Design can sometimes be mundane- except when it’s novelty architecture. These buildings uniquely and identifiably break away from the abstract, metaphorical, and often monotonous buildings that have classified modern-day design. Instead of favoring the steel and glass skyscrapers that serve as landmarks in cities around the world, they aim to poke fun at architecture in a way that’s jovial, commercial, and perhaps slightly more functional and expressive. Unlike other buildings, they are the literal embodiment of a thing itself, putting its function widely on display instead of hiding it within four austere walls.
Novelty architecture, sometimes called memetic architecture, is a widely known type of building in which structures are designed as familiar shapes such as characters, animals, or household objects. The scale becomes distorted so that these everyday items become inhabitable. Without the attention of being authentic or serious, many of these buildings often become landmarks or sought-out tourist attractions. Different from a folly, in that they feature usable space, these ornamental buildings are over the top and become widely known for their slight absurdity and their cheeky interpretation of the phrase “form follows function.”
The characterization of this architectural genre was first coined by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their book, Learning from Las Vegas. In their analysis of buildings that are “ducks” vs buildings that are “sheds”, these projects represented “buildings that are symbols and expressions of their function” instead of buildings that apply symbols to their exterior. The actual Duck that Venturi was referring to, is a modest yet iconic egg shop (housed inside of a duck, of course) located in Flanders, New York since 1931. Since then, this concept of duck architecture has evolved, and become a symbol of communities and landmarks of architectural feats.
Take, for example, the enormous Longaberger basket located just outside of Columbus, Ohio. Designed by renowned architecture and design firm NBBJ, the building served as the former Longaberger Basket Headquarters and is actually dubbed as the world’s largest basket. But besides being the home to hundreds of employees for this international company, it quickly became a roadside attraction and a tourist destination for the town of Newark where it is located. Although the offices closed in 2016, it was reopened for tours where people stood in line for hours in a parking lot on its inaugural day of business, and is slated to eventually become a luxury hotel- something that locals and travelers are both excited to experience. But what makes this giant basket, or any of the enlarged objects that encompass the world of novelty architecture so special? It comes down to the newness of the experience and the ability to occupy something that might otherwise fit right in your hand. Although kitschy on the outside, it’s still rather interesting on the inside and features a 30,000 square foot atrium and curving wooden staircase. The giant handles on top even serve their purpose, as they heat in the winter to help the building thaw ice. While some might say that the basket is just that- an enormous basket, the CEO of the company once said that the basket is a “symbol of overcoming adversity, of what you can achieve.”
Whether you believe that an enormous basket, elephant, duck, guitar, or the reconstruction of New York City’s iconic buildings in Las Vegas is truly a symbol of overcoming adversity, what novelty architecture does do is give our urbanism a break from the repetitive and the mundane. The playful qualities of these designs remind us that not all architecture has to be so serious. These sites attract our attention and even bring some questions to our taste level. They’re not quite “original”, but are completely unique. What we need is a little more fun in design, and maybe another building shaped like a charming animal, or two.