While our lives have mostly shrunk to our own four walls – besides the sneak peek of others’ homes glimpsed via Zoom – we can still step into other worlds virtually. Stately homes and fortresses, from Blenheim Palace to Bran Castle (of Dracula fame) have opened digital portals allowing anyone with a laptop the chance to snoop around, without getting off the sofa. Here are 10 of my favourite colourful buildings from the vast eclectic trove online.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq, Cairo
Four vaulted stone halls, or iwans, open on to an eerily empty courtyard with an intricate domed fountain in the middle. The ceiling of the cavernous qibla iwan on the prayer-ward eastern side is carved with geometric motifs and gilded like illuminations from an ancient Qur’an. Sultan Barquq’s 14th-century complex, with its marble mosaics, monumental bronze doors and elaborately carved minarets, is a masterpiece of Cairo’s Mamluk architecture. Egypt’s tourism ministry has opened other virtual sites, including the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, encouraging digital travel with the hashtag #ExperienceEgyptFromHome.
Anne of Cleves House, East Sussex
Henry VIII gave this timber-framed mansion in Lewes, and other properties, to Anne of Cleves after their divorce in 1540. The tour starts in the garden, among foxgloves and delphiniums under a spreading medlar tree. It then glides, ghost-like, into the well-worn Tudor kitchen and up the steep staircase to a high-beamed bedroom and carved four-poster bed. This classic late medieval hall house, “modernised” a century or so later, has local history galleries with antique grandfather clocks and lots of Wealden iron. Elsewhere, Sussex Archaeological Society has created several virtual tours of their attractions, including the Roman Fishbourne Palace.
Palace of Versailles, Paris
“Hey guys, what’s up?” says narrator Jean Philippe N’Djoli, inviting us into Versailles. A short, playful video introduces the palace’s immersive 2019 Google virtual reality app, which offers hi-tech tours of the opera house, king’s bedroom and more. Click the little yellow person and find yourself transported into the gleaming Hall of Mirrors, its baroque painted ceiling celebrating Louis XIV and 357 luxurious mirrors reflecting 73m of gilded bronze and crystal. Head through the endless corridors to zoom in on art by Veronese or Jacques Louis David, royal statues and trompe-l’oeil murals. Or whiz round the lakes and fountains in the sculpture-filled gardens, using Google maps to explore miles of maze-like groves and lakeside topiary.
City Palace, Jaipur, India
In 2019, Jaipur’s youthful maharaja, polo player Padmanabh Singh, put a room in his palace on to Airbnb (priced about £6,000 a night, the proceeds going to charity). The suite and its private pool don’t feature in this polished palatial tour, but the virtually accessible parts of the palace are a huge showcase for Jaipur’s sunset-coloured sandstone and graceful Mughal architecture.
The City Palace was built in the 1720s and 1730s by Padmanabh’s distant predecessor Jai Singh II, who founded modern Jaipur and built observatories in several Indian cities. The many-columned Diwan-e-Khas (private audience hall) has painted walls, serrated arches, marble floors and the world’s biggest silver pots, made by one of the maharajas to take 8,000 litres of Ganges water with him on a visit to Britain in 1902.
Golestan Palace, Iran
The Qajar dynasty, who ruled the Persian empire from around 1785-1925, chose Tehran as the imperial capital and commissioned some impressive architecture for the city. The walled Golestan complex is one of Tehran’s oldest palaces (the mirrored decor is largely 19th century) and the Unesco World Heritage listing describes it as an inspirational “example of an east-west synthesis” in art and architecture.
The virtual access is slightly awkward (click the white arrows to jump to another 360-degree panorama), but how many of us will visit the real thing? Start by the pond in the flowery gardens (Golestan roughly translates as “Roseland”) and zoom in on the colourful tiled facade. In the Brilliant Hall, swivel up and look at the ceiling, and in the Talar e Salam swivel down as well to admire the mosaic floor.
Casa Batlló, Barcelona
With slim, bone-shaped columns and skull-like masks over the balconies, locals call it the House of Bones. This fantastical mansion, designed by Antoni Gaudí in 1904, has a coral reef-coloured facade and undulating, iridescent-scaled roof. The wood-floored interior is both livable house and modernist seascape, full of organically curving walls, blue tiles and stained glass. If navigating the spiral stairs all the way up to the ripple-windowed loft or panoramic rooftop is too much like hard work, you can skip straight there by clicking on Attic or Terrace.
Taliesin, Wisconsin, US
Half a century of pioneering architecture is encapsulated in this enjoyably reverential guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 242-hectare estate. No other landscape “cradles you as do these south-western Wisconsin hills”, wrote the architect in 1932. In the studio, a photo of Wright at his desk gets superimposed on the present-day space, and drawings of his famous buildings, from Fallingwater to the Guggenheim Museum, are ranged on drafting tables. The tour (blissfully unconcerned with a recent funding row that led the on-site school of architecture to relocate last summer) takes virtual visitors through living room and loggia, out into the Hillside Assembly Hall, built from rough local sandstone and oak, with supporting columns that leave the big windows free to frame the views.
Dominion Tower, Moscow
When Zaha Hadid won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2016, less than two months before she died, fellow architect Peter Cook said she shared “a sense of vigour” with the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists she admired. She designed curvaceous, futuristic buildings all over the world, from the Guangzhou Opera House to the London Aquatics Centre used in the 2012 Olympics. You can see several of them via Google.
The relatively modest Dominion Tower opened in a mostly residential area of Moscow in 2015 and has characteristically playful geometry. Photos for the 3D modelling were taken at night, so the building’s airy use of natural light is absent, but this virtual access captures the staggered levels and looping, monochrome staircases. Outside the plateglass windows, Moscow’s ever-spreading cityscape glows in the dark.
Castle in Love with the Wind, Ravadinovo, Bulgaria
In 1996, controversial Bulgarian businessman and wrestler Georgi Tumpalov drew a cross with his spade on a patch of ground about four miles west of the seaside town of Sozopol, on the Black Sea coast – the start of decades of work creating his fairytale, faux-medieval palace, AKA Castle in Love with the Wind. The garden tour gives us ponds and palm trees, creeper-covered turrets and plenty of Bulgarian sunshine. Hover over “What to See?” and click on each of the kitschy 360-degree interiors. There’s no zooming in on renaissance portraits here; just a twirling fantasia of stained glass, tarnished bronze and crimson velvet, to a soundtrack of birdsong and music that becomes steadily more portentous. The wine cellar – half grotto, half banquet hall – is equally baroque (with fake cobwebs on the picture frames) and the blue-vaulted reception room is a riot of gilding and taxidermied deer.
The Bubble House, Karalee, Australia
Sure, you could virtually tour the Sydney Opera House with a soundtrack that includes soprano Nicole Car singing, but have you seen the Bubble House in Karalee, near Brisbane? Architect Graham Birchall designed it for his final year thesis in the 1980s, then spent 10 years building it. Eleven domes, four to eight metres in diameter, enclose 16 rooms that include a bar, fireplace, cinema and bathrooms with whirlpool baths. The waterfall air conditioner and circular shutters that open like a camera lens had to be specially designed to fit the spherical settings. Birchall put the house up for sale last summer, after living there for three decades, and had thousands of inquiries.
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