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Visionary (and sometimes eccentric) architects have left their marks on the American landscape by building structures that refuse to follow the standard formula of four walls and a roof. The unique outcomes can look like anything from animals and plants to objects that are familiar and man-made or otherworldly and strange. Some are famous public landmarks, while others are lesser known but no less remarkable. Here are seven fascinating architectural landmarks to visit from coast to coast.
Binoculars Building (Venice Beach, California)
In the early 1990s, architect Frank Gehry had been commissioned to design Venice Beach offices for advertising agency Chiat/Day, when he was called in for a client meeting to review models of his design. He presented two parts of the three-part complex and then dropped a pair of binoculars from the client’s desk between the two to stand in for the as-yet-undesigned third element. Gehry was struck by the sight and contacted his famous sculptor friends, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, to ask if they’d create a large-scale set of binoculars to serve as the entrance to the property and its parking deck. The resulting whimsical work — unlike any of the rest of Gehry’s iconic designs — still delights passersby to the complex.
The Longaberger Company (Newark, Ohio)
No list of quirky buildings would be complete without mention of the remarkable Ohio headquarters of a now-defunct company that made woven maple baskets. Fittingly, its offices were located in a seven-story building itself designed to look like a picnic basket, its giant handles resting against one another on top. The visually arresting building, which opened in 1997, now stands unoccupied, but fans near and far have mounted a fundraiser to preserve the basket building as a historic landmark.
Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame (Heyward, Wisconsin)
This concrete, steel, and fiberglass structure was built in the form of a leaping muskie to celebrate all freshwater fish and folks that catch them. The Hall of Fame organization has been around since 1960, but the fantastic museum complex opened in 1976 on six acres of land donated by the city of Heyward, Wisconsin. Visitors enter through a door in the fish’s tail and can walk through the 4.5-story structure to its gaping mouth, where an observation deck offers a view of the nearby lake and town. An adjacent, more conventional building houses a 30,000-square-foot collection of fishing gear (including 500 outboard motors) and a research library.
Futuro House (Frisco, North Carolina)
In the 1960s, a Finnish architect named Matti Suuronen decided to create energy-efficient fiberglass prefab structures for use as affordable ski cabins. His design, roughly the shape of a hamburger bun, did not rest on a poured foundation but instead was elevated by metal legs so that the modular houses could be erected on uneven ground. The elliptical pods featured oval windows all around and had a retractable front door that lowered to reveal steps to the ground, much like an airplane hatch. Production of the Futuros ceased during the 1970s, but not before they landed all over the world for uses that go far beyond ski cabins — including this one near the beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which is now a popular tourist attraction.
Earl Young Mushroom Houses (Charlevoix, Michigan)
An architecture school dropout, Earl Young left a unique mark on the small town of Charlevoix, Michigan, where he grew up. Young had long been fascinated by the boulders around town, massive stones left behind when the glaciers receded after the Ice Age, and began to use them as the literal building blocks of a local architecture style known as mushroom houses. Twenty-six of these houses are scattered along the streets of Charlevoix, especially those that follow the town’s Lake Michigan shoreline. They bear Young's signature style: very few right angles in the exterior boulder walls (some of which stretch three feet thick), shake-shingle roofs rounded and undulating like mushroom caps, and strange pointy turrets and chimneys that look like they’ve been dolloped with snow. His house designs take the materials and contours of the land into consideration, and the distinctive architectural vernacular they lend the town is a source of local pride (and income — several companies run guided tours of Earl Young’s mushroom houses and many can be rented).
Central Library Parking Garage (Kansas City, Missouri)
All libraries celebrate books, but Kansas City’s Central Library took that impulse to the next level by constructing an exterior wall of its parking deck made up of 25-foot-tall book spines. The 22 titles depicted were suggested by local readers and selected by the library’s Board of Trustees — and the list includes many books with Midwestern resonance like O Pioneers!, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Black Elk Speaks. The interior of the grand library building, which opened in 2004, was formerly the First National Bank, built in 1906. It includes another wall of spines leading to the children’s book room and an imposing bank vault repurposed as a theater.
Arcosanti (Mayer, Arizona)
Arcosanti, an architectural and lifestyle experiment in the Arizona desert, is a community of like-minded, environmentally conscious people. Residents live and work (making bells from bronze and clay as well as leading visitor tours) in a complex of strange and futuristic buildings that’s still under construction. They’ve been at it since 1970, using innovative building techniques that are ecologically sound and somewhat whimsical: round windows, domes, lots of arches, south-facing windows, and structures built into the ground to benefit from natural insulation from the desert elements. When (and if) fully completed, the complex of buildings is intended to sustainably support 5,000 inhabitants. From a certain view, Arcosanti might look like a set from Star Wars, but building for a sustainable future sure seems like a worthy experiment.