower hovers above ho-hum brick walkups. With minimal windows, the building's flat walls are dolled up with chain-mail mesh. Such is the charm of cool architecture, which may be influenced by its setting, but mostly transcends it. And as numerous blue-ribbon edifices popped up across the globe in recent years, there's more of it to enjoy than ever. "The last decade has definitely been a fertile and inventive period," says Carol Willis, an architectural historian who heads New York's Skyscraper Museum, which she founded in 1997.

But mere images can't do these buildings justice. As with any famous painting or photograph, cool architecture is best savored up close and personal, from multiple angles, in the flesh. Sometimes, these pilgrimages can include a journey inside the buildings, as most are open to the public. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, for example--whose genre-busting curvy forms kicked off this recent design Golden Age--presents a wealth of art.

The boom is clearly now over, though the skylines it redefined endure. Because of that, these iconic buildings should continue to turn heads for longtime residents or first-time visitors for years to come. They also may be useful signposts. "Seeing a distinctive skyline is like an establishing shot in a movie," Willis says. "It tells you where you are." --C. J. Hughes

See More of the World's Coolest Buildings

Related Links:
T+L's Best Beaches Survey
World's Most Mysterious Buildings
Funny Signs From Around the World

World's Coolest Buildings