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Some of the World’s Most Bizarre Construction Projects

Written by Laura Davies

Sometimes, when constructing a new building, planners and architects want it to blend in, match the style of the surrounding properties, and merge seamlessly into the landscape. This could mean yet another grey skyscraper or the more literal blending in of Switzerland’s earth houses. However, occasionally a new structure requires something more, something to catch the eye of passers-by or, on a larger scale, something to become a new landmark that embodies the soul of its city to attract fame, notoriety, and, of course, tourists and their cash.

This quest for the newest, biggest, most impressive new features for our cityscapes is driven by both officials and ambitious architects looking to make their mark, and it has led to some truly fantastic pieces of modern architecture. Of course, it’s also led to some truly bizarre structures. Think robot-shaped banks, precarious-looking piles of cubic apartments and enormous, horrifying babies scaling skyscrapers. Yes, really.

The Experience Music Project, now named MoPop, Seattle

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aerial_view_of_EMPSFM.jpg

Let’s start with the architecture of Frank Gehry, which always divides opinion. He’s had some incredible successes, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, held up as a magnificent example of 20th-century architecture, and some epic failures, like the Walkie Talkie Tower, come car melting death ray. But, the most bizarre of all his buildings and the top of multiple ugliest buildings in the world lists is the Experience Music Project, now renamed the MoPop, in Seattle.

In fairness to him, the brief was vague, and his client, Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, had no idea what he wanted except that he liked some of Gehry’s more “swoopy” designs. It also needed to be a creative space, representative of the American rock experience. No ordinary grey box of a building would do.

For his first design attempt, Gehry brought in several Stratocasters, smashed them up and drew up plans for a literal interpretation, with guitar strings sticking out and up to the sky. It missed its mark, though, as Allen felt it looked less like a smashed guitar and more like a mess of linguine. Design two toned it right down, but Allen deemed it too sleek. So, the final version, the one that stands today, was created as a mixture of the two. Smooth and flowing aluminium panels that almost look like fabric and a bright red chaotic section with strips of rectangular panels, symbolizing the frets of a guitar.

While the design sounds impressive and stays true to its musical inspiration, the reality conjures up something different for everyone who views it, and it’s almost never good. Forbes magazine named it one of the World’s ugliest buildings. Others call it the blob, or the hemorrhoids, and Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times that it looked like “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died.”

Despite the critics, though, the building is considered an incredible feat of design and engineering that was hugely ahead of its time. It consists of 3,300 unique structures and is clad in 21,000 metal sheets. No two are the same, and the design is so complex it couldn’t have been achieved without the use of sophisticated computer modelling. For this, Gehry used CATIA, which allowed a sculptural form to be digitised and used as a guide for the fabrication of building elements. Contractors couldn’t believe how perfectly everything fit together for a building that barely had a single straight line throughout its entire design. 

Spectators also have to admit it’s pretty eye-catching, and every design choice was made for a reason. The shimmering purple surface was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, the gold was taken from a Les Paul gold top guitar, and the blue from a Fender Thunderbird. Unfortunately, though, without the explanation, it reads more open heart surgery than music legends. And while it was designed to stand out and spark discussion, paying $90 million for a building that “looks like a spaceship threw up” probably stung a bit.

 

The Big Duck Building, Flanders, New York.

https://flic.kr/p/Ddqmsi

If you’ve ever driven down a road and spotted a building shaped like an enormous teapot, elephant, hotdog, or even toilet, what you’ve actually seen is a “Duck”. These are buildings designed to explicitly represent their function through their shape and construction. So a doughnut shop will be shaped like a doughnut, a flower shop shaped like a flower pot and a wool and craft store shaped like a sheep.

It’s hard to pick the most bizarre example of a “Duck” when there are so many worthy contenders. South Korean Congressman, Sim Jae-Duck, Nicknamed Mr Toilet after his tireless work improving restrooms, had a house built in the shape of a toilet and turned into a toilet museum after his death. Shoe salesman Mahlon Haines commissioned a 5 storey house in the shape of a boot, and there are countless other examples of Cat shaped Kindergartens and psychedelic snails.

However, after careful consideration, it makes sense to go back to where it all began, the original “Duck”. It was built in 1931 by a Long Island, you guessed it, duck farmer named Martin Maurer to sell the birds and their eggs. The construction wasn’t too complicated and consisted of a wooden frame, wire mesh and a concrete coating. However, it was made slightly creepier by the unexpected choice to use Model T tail lights to create glowing red eyes.

It’s only 9.1 meters long and 5.5 meters wide, but nevertheless, it attracted the attention it was designed for, served the duck business well, and ended up on the National Register of historic places in 2008. When the duck business went down, the structure was so loved by locals that they relocated it and turned it into a gift shop that’s still open today.

Although, clearly a visionary, the term “Duck” wasn’t actually coined by Maurer. Peter Blake, author of “God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape,” had seen the Big Duck, and it’s safe to say, he wasn’t a fan. Instead of enjoying the whimsy or appreciating Maurer’s business savvy, he described the building as an example of “the flood of ugliness engulfing America’s highways” and “another nail in the coffin of good taste and beautiful design.” Ouch. This caught the attention of Robert Venturi, and when he wrote his book “Learning from Las Vegas”, he decided these structures needed a name. So, the term “Duck” was born.

The Big Basket building, Newark, Ohio

https://flic.kr/p/bKyhd2

Technically another duck, but on a much larger scale, the Longaberger basket building in Ohio is possibly one of the most famous examples of mimitecture and a Newark Landmark. It was built to be the headquarters of the Longaberger basket company by the founder, Dave Longaberger in 1995. Architects proposed numerous designs for the building that were rejected until eventually, Longaberger pointed to their bestselling product, the Medium Market Basket and said, ‘Make it look exactly like that.’ So, that’s exactly what they did, only 160 times larger.

The completed 180,000 sq. ft. building is 7 storeys high and cost $30 million. Notable features include the huge glass ceiling, covering the central atrium, the façade of 6’ by 30’ stucco panels made to replicate the basket’s weave, the two 25 ft. gold leaf painted Longaberger tags and the 75-ton steel handles. No one could argue that the architects didn’t deliver on their brief. As Longaberger famously said, ‘If they can put a man on the moon, they can certainly build a structure shaped like a basket.

What’s more surprising than spotting an enormous basket at the side of the road in Ohio was that it was well built and a nice place to work. The atrium lets in a huge amount of natural light and the inside layout is spacious and functional. Designers even thought to heat the handles to prevent a build of ice which could fall and damage the glass ceiling. This is why it’s so tragic that the future of the building is now in jeopardy.

Following the death of Dave Longaberger in 1999, and the decline in demand for 19th-century style baskets, the company began to struggle. Profits were falling rapidly and the property tax bill had skyrocketed to $800,000. In 2016, Longaberger’s parent company, JRJR Networks, was forced to move any remaining employees off the site, and they put the basket up for sale.

Now, this may astound you, but the demand for gigantic $7.5 million basket-shaped office blocks is actually very low. It took almost a full year to be sold and even then it went for way below the asking price as local developer Steve Coon snapped it up for $1.2 million. Unfortunately, he did little with it, and the property sat vacant for years. Residents never lost their love for it, though, and when the doors were opened for a public tour to raise funds in 2016, more than 600 showed up. People were even crying and hugging each other, so pleased to be back in the basket.

Unfortunately, the tour was for one day only and the fate of the building was still up in the air. It was almost rescued in 2019, by Ceres Enterprises, and turned into a hotel. But, as with many things, plans were derailed by COVID. Travel restrictions made the project unviable, and it’s now back on the market for $6.5 million.

Žižkov Television Tower, Prague

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zizkov_Television_Tower_Prague.jpg

The Žižkov Television Tower holds two titles: “The Tallest Building in Prague”, standing at 216 meters high, and Virtual Tourist’s “Second Ugliest Building in the World”. Narrowly losing to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, which is admittedly ugly but nowhere near as bizarre.

It was built between 1985 and 1992, designed by architect Václav Aulický and structural engineer Jiří Kozák. It lends its stability to a three-column structure consisting of double-walled steel tubes, filled with concrete. Nine pods are suspended from the columns, which house an observatory, hotel room, restaurant, café bar, and some are even used for equipment related to the tower’s purpose as a transmitter. Total construction costs came to an eye-watering $19 million.

As with many other examples of communist-era architecture, it was hated by locals. Not only because it’s a hideous blot on Prague’s skyline but because the story of its construction is even uglier. The site chosen covered part of a centuries-old Jewish cemetery. Three-quarters of the graves had to be relocated to build the foundations of the tower. This would’ve been bad enough in itself, but of course, it gets worse. Instead of respectfully moving the cemetery’s residents the graves were unceremoniously dug up. The tombstones were crushed and the skeletons that were removed were taken to landfill. A disgusting legacy that makes eating in the restaurant or sleeping in the hotel much less appealing.

Now you might be thinking the story of this tower can’t get much worse but, there’s one more weird feature that’s worth mentioning. In 2000, Czech artist David Černý installed ten fibreglass sculptures of babies. Each is 3.5 meters long and positioned to look as if they’re crawling up or down the columns of the tower, like a creepy fever dream. To make matters worse, and hugely more horrifying, the babies don’t have faces but barcodes that appear to have been mashed right into their skulls. A night in that hotel room is sounding better by the second, right?

Habitat 67, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

https://flic.kr/p/evsa9

In the 1960s, young architect Moshe Safdie was writing his thesis “A Case for City Living: A Three-dimensional Modular Building System.” for the School of Architecture at McGill University. He knew the population of cities was about to explode and he also recognised that people hated living in apartment blocks with one aspect and no open space. This was leading to the wealthy fleeing to the suburbs and low-income families being trapped in buildings designed to house people efficiently rather than enjoyably. His solution was Habitat, where each unit would feel like a suburban house, just built upwards instead of outwards in an unsustainable urban sprawl.

His thesis didn’t win the Pilkington Prize for the best thesis that year. However, after he’d left the university, he was contacted by Sandy van Ginkel, his former thesis advisor, and asked to develop the idea for Expo67, the World fair that would be held in Montreal in 1967. Remarkably, at the age of only 26, his project was approved and he was employed as an independent architect to construct his vision as the crown jewel of the Expo. This was something Safdie would later describe as an amazing fairy tale.

His first step was to distil his design down from a self-contained city to just 354 units. Then, he bought up every Lego brick he could find and began experimenting with the best way to arrange them so that each unit would have multiple aspects and its own terrace garden on the roof of the unit below. He settled on prefabricated concrete structures and plastic-moulded bathrooms to save costs and make it easier for the design to be copied worldwide. This meant building a new factory, to manufacture the units in what he hoped would become an assembly line of house construction. The whole thing was to be a pilot for a reimagining of city living.

Unfortunately, Safdie’s ideas were beyond the available technology, the factory was expensive and costs spiralled to more than $22 million, $135 million in today’s money, for just 200 apartments. Although it wasn’t specifically designed for low-income families, the original idea was that it would be simultaneously so affordable to build and desirable to live in, that anyone, regardless of income, could choose it as a comfortable alternative to suburban life. To recoup costs, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation set rents at $1000 a month, $800 more than a 2-bed townhouse at the time. Remarkably, very few took them up on the offer.

Eventually, rents were slashed to $400 to fill the units, and the high-earners moved in. Most loved it but there were some whispers of poor ventilation and mould, which one resident blamed for his asthma and the death of his cat. When it was put up for sale in 1985, the tenants set up a collective to attempt to buy the complex for $9 million. Unfortunately, they were outbid by businessman Pierre Heafly, who took it for $10 million and sold it back to the tenants three weeks later for $11.4 million. Nice.

Today, every home is comprised of multiple blocks and the average price hovers around half a million each. Naturally, it’s become a complex for the high flyers of Montreal and Safdie himself even maintains a penthouse there. So, overall it found some success. I mean it wasn’t torn down, burnt down and none of the blocks ever collapsed. But, as a reimagining of urban living and as a pilot scheme meant to be adopted worldwide it’s been considered a failure.

However, perhaps it was just ahead of its time. As technology catches up, more and more new city structures are drawing their inspiration from Safdie and many Asian developers are now approaching his firm, looking for high density, community living with outdoor spaces. Recently built are Habitat Qinhuangdao, in China and Sky Habitat in Singapore, and Altair tower is currently under construction in Sri Lanka. So, perhaps Safdie’s vision of “For everyone a garden,” will still be made reality, and the original Habitat 67 wasn’t such a failure after all.

Citations

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