fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘What better way to tell the story of a place than through its buildings?’

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Shorewood Hills, Wis.TravelWisconsin.com

It’s hard for any particular package tour to stand out from the many scheduled this fall to places like Croatia and Slovenia. But there’s one that breaks the mold.

This tour won’t be led by a historian. It’s not a spiritual expedition, or a culinary journey to sample the area’s distinctive food and wine. It’s 12 days with . . . an architect.

Architectural Adventures, which is offering this tour and two dozen like it to places as varied as Brasília and Berlin, is a new offshoot of the prestigious American Institute of Architects.

It’s also part of an upsurge of interest among travelers in architecture, which has been moving from the background to the foreground among the principal things that draw people to a destination.


“More and more people are looking for opportunities to not only look at a building from the outside but to go inside, to understand what materials were used and why and how that building reflects the time and place where it was built,” said Luke Diorio, Architectural Adventures’ managing director.

The trend is getting a boost this year from the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus, the school established in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 that broke decisively with traditional design and whose influence endures worldwide.

But there has also been a spurt of new architectural tours around unlikely destinations such as Buffalo and Columbus, Ind., which turn out to be rich in architectural treasures. The state of Wisconsin has unveiled a 200-mile trail devoted to Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright, connecting nine of the private homes, commercial buildings, and places of worship he designed. There’s a sort of architecture theme park called Polymath Park near Pittsburgh where enthusiasts can tour, stay overnight, or dine in two Wright homes — one of them, Mäntylä , newly moved there and rebuilt — and two by his Massachusetts-born apprentice Peter Berndtson, not far from one of Wright’s most famous creations, Fallingwater.


The travel company Stride, whose TripFinder helps users choose from among guided and self-guided tours worldwide, has just added a separate “architecture” category, with 15 architecture-themed packages including a Queen Mary 2 voyage that will focus on British architecture. Audley Travel, whose US headquarters is in Boston, offers a trip that’s focused on French art and architecture. Vermont-based Country Walkers has a Spain itinerary that spans buildings from Antoni Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace in Astorga to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Urban Adventures leads day tours of the communist architecture of Bucharest, Romania, and Nowa Huta, Poland.

“We have absolutely seen this uptick in the number of people who want architecture as a destination,” said Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Center, which offers boat and walking tours of that city’s many architectural gems and just moved into a new 20,000-square-foot exhibition and visitor center in the heart of town, on the Chicago River.

After all, said Osmond, “What better way to tell the story of a place than through its buildings?”

There are other reasons, too, that architecture has become a draw for tourists.

One is social media. “It’s all about where you are,” said Matt Thompson, brand manager at Country Walkers. “And certain buildings are becoming more recognizable and more widely known, just as a result of being on those platforms.”

Another, said Diorio: the same artisan movement that is driving farmers’ markets and locally sourced items on restaurant menus, which has increased travelers’ interest in architecture that’s decidedly local.


But one of the biggest reasons people travel to see notable architecture is the homogenization of many neighborhoods and cities where they live, with cookie-cutter buildings that dilute their architectural distinctiveness.

“Sometimes you wake up and don’t know what city you’re in because it all looks the same,” said Sara Meaney, secretary designee of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which oversees the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail there.

“The same developers, the same architects, are building in different communities and using the same designs,” said Osmond. “People want uniqueness. They want to relate to and engage with the distinctiveness of the community. And they will travel to see that.”

Architecture such as Wright’s, for instance — in Wisconsin, it includes such masterworks as the SC Johnson company headquarters, the First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Madison, and his own estate, Taliesin — “is not the type of thing we see as much anymore, certainly in the run-of-the-mill apartment or office buildings.”

It was this same kind of impatience with conformity that brought about the Bauhaus School. A century later, an entire new museum in Weimar has been devoted to it; the museum’s debut, in April, attracted 18,000 people. There are also events underway in Berlin and Dessau, a “grand tour” linking 100 Bauhaus and modernist structures across Germany including the Dammerstock housing development and the Schwarzwaldhalle, and celebrations worldwide around the buildings Bauhaus inspired.


Shut down by the Nazis, Bauhaus and its adherents dispersed around the world. “Had things not been interrupted by that, this might have been a far more local or regional thing, but the fact that so many artists and architects went to so many different places really magnified the reach,” said Amy Finstein, an architectural historian at the College of the Holy Cross.

Other architecture is attracting renewed enthusiasm, too — and not just in such well-known settings as Barcelona or Chicago.

There’s an extraordinary collection of it in Columbus, Ind., population 46,000, for example, where a bus tour connects some of the 90 private and public buildings and artworks there designed by I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, and others.

Buffalo has buildings by the likes of Wright, H.H. Richardson, and Louis Sullivan, which date from its Gilded Age peak — and were saved from destruction by its subsequent decline. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the city’s parks and gardens. Now Buffalo promotes these places and offers walking, bus, and even kayak tours of them.

“Architectural tourism is definitely something that’s growing here,” said Brad Hahn, director of Explore Buffalo, which runs a “Masters of American Architecture” tour.

“It’s a real show of the prosperity of Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century, which is when a lot of those architectural greats were working here. The wealthy wanted to show off by bringing in some of the best-known architects,” Hahn said.

Then, for the better part of the 20th century, “Buffalo wasn’t thriving economically, so we didn’t tear down a lot of buildings that anywhere else would have been torn down and replaced with newer shiny buildings.”


The opposite is true in Los Angeles, where there have been successive waves of eclectic architecture, from Tudor and Egyptian Revival to midcentury modern and post-modern.

“It really tells you what the values of that population were at any given time — like looking at art in a museum, only you can be out in a city and there it is,” said Laura Massino Smith, an architectural historian and the owner of Architecture Tours LA.

In surveys by Stride, seeing standout architecture “came up constantly” as one of the important reasons people like to travel, said Gavin Delaney, CEO and founder. That is triggering a further growth in the number of tours with architecture themes, he said.

“If we were to play the tape forward 10 years from now,” Delaney said, “I’d suspect there will be more cities in the US like Buffalo and others that, if they’re smart, will invest in their local branding campaigns as architecturally interesting places to visit.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.