Blobby. Sparkly. Bendy. Spiky. Buildings today don't have to be square and straight – as a 21st-century architect you can really go crazy with ideas of fantastical design. Justin McGuirk looks at three schemes that will blow your mind
Now you lot, quiet at the back there, let's begin. There are three orders of architecture: the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian, blah, blah, blah … er, I don't think so! You may have noticed that almost anything is possible in architecture these days. Forget your columns and your four-sided buildings – even corners and windows seem to have fallen by the wayside. More and more architects are seeking inspiration from nature, designing buildings as organic and sometimes purely whimsical forms.

This fantastical approach to design is not new – famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi was at it 100 years ago, and visionary designers in the 1960s were playing with ideas that they often couldn't build. But now with sophisticated computer design software and advances in structural engineering, it's possible to treat buildings more like sculptures. And there's been another development: exciting buildings attract tourists, and smaller cities or those with flagging economies can reverse their fortunes with a design classic. This is what happened to Bilbao in Spain after LA architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum was built there. Now cities and corporate patrons look for unusual, eye-catching designs so that they can be associated with some of that magic. The three recent buildings shown here will give you an idea of the strange goings-on in the architecture of the 21st century.

An alien invasion: Selfridges, Birmingham

Modern architecture has not been kind to Birmingham. Between the old Bullring shopping centre and motorway interchange Spaghetti Junction, the whole image of the city has been based on massive lumps of concrete, not to mention cheap and bland office blocks. But things are most definitely looking up. Where the Bullring shopping complex once strangled the centre of town, a strange and unearthly form has been taking shape, a shimmering alien cocoon of a building. Yes, just when you thought you couldn’t fit any more shops into the heart of Birmingham comes an upmarket department store that wants you to take notice. Selfridges has landed … in Digbeth. This incredible building was designed by a practice called Future Systems. Their name gives you a little hint of their style. If you like cricket, you might have seen their only other building, the NatWest Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, which manages to look both futuristic and retro. At Selfridges, the architects went all-out science fiction. The first thing you notice about the building is that it’s shaped like an amoeba: no straight lines and no corners. Its silvery sheen comes from the cladding, its decorative finish, which is made up of 15,000 aluminium discs bolted to the deep blue concrete beneath. The cladding was inspired by a chainmail dress by legendary 1960s fashion designer Paco Rabanne. Another thing you’ll notice is that there are almost no windows – well, it’s not like shoppers will be missing any great views. For a six-storey building, Selfridges couldn’t really stand out more from its surroundings. That’s exactly what the department store’s top dogs wanted; it’s a businessperson’s dream to have an image that is recognisable without a label – and this way the architects didn’t have to spoil their flawless building with a great big sign saying “Selfridges”. Love it or loathe it, Brummies will appreciate the fact that they have a building that’s not quite like anything else anywhere. Feeling any sudden shopping urges, anybody? Fast facts
  • location: Birmingham
  • architect: Future Systems
  • covered in 15,000 aluminium discs
  • six storeys but almost no windows
  • no straight lines and no corners

Rockin' out loud: Experience Music Project, Seattle, USA

Seattle – home of the software industry and birthplace of rock star Kurt Cobain and 1970s legend Jimi Hendrix. It was here that billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and possessor of the largest collection of Hendrix memorabilia in the world, set up the Experience Music Project. Allen’s initial idea was to create a home for his sprawling collection, but the project evolved into a showcase of American popular music from blues and rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop. Frank Gehry, architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, was the man chosen to design EMP and inject it with a hit of rock star panache. Gehry decided to base his design on pieces of broken electric guitars, which is just the kind of thing you’ll find in EMP, like the Fender Stratocaster Hendrix smashed up on stage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The building is an even more flamboyant take on the architect’s trademark metallic ruffles, as it is a technicolour version with more folds. The exterior is made up of 21,000 stainless steel shingles in a variety of finishes, from bead-blasted gold to red and blue car-body paint to reflective purple. The fun continues inside, because EMP is much more than a museum. Sure, there are exhibitions of rock memorabilia and breakdowns of musical eras – but there are also interactive elements linked to sub-woofers under the floors so you can literally feel the music. There’s also a theatre for music masterclasses, a venue for touring bands and the Sound Lab, where you can live out your pop fantasies in front of a virtual audience. Fast Facts
Experience Music Project
  • location: Seattle
  • architect: Frank Gehry
  • stainless steel shingles with a range of finishes – gold, red, blue, purple
  • sub-woofers shake the floors so you can feel the music
  • showcases American pop music

Buzz of the fruit fly: The Esplanade cultural centre, Singapore

Singapore has done well for itself. The island and city state is the business centre of south-east Asia and its people enjoy one of the highest average incomes in the world. But there is more to life than work, and there is more to a great city than faceless businesses and corporate skyscrapers. So, partly to reward its industrious citizens and partly in an attempt to give the city a makeover as a new cultural centre, back in the mid-1990s the government decided to create a world-class arts venue. The result, completed last autumn, looks like the giant eyes of a fly. The Esplanade, as the centre is called, was designed by the duo of British architect Michael Wilford and Partners and Singaporean practice DP Architects. It houses a concert hall, a theatre and a shopping mall. Locals liken the complex’s two bulbous auditoriums to the durian fruit because of their shape and their prickly outer shells. It’s ironic that the city’s new pride and joy looks like a fruit that smells so bad it’s banned on local public transport … The reason for the auditoriums’ oval shape is that the architects wanted the complex to be approachable from all sides rather than having a conventional front and back. As for their spiky armour, this is to shield the glass roof from the equatorial sun. Aluminium shades poke out over the glass at carefully calculated angles, so that sunlight never enters the building directly, keeping the interior cool, but so that people inside still have amazing views of Marina Bay and the surrounding buildings. Fast Facts
The esplanade
  • location: Singapore
  • architects: Michael Wilford and Partners, and DP Architects
  • modelled on the exotic durian fruit
  • has a concert hall, theatre and mall
  • spiky armour shields the glass roof from the sun