Buildings Shaped Like Animals
It’s a Jonah-and-the-whale kind of moment. You wake up, and your guest room appears normal. But as you get your bearings, you realize that you’re in the belly of a reptile—otherwise known as Australia’s Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn.
The curious trend of zoomorphic architecture—that is, buildings that look like animals—has been around for millennia (ever heard of the Sphinx?). And new species of animal-like buildings continue to turn up in concrete jungles like Bangkok, along roadsides, or in national parks.
Even serious tastemakers like Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Gehry have been inspired to inject a playful animalistic motif into their building plans. For the Vila Olímpica in the seaside city of Barcelona, Gehry managed to capture the sleek, muscular movement of a fish in motion in a way that is utterly sublime.
Award-winning London design firm Foster + Partners, meanwhile, looked to the skies for its upcoming Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, which is subtly modeled after the graceful arc of a falcon’s wing. Other less heralded architects, like those behind Florida’s “Chicken Church,” created a building that resembles an animal quite by accident.
It seems no creature is immune from being immortalized in architecture. While it makes sense to pay architectural homage to impressive and noble creatures like the mighty elephant, as more than one of the buildings we found does, other less celebrated critters also get their due.
Take the humble earthworm. In Victoria, Australia, a museum comprising a series of sheds meanders across the fields in an attempt to replicate this most overlooked organism. In truth, the building bears closer resemblance to a train wreck. But that’s the wonderful thing about zoomorphic architecture: when it’s done well it can be sublime, and when it’s done badly it can have the brutal beauty of outsider art.
Read on for more strange buildings that—beastly or beautiful, by design or by accident—pay tribute to the animal kingdom. Long may these crazy critters stand.
Church by the Sea, Madeira Beach, FL
Times were hard at the end of WWII, but this small community managed to cobble together a collection plate large enough to buy land. Volunteers flooded to help, including an architect who unwittingly constructed two eyes and a beak from the bell tower, eventually inspiring the nickname Chicken Church. When the bell rings it makes a clucking sound—well, not really, but it looks like it should.
Vila Olímpica, Barcelona
In the late 1980s, many architects were obsessed with Grecian columns. Frank Gehry felt that postmodernists weren’t looking back far enough. He surmised that we are all descended from fish and, for the 1992 Olympics, set about creating a structure near the Hotel Arts that would reflect our 300-million-year-old ancestor. The metal canopy, measuring roughly 114 by 177 feet, is supported by a wood and steel space frame and was the first of several fish-inspired buildings Gehry created.
Cat Kindergarten, Wolfartsweier, Germany
This ingenious preschool is so adorable that it makes any work seem like play. Artist Tomi Ungerer and architect Ayla Suzan Yöndel designed it so that children enter through the cat’s mouth, where the classrooms and cafeteria are located, and exit into the backyard via a slippery dip for a tail.
Observation Tower, St. Georges de Windsor, Quebec
About two hours east of Montreal, on the drive toward the Maine border, is a roadside attraction worth a detour. Local artist Josée Perreault designed an observation tower from boulders painted to look like a cow reclining in a field. Upon climbing the squat tower, travelers are rewarded with a view of real-life cows reclining similarly in green pastures.
Native American Cultural Center, Niagara Falls, NY
It’s no accident that Niagara’s Native American Cultural Center looks like a turtle wearing a storm trooper outfit. Turtles are an important part of Iroquois legends, and the now-vacant center also happened to be built in 1981, at the height of the Star Wars frenzy.
Ladprao Tuk Chang, Bangkok
You’d have to have a thick hide to work in the 335-foot-tall Elephant Tower, easily a contender for one of the world’s ugliest buildings. Architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu’s creation is certainly one of the most famous in Bangkok, thanks to three towers—the pachyderm’s thick legs and trunk.
Universum Science Center, Bremen, Germany
A giant silver clamshell and a giant chrome sperm whale rising from the reflecting pool are two popular interpretations of Thomas Klumpp’s design. Inside the Universum Science Center, opened in 2000, are interactive exhibits also meant to provoke and engage the visitor: you can, for example, feel sound waves vibrate throughout your entire body.
Big Sheep Wool Gallery and Big Dog Information Center, Tirau, New Zealand
New Zealand is infamous for having more sheep than human residents, so it comes as no surprise that in Tirau (population less than 800) the most notable building resembles a sheep. Local craftsman Steven Clothier used corrugated iron to construct the museum—and the adjoining tourist information center, which is shaped like a dog, naturally—in 1998 as a way to boost tourism.
Zayed National Museum, Abu Dhabi
The London-based architecture firm Foster + Partners chose the form and flight of a falcon as the inspiration for the Zayed National Museum, slated to open in 2016. (Sheikh Zayed, after whom the museum is named, is a keen falconer.) The building’s steel feathers, which act as natural cooling towers, will soar as high as 410 feet from a reflecting pool.
The Giant Koala, Dadswells Bridge, Australia
A koala looks cute as a button, unless you’re looking at the Giant Koala at Dadswells Bridge near the Grampians National Park. This monstrous 49-foot marsupial appears ready to devour whole any passing motorists. The Aussie landmark was built in 1988 by sculptor Ben Van Zetten and recently sold for around half a million dollars.
Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, Kakadu National Park, Australia
Upon arrival, you don’t immediately appreciate how true this hotel is to its name: the low-lying, curved corridors could simply be a way to give each room a unique view of the landscape, rich with kangaroos and other wildlife. A bird’s-eye view, however, reveals that the entire hotel is shaped like one of the region’s most feared residents, the crocodile, and that every guest has been swallowed whole.
Lucy the Elephant, Margate, NJ
Lucy was the first example of zoomorphic architecture in America, with the patent to prove it. Built in 1882 to sell New Jersey real estate, Lucy then found use as an office, a bar, and a summer home. The patented 65-foot-tall tin and wood construction was meant to be one of a pack, but giant elephants didn’t take off the way the architect intended. To this day, Lucy stands proudly alone.
Burj Qatar, Doha
French architect Jean Nouvel may have simply intended to create yet another sleek tower for the Doha skyline. But thanks to a conical shape, a pointed aerial spike, and a textured white skin exterior—a metal brise-soleil of Islamic design—his Burj Qatar (pictured on the right) strongly resembles the snout of the rare whale species known as the giant narwhal.
Wildlife Wonderland Park, Gippsland, Australia
Many zoomorphic buildings are based on majestic animals. Not so the Wildlife Wonderland Park, which pays tribute to the largest worms on the planet. Some have measured nine feet in length and are often mistaken for snakes. The museum is now closed but the building still stands in Gippsland (about two hours from Melbourne). If you put your ear to the ground, you might hear those worms moving—they’re that big.