Nick Hornby is not the only one who can write lists, you know. Inspired by Hornby's compilation 31 Songs, by the Sydney Opera House saga and by his lifelong passion for architecture, Mark Whitby, founder of Whitbybird, decided to let us in on his list of engineering masterpieces. Here's the result …
Reading Peter Murray's the saga of Sydney Opera House followed closely by Nick Hornby's 31 Songs inspired a line of thought that brings to mind Friedrich von Schelling's comment that "architecture in general is frozen music". Behind the scenes of the songs are stories as riveting as the Sydney saga and the way those stories are told often reveals more of the myth than the reality.

Nick's list of songs is about everyday life, and Springsteen and Dylan make it but The Beatles and The Stones don't. It is hard to believe that anyone could write a chapter on Puff the Magic Dragon, but Nick does, and while, for me, Layla would have to make it, he makes only a passing reference to it. Nick's book naturally invites a musical response but coupled with Peter's book it inspired a different sort of list: 31 buildings rather than Nick's 31 songs.

Clearly Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House 1 stands out as a starting point. It is unique in that it would be an obvious choice of almost everybody who would dream of such a list. A building, as Peter Murray tells it, with an unhappy story in its making but which became so iconic that it would probably also be the layman's choice, not just of the 20th century, but possibly for the last 2000 years. Here is great music – and a song that was finished by the band after the singer walked off the stage; a building that demanded Siegfried Gideon write another edition to his Space, Time and Architecture.

Behind the scenes of the 20th century is a pattern language that the late 19th century revealed in its industrial architecture of steel and early concrete. Gideon's book introduced me to the Noisiel-sur-Marne chocolate factory 2, which together with Eugène Viollet le Duc's drawings 3 of so far unbuilt projects are the raw themes that suggest the art of the possible. On an office trip to Paris we broke into Nestlé's derelict works to discover the building. Here is another icon, with its own story to tell: an iron and brick marvel that has yet to be repeated.

Oriel Chambers in Liverpool 4 is iconic on a personal level.

Sir Michael Hopkins introduced it, together with the RTF building in Paris, as part of a load-bearing iron pattern language for the competition for the redesign of Bracken House and in doing so the load-bearing steel facade was reinvented. However, a subsequent visit to Liverpool revealed that the pictures of the facade we had been looking at were in fact stone; the load-bearing iron was hidden in a courtyard. This is the art of invention by misinterpretation. The "I didn't mean it to sound like that but …" The subtil versus the crustacés when the design is about discovering what one can make rather than making what one has discovered.

Michael, of course, worked with Norman Foster shortly after Team 4 split and although one could list a number of Foster's grand projects as one's icons, it is perhaps the Willis Faber Country head office 5 in Ipswich that stands out. An enormously simple building that is drawn to the site boundary and clad in black glass that is see-through at night. It is a building that put Ipswich back on the map – soon to be followed by the Sainsbury Centre – and it is an extraordinarily straightforward design, based around how it works for the people. As the facilities manager explains, it has just the same amount of glass per person as the ordinary punched-window slab block across the way. As with music, there are timelines as groups form and disband – The Yardbirds, the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Clapton … Team 4, Foster, Rogers, Hopkins. And it would sometimes seem as if they were playing off one another, as in the guitar–banjo duel in Deliverance, challenging each other to the next level. Of all the work, possibly Rogers and Renzo Piano's Pompidou Centre 6 stands out as a building that is about the shock of the new. Showing more than a beautiful girl in a miniskirt, it is architecture's contribution to pop culture.

A reading of the books by Peter Rice, Ted Happold and Nathan Silver on the Pompidou Centre reveals the essence of another saga not that dissimilar to the Opera House but possibly even more smothered by legal issues in the years following its opening.

Again, this must be one of the few buildings that would be a popular choice were a hundred to be put to the vote. It has everything of the finesse of the chocolate factory and is the nearest you get to its criss-crossed facade.

For the engineer, criss-crossing the facade is the perfect way of obstructing the views. This approach is taken to its ultimate in Chicago in Bruce Graham and Fazlur Kahn's John Hancock Building 7. It sums up the post-Miesian period, where stylish buildings were expected to express their structure – as if dressed in a leotard, or better still, fishnet tights.

Chicago is the home of architecture or, more to the point, engineering architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Illinois Institute of Technology 8 dares one to understand how it works, demands one buys the book and, ultimately, do the sums – sums that were developed to calculate the stability of monoplane wings. It was the inspiration for Hopkins' Patera Building System. Downtown you have Frank Lloyd Wright's Robbie House 9 and the iron frames that exploit not only Otis' lift but also Edison's electrical light. They reinvented the world here and these buildings have continued to define the city.

Wright's Robbie House combines an arts-and-craft modesty with affluent socialism. It defies gravity, whilst Daniel Burnham and John W Root's Monadnock Building 10 defines it with its huge tapering load-bearing brick facade, curling out to create a simple cornice. Richard Siefert and Willi Frischmann's Centre Point 11 in London finds some of the same enthusiasm, tapering again as the pre-cast loadbearing elements thin on their way to the top. A building that again defines the art of the possible, replacing brick with concrete. It is a great example of how we have to grow to love our buildings (or learn to forget what the press has said). Here Siefert and Frischmann are Simon & Garfunkel, or better yet Allman and Clapton (Layla). Undoubtedly both played off each other while playing together. This would be a great chapter to write.

Perhaps though, the greatest example of this synergy is engineer Peter Rice's San Nicola di Bari stadium, designed by Piano. A complete symphony of form based on the simplest of geometries that is on a par with the Opera House but has none of that building's complexity. Here, the lessons have been learned but the ease with which it went together makes it, to the uninitiated, somehow ordinary in a world that has grown accustomed to the "look no hands" approach.

One building that had no architect at all, just an engineer, was the Empire Hall 12, a fact that has forever given rise to comment by architects. The engineer in question, Sir Owen Williams, believed that form should follow function. Here we have the session guitarist striking out on his own and providing the necessary discipline and logic to erect the building nine months after the start of the design. Future Time Teams can unpick his logic and, by revisiting the design, enter the mindset of the day, perhaps even re-inventing the conversations Williams had with his team, particularly if they have the reinforcement drawings to hand. What has been written to date says more about our own preoccupation with professional boundaries than it does about Owen.

Such a conversation recently occurred at a lecture by Neil Jackson on Craig Ellwood whose unbuilt Bridge House 14 is a favourite (it must be for most engineers). Jackson proceeded to explain how Craig, an unqualified engineer/builder, had employed architects to design for him. Craig apparently did not draw, but added his signature to drawings and consequently could not, according to Jackson, have been the designer. That there are a number of qualified architects today who are renowned for never having drawn anything and yet are more than mere entrepreneurs seems to have escaped Jackson's notice, but then Craig has, it would appear, led a rather charmed life (he took shares instead of a fee with a client whose business later became Rank Xerox).

The story of Denys Lasdun's winning the commission for the National Theatre 15 and the South Bank's place in my youth are part of a mind muddle. As it was being built, I walked past the National Theatre daily on my way to college, and I remember wondering if the engineers on the board would be a good firm to work for. After it was opened, I took it for granted that it and the whole of the South Bank was a great place to visit. My awareness of the crispness came subsequently and Lasdun's story some time after that. I remember reading the story that Lasdun attended the job interview with Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson on his own. All the other competitors came with teams to help answer the difficult questions. Solos, or soliloquies, are rare in the business of buildings. He won on the basis that he was someone they felt they could talk to. Although the building is brutal, it is also honest and I love the way the lights on the fly-tower burn off the water that runs down it on a rainy evening.

Equivalent and equally honest structures are the pillboxes and look-out towers 16 built for the Germans in Jersey. Structures that have survived because they are too difficult to demolish but are now monuments that tell their own stories: both personal and national. Testaments to a time that my father and countless others never talked of.

My father, the architect George Whitby, talked about architecture almost incessantly and I remember one car crash (at slow speed) where the conversation ran along the lines of "look at that house there …" We grew up reading drawings and fantasising over EL Lutyen's plans. These were the books we weren't supposed to touch. My father and Donald McMorran's buildings were unloved by the architectural establishment (who were in love in Lasdun) and it is just fortunate that clients such as the City of London appreciated them. He took me out of school for site visits to buildings like the City of London Police Station 17, which they designed. It is the first renaissance skyscraper and, like Centre Point, another tower that tapers. It is a building with humour that will reward anybody who stops to take it in.

Robert Maillart was another designer–builder who was unloved in his time, but whose genius is revealed in Max Bill's eponymous biography. His use of concrete in the train shed in Como, Italy 18 and on his numerous bridges, and particularly … 19 together with Bill's reinforcement drawings produce poetry that, like Nick's most loved songs, one could return to day after day.

Maillart is somebody I would have liked to have met, although the books get near. I did however meet Félix Candela just months before he died, having been asked to supper with him by Alan Blanc just after a lecture he gave at the RIBA. It would seem as if it were a dream today, but also among the 10 for dinner was Santiago Calatrava. Alan read the futurists' manifesto.

I had visited Candela's work, albeit in an unenlightened state, while in Mexico in 1968. His arena 20 was everything that Calatrava can do but without the bells and whistles. I wasn't aware when we met that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War, had been interned in France and had escaped to Mexico. His would be a special chapter.

Alongside Candela is Richard Buckminster Fuller and although Wally Byam's Airstream Caravan 21 is not his, it belongs to his marathon two-hour final lecture – a poignant moment, much like Peter Rice's last lecture at the RIBA. Bucky's life was words as well as projects. Again, somebody before his time – although, in the case of this maverick, this was probably fortunate. He reminds me of EF Schumacher and William Morris and of the fact that engineering and architecture are political activities – about how we think we might live, as opposed to how we do live, and about how we should tread more softly on our planet. These are timely lessons that we have to heed. If this were to be a list for the ideal dinner party, Peter, Bucky, Schumacher and Morris would be four of the guests.

I don't imagine Calatrava would be very comfortable at such a dinner party but we owe him a great debt. He has broken the mould – an ambidextrous architect/engineer who has taken engineering beyond architecture and implied more is more. I am uneasy with his extremes but a reinterpretation of his La Devesa Footbridge 22 in Ripoll, Spain was the genesis for our Merchants' Bridge in Manchester, which at the time we instinctively felt was a more honest structure. In fact, it is the opposite, albeit possibly more sculptural.

That engineering, architecture and sculpture are separate says something about our arts. I was not aware of how fraught the relationship was between architecture and sculpture and had only subliminally absorbed Charles Holden's Senate House 23 until I was engaged on the design of Henry Moore's museum in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire (unbuilt). Here I held the machete for the Mother and Child and entered into Moore's world. Holden had been given the commission for the Senate House provided that he used anybody other than Jacob Epstein, the Evening Standard having run a campaign against Epstein's relief on the London Transport Headquarters (where Moore had also contributed). Moore had accepted the commission for the Senate House but then backed out, leaving the raw blocks uncarved and arguing that sculpture should never be applied to architecture. There is a hint of fun at the Senate House: the hieroglyphics are the unrealised plan.

Sculpture lives with any engineer and Antony Gormley's Angel of the North 24 is one of the greats. It surprised me that on the weekend of its erection, I recognised no engineers among the crowd there. For the fact that my wife Janet forced me out of bed, having left the children with her mother in Newcastle, I am eternally grateful. I have never worked with Gormley, though we have met and lectured together and this is probably a better relationship. Anish Kapoor's red tubular sculpture Marsyas 25 at Tate Modern in London is a similar high point, although this time it was my youngest child Chad's reaction that capped the day. We were walking along the South Bank when he wanted to go to the loo. On seeing the sculpture, he forgot everything and ran out of the gallery to get his brother and sisters.

In terms of sculpture on a grand scale Sizewell B Power Station 26 in Suffolk takes the biscuit. A monument to scientific hyperbole and engineering expectation. It ticks away along with its seven sisters, bankrupt but supported by an enormous state subsidy, having made a £4.3bn loss in 2002/03 … enough for half of Crossrail. That it was compared with Glyndebourne at the British Construction Industry Awards in 1990 is ironic. Both are beautiful structures built in the landscape, but somehow both suffer from their excess of function.

My fascination with Sizewell is linked to the fact that we have a 1948 council house 27 nearby. Built as the forest manager's house for Dunwich Forest, such homes are incredibly well designed. All the living spaces are double aspect and the net to gross floor area is better than 95%. I don't know the origins of this design but it is built throughout the country. Clearly, it was designed when materials were limited and its economy is the essence of its beauty. One nice feature is a 225 × 300 mm opening through the hall wall that was built so the community could share the telephone.

The combination of the great storm of 1987, which decimated the woods, and the construction of Sizewell, destroyed the rhythm of the forestry workers' existence and now the forest is managed by contractors. This rhythm of working with the land is celebrated ultimately in the glass houses of the country mansion often contained within walled gardens 28. These are devices for modifying the environment and advancing the seasons a few weeks. They are expressions of how the need for food and clean water came above the need for a dry home and one can see our present-day preoccupation with garden and gardening programmes as a subliminal extension of this. Are we assuaging our consciences and restoring, on a small scale, the environment that everyday we degrade on a large scale?

This management of space has returned to our cities (discounting the laundered parks) and if the 21st century could be remembered for anything, I would like to think that the space that we all inhabit between buildings is reclaimed from the scouring of traffic. Already there are signs of this happening and I hope that Trafalgar Square 29 will be seen, in time, as a mere pilot project in this context. It is like so many obvious schemes, a project that was begging to happen but which was held back by traffic engineers, transport lobby groups and the lack of political leadership for London. That it was congestion charging should have made it ultimately feasible raises the question of how we design our cities.

This renaissance in our cities is to do with a renaissance in our thinking, which is becoming softer and more eclectic. The professional boundaries are becoming blurred and, despite this, the professions, and more particularly architecture, continue to try to protect themselves. Engineering has seen the consequences of a narrow vision again and again, with the proliferation of institutions that seek to maintain an elite. In engineering, the softer thinking is collapsing the boundaries, particularly as the media now revels in engineering. From programmes such as Salvage Squad, my seven-year old daughter concluded that I cannot be an engineer but must be a designer. I will have to take the tractor apart and put it back together to convince her.

Would that it could be the American Locomotive Company's steam engine Big Boy 30. If engineering was art, this is the Picasso, if it is music it is the 1812 Overture. Here is the superlative machine. Beautiful even in pictures, it deserves a place alongside the Angel of the North or the Opera House. Beneath the surface is the realisation that this piece of art can pull 10,000 tonnes and go from forward to reverse without gears and without a clutch.

However, if I am to explain myself to my daughter, it would be through 30 Finsbury Square, London 31. This building breaks the classical meter that has dominated architecture and yet it is possible not to notice it. The disorder of Eric Parry's design reminds me of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert, music that is neither melodic nor discordant. Behind Eric's "music" is an orchestra that has suffered none of the pain of the Opera House but has faced its trials and triumphs together. That nobody made it a problem perhaps means it is not enough of a story. It is a silent testament to how far our industry has come.