How can any building be considered strange anymore? You must believe they can and, of course, see themselves below.
Ontario College of Art and Design – Toronto, Canada
This crossword puzzle checked box appears, at a distance, to be hovering Close Encounters–style above an otherwise mundane Toronto neighborhood. As you approach, its improbability only increases. British architect Will Alsop planted this collection of galleries and studio spaces on brightly colored columns so insouciantly angled and skinny that they barely look like they can support themselves.
The Bar Code Building – St. Petersburg, Russia
Near the banks of the Neva River, this trade complex by Vitruvius & Sons transforms the world’s most ubiquitous symbol of commerce—the bar code—into a powerful architectural motif. It can be read as an update of American-style roadside classics like the giant Dixie Cup water tower of Lexington, KY, or Detroit’s giant Uniroyal Tire. The rust-red steel building brightens an otherwise bleak urban setting. There’s also a Barcode House by the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV on the outskirts of Munich, but it’s much more subtle.
Selfridges Department Store – Birmingham, England
The Birmingham branch of Selfridges is a billowy mattress of a building, clad in 15,000 shimmery aluminum discs like that famous Paco Rabanne dress. It was designed by Future Systems- the name tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the firm-to be a landmark and a catalyst for the revitalization of a largely moribund city center. “An ersatz urban cliff, a giant sea anemone, a friendly, blob-like alien, the mother of all magic mushrooms,” wrote Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey. “This is the department store as unalloyed architectural entertainment.” The interior, with floaty white escalators crisscrossing in an open atrium, looks like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Columbus Lighthouse – Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Under construction for some 40 years, and inaugurated in time for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s initial landing in the New World (which was not on Hispaniola, but in the Bahamas), this monstrously spooky concrete monument, ten stories high and 688 feet long, reputedly cost the impoverished nation some $70 million to build. The lighthouse contains what are purported to be the explorer’s bones.
When the lighthouse projects a cross-shaped beam into the night sky, it’s so bright that not only can it be seen for some 40 miles, but it drains electrical power from surrounding neighborhoods. It’s not turned on very often.
Bioscleave House – East Hampton, NY
Husband and wife artists Arakawa and Madeline Gins designed this intentionally unsettling house in 2008. With its bumpy, hilly floors and a wildly asymmetrical plan—even the electrical outlets are at weird angles—it’s supposed to stimulate the immune systems of its occupants by keeping them from ever becoming comfortable. This relentless “tentativeness,” the artists believe, is the key to immortality. This house can be yours. It’s currently offered by Sotheby’s Realty for $4 million.
Oriental Pearl TV Tower – Shanghai, China
Nothing else on earth quite looks like the Oriental Pearl. It was once the tallest structure on the Pudong side of Shanghai’s Huangpu River until it was overshadowed by the Shanghai World Financial Center in 2007. Designed by Jiang Huan Cheng of the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co. and completed in 1995, it stands 1,535 feet tall and is easily the world’s greatest assemblage of habitable disco balls (11!), housing several sightseeing observatories, a revolving restaurant, and a “space hotel.” Both Shanghai towers have recently been dwarfed by the 2,001-foot-tall Guangzhou TV and Sightseeing Tower.
Spittelau District Heating Plant – Vienna, Austria
Highly eccentric painter and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, fond of bright colors, crooked lines, and overall visual cacophony, designed this garbage-burning heating plant on the Donau Canal to look like Vienna’s answer to the Magic Kingdom. With its crazy quilt façade, decorative columns topped with gold balls, and a pollution-scrubbing smokestack, it suggests a mirage rather than a working piece of urban infrastructure. There are two of these oddities. The Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka, Japan, is an exact replica.
Elbe Philharmonic – Hamburg, Germany
What’s really freakish here is the contrast between the new building—a liquidy-looking glass thingamajig—and the old building it uses for its podium: a stolid, workaday 1960s waterfront warehouse. This odd couple, united by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and scheduled for completion in 2012, will be a new cultural complex for Hamburg’s harbor, featuring a public plaza on the old warehouse roof, a hotel, some apartments, and a wildly biomorphic philharmonic hall.
The Atomium – Brussels, Belgium
A 1958 World’s Fair leftover, the Atomium is far more eccentric than the 1964 Unisphere in New York or the 1962 Space Needle in Seattle. Conceived by an engineer, André Waterkeyn, it is a gigantic replica of an iron crystal molecule and was intended to symbolize “the peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes.” Five of its nine spheres are accessible to visitors, as is its maze of interconnecting tubes.
Public Library – Kansas City, MO
The south wall of the library’s parking garage resembles a bookshelf that would dwarf anything lining the walls of the 50-Foot-Tall Woman’s house: each book is around 25 feet tall and nine feet wide. It was constructed as an homage to 22 favorite literary titles, chosen by patrons of the library (then, of course, approved by the board of trustees).
Container City II, London, England
There have since been many copycats, but this colorful addition to the original “container city” (the first modular live/work structure of its kind when it was built in 2001) at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands stands out as an example of sustainable architecture (80 percent of the combined building is created from recycled shipping containers and other materials). Completed in 2002, its ziggurat shape and brightly colored exteriors, not surprisingly, have attracted many artists, who live and work here today.
House Attack, Vienna, Austria
At first glance, the base of the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst) is an unimpressive-looking stone slab, but look up and you’ll see the strange factor. Designed by artist Erwin Wurm, the installation piece is a sculpture of a one-family house that symbolizes “the everyday, privacy, as well as small-mindedness.”
Fuji Television Building – Tokyo, Japan
It resembles something created with an Erector Set, but this building—which took three years to complete and serves as the head office for Fuji TV—isn’t child’s play. It was designed to be sturdy enough to call itself earthquake-proof. Studio tours—there are 10 studios in this office—are offered for about $5 (for adults) and grant visitors access to the 1,200-ton sphere on top, which houses an observation deck.
Edificio Mirador – Madrid, Espanol
Designed by Dutch architecture firm MVRDV—known for its unusual and striking construction—this residential building, set in the northeast part of Madrid, was designed as a frame for the distant landscape, but more resembles a Borg spaceship. Oh, and that open middle section? It also serves as an outdoor meeting area for residents to take in the unobstructed views.
Museum of Contemporary Art – Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Fret not! Even though this building strongly resembles a flying saucer—even more eerily true when it’s lit up at night—Rio has not been occupied by aliens, but rather by the design prowess of Oscar Niemeyer. After making their way up the winding red path to the entrance, visitors can enjoy views of Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf Mountain, and the surrounding cityscape—along with museum exhibitions.
Druzhba Holiday Center – Yalta, Ukraine
Overlooking a popular beach in the faded Soviet resort town of Yalta, this hotel—built in 1984 by Ukrainian architect Igor Vasilevsky—may lack an imaginative name, but its hulking cylindrical mass is unmissable. Guests enter the property via a catwalk bridge surrounded by glass; inside the complex, which is supported by giant cement legs, a series of staircases and elevators connect public spaces and accommodations—many of which have panoramic views of the Black Sea.
Cube Houses – Rotterdam, Netherlands
Known locally as Kubuswoningen, these attached Piet Blom–designed residences on Overblaak Street were unveiled in 1984 to oohs and ahhhs. The architect tilted the traditional house structure, a cube, some 45 degrees, placing it on a hexagon-shaped pylon; all the walls and windows are angled at 54.7 degrees, and each apartment is about 900 square feet, but only 225 square feet of that is usable space.
Blur Building – Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Ensconced in a perpetual swath of man-made fog, the Blur Building, designed by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, was built for the Swiss Expo in 2002 on Lake Neuchatel. The 31,500 nozzles spray a fine mist that adjusts to changing weather conditions to create the same “blur” effect in all seasons. The inside space is as amorphous as the outside “walls,” and downstairs you’ll find a water bar to purchase artisanal water.
Agbar Tower – Barcelona, Espanol
This 474-foot-tall tower may look like London’s Gherkin building, but its visionary, Jean Nouvel, says he was inspired not by Sir Norman Foster but by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. The Agbar’s more than 4,500 windows give it a geyser-like glimmer, while the structure is supposed to evoke the mountains around Barcelona (though many locals have more off-color ideas about what it evokes).
Cybertecture Egg – Mumbai, India
Architecture is so 20th century. Welcome to the age of cybertecture, which, according to the firm James Law Cybertecture International, is not just about “concrete, steel and glass, but also the new intangible materials of technology, multimedia, intelligence and interactivity.” The egg—which will house offices and is slated for completion in late 2010—uses less surface area than “old style” buildings and incorporates new technologies, like bathrooms that track workers’ weight and blood pressure. Can anyone say Big Brother?
The Church of Hallgrimur – Reykjavik, Iceland
In the land of fire and ice, it makes sense that even the holiest places resemble natural phenomena. And when architect Guojon Samuelsson began this church in 1937, Icelandic basalt lava flows were what he had in mind. It’s hard to miss this imposing structure, located in the center of town, and you won’t want to miss the views from its observation tower.
Nakagin Capsule Tower – Tokyo, Japan
Remember the tales of Japanese bachelor salarymen living in pods? That was the idea behind these 140 cubes from architect Kisho Kurokawa, finished in 1972. It kicked off the capsule architecture movement, with cozy spaces 8 x 12 x 7 feet that were designed for minimalist living at its most minimal, with a bed, a wall of appliances, a tiny bathroom, and a small circular window. While the building has fallen into disrepair as of late, it still stands, says the New York Times, as a “powerful reminder of paths not taken, of the possibility of worlds shaped by different sets of values.”
Montreal Biosphere – Montreal, Canada
There’s nothing like a World’s Fair to inspire odd architecture. That’s exactly what happened for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, when architect Buckminster Fuller designed this geodesic dome. His structure bubbles up from the trees on Saint Helen’s Island to 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter. It was an enclosed structure until a fire in 1976 destroyed the outer layer. Today, the thin-shell structure is owned and run by Environment Canada as a museum, with interactive exhibits on biodiversity and climate change.
Haewoojae – Suwon, South Korea
Better known as the toilet-shaped house, this showcase of superior plumbing was built by Korean Assembly Representative Sim Jae-Duck—a.k.a. Mr. Toilet—and his World Toilet Organization. It’s intended to celebrate the cultural centrality of the toilet and raise awareness of the plight of the world’s toilet-less. “We should learn to go beyond seeing toilets as just a place for defecation,” the late Mr. Sim once said, “but also as a place of culture where people can rest, meditate and be happy.” And who can argue? The house has four toilets, including a spectacular central restroom with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that turn opaque when the facilities are in use, and a sound system that supplies a soothing classical soundtrack.