I didn’t expect it at all. I don’t remember why I was walking around the central business district of Sydney that morning, but when I turned right at the end of Bligh Street, there it was: Aurora Place, the remarkable office and residential tower from renowned Italian architect and engineer Renzo Piano. It stands around 700 feet tall and seems to be wrapped in sails: Curves and twists of milky glass billow around the structure. The building was completed in 2000, and its façade is emblematic of the stylings of the Sydney Opera House less than half a mile away.

You might know Piano for The Shard in London, a building completed in 2012 that tapers inward as it reaches a height of 1,000 feet. It has been likened to another maritime detail, the mast of a ship, and contains luxury residences, hotels, shops, and cultural centers. Another of my favorite Piano designs is the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, completed in 1998 and built to honor the culture of the native Kanak peoples. It was a green building before anyone was really building green, and its design is extraordinary in its innovation.

I was surprised in a similar way once when I was visiting New York City in the late 2000s (I lived there from 1986 to 2000). When I walked onto 8th Avenue from 54th Street, I saw a profound architectural non-sequitur. The Hearst Tower, a 46-story block of stacked, structural steel triangles — each 4 stories tall and filled with glass — climbs out of an 80-year-old cast stone landmark building. The tower hovers over its old-timey base and is notched along its edges in broad swaths that hold the eye — an abrupt and welcomed reprieve to the rigid straight-up-and-down lines that define the Midtown cityscape. The tower bursts skyward, foreign to anything around it, and I kept thinking of that shocking first reveal of the creature in the movie Alien.

Architectural angles curves glass

Hearst Tower bursts skyward, foreign to anything around it. It reminds me of that shocking first reveal of the creature in the movie Alien.

Hearst Tower is the work of Sir Norman Foster, one of the most innovative and prolific architects in the world. The original building that serves as the tower’s pedestal, Foster’s starting point, was completed in 1928 on commission from William Randolph Hearst. It was built to be the base of a proposed skyscraper that The Great Depression postponed. All this time later, Foster has created an exhilarating interaction between the historic base and the new tower.

What is it about these angles, curves, and glass? Is it that these buildings reflect our changing environment? If God’s in a blue mood, so is a glass building. Or that they protect us in some way? When I lived in New York and looked up around me, I often felt comforted. I had moved there from Vail, Colorado, and was immediately struck by the similarities of the canyons and immovable masses that stood on either side of me. In Vail, the masses were formed by nature, in New York by man. Natural enough. Here’s to looking up.