10 Stunning Examples of Unconventional Architecture← Back


In the public imagination it sometimes feels like architecture hit its peak in the High Middle Ages with the towering spires and limitless interiors of the Gothic style. However, to assume that the last 150 years have represented a nadir of artistic accomplishment is to overlook some of the world’s most unique and original buildings: an elephant the size of a hotel; an office building with an expressway running through it; a college dormitory that might as well be Gryffindor Tower.

When it comes to architectural marvels, sometimes it can be difficult to tell where history ends and legend begins. Most of the facts below have been verified, though there are times when myth seems to be seeping into the founding stories of some of the more eccentric buildings. Whenever a legend is presented here, care has been taken to point it out.

10) The Cassa Batllo, Barcelona

On the boulevard Passieg de Gracia stand three exceptional buildings crafted between 1898 and 1906 by three modern architects. Because the three buildings all represented a unique variation on the Modernist style, the trio became collectively known as the “Apples of Discord.”
The most famous of these is the spectacular Cassa Batllo, designed by Antonio Gaudi, who took an existing building and completely redesigned it. Like nearly all of Gaudi’s architectural designs, there are few straight lines. The large, multi-colored oval windows on the lower levels have given the house one of its nicknames, “The House of Yawns,” while the pillars and balconies, which resemble pieces from a skeleton, have given it its other nickname, “House of Bones.”
A glazed ceramic-tile mosaic decorates much of the upper stories, lending it the air of a house in a fairy-tale.

9) The Pompidou Centre, Paris

The Pompidou Centre was designed to be both an art gallery and cultural hub. The winner of a 1971 design contest with over 650 participants, the Centre’s modern and contemporary art collections contains over 50,000 works and is visited by over six million people a year from around the world. It also sports one of the most unconventional designs of any building in Paris, with functional elements like elevators and water pipes on the outside of the building. This has the effect of freeing up the interior for its enormous collection of books and art work. The pipes and ducts that rim the exterior are all color-coded: elevators are red, electricity is yellow, water is green.

8) The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose

Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms company, and the sole heir of his vast estate. The story goes that following her husband’s untimely death in 1881, Sarah visited a medium who informed her that she was suffering misfortune as a result of the countless lives lost to the Winchester rifle (also known as “the gun that won the West”). The only remedy, said the medium, was to build a house for the spirits of the departed. She could never stop working on it, or she would die.

With an inheritance of $20,000,000, Sarah hired a team of workers who worked on the house twenty-four hours a day, every day, for thirty-eight years. The house that resulted is beautiful, but eerie. There are long, rambling corridors that lead nowhere, staircases that lead to the ceiling, doors that open onto solid wall, and over 10,000 windows.

7) Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna

Built between 1983 and 1985, the Hundertwasserhaus is a forested-roof terrace apartment house and one of the world’s most notable examples of a building incorporating elements from the natural environment. The colorful exterior, which resembles a painting done in pastels, is lined with trees and vines that climb freely along the walls, rising up out of the hilly, cobble-stoned pavement surrounding the building. Trees emerge from the terraces and rooftops, poking their branches through the windows, creating a leafy oasis in the historic city. Altogether there are over 250 trees within and around Hundertwasserhaus. The apartment complex is ornamented with ceramic pillars and crowned with a gilded onion dome.

6) Hang Gna Guesthouse, Dalat
The Hang Gna Guesthouse, otherwise known as “the Crazy House Hotel,”
is a functioning hotel whose quirky colors and designs evoke the whimsical spirit of a Lewis Carroll story.
The architecture of the guesthouse, heavily influenced by the aesthetics of Gaudi and Walt Disney,
presents unconventional angles and storied peaks that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton film.
On the inside, the staircases and hallways were designed to resemble caves while each of the rooms has a different theme.
In the Kangaroo Room, for example, a fireplace protrudes from the belly of an animal sculpture,
and in the Eagle Room the fireplace is shaped like a giant egg.

5) Korner's Folly, Kernersville

Also known as “the strangest home in the world,” Korner’s Folly features 22 rooms spread out over three floors and seven levels, with ceiling heights that vary from six feet to 25 feet. Located in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, Korner’s Folly is the brainchild of Jule Korner, an eccentric genius who began constructing the building in 1878 as a showcase for his design work. The home is nationally famous for its narrow hallways, idiosyncratic doors and windows (no two of them alike), and the private theater on its top floor, said to be the first privately owned theater in America. The woodwork and trim molding is intricately detailed and each of the fifteen fireplaces is decorated with a different theme.

4) The Gate Tower Building, Osaka

The Gate Tower Building would probably be the most mundane building on this list, were it not for the fact that a highway runs through it. The fifth, sixth, and seventh stories of the sixteen-story tower are taken up by a literal expressway. The unusual engineering arrangement is the result of a concession between the building’s owners and land developers, who had been given permission from the government to build a highway over the property. The owners petitioned for, and were granted, five years in which to make an appeal; in the interval, they came up with this solution. In all other respects the Gate Tower Building is a typical Japanese office building: employees hardly notice the highway, surrounded as it is by a structure that nullifies noise and vibration. The only real inconvenience is the elevator, which ends at the fourth floor and begins again on the eighth.
3) Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Concerned about what they perceived as the de-Christianization of Barcelona during the industrial era of the late nineteenth century, some of the town’s most devout citizens purchased a plot of land in 1877 and hired a well-known Spanish architect who designed a neo-Gothic church. Construction on the church began in 1882.
In the year following, Antonio Gaudi took over as lead architect. He spent most of the rest of his life constructing the church.

As he would do with his Cassa Batllo, Gaudi took the existing design and impressed on it his own unique Modernist aesthetic. Though construction slowed dramatically following Gaudi’s death in 1926 and during the war years, the finished cathedral will be 312 feet long and nearly 200 feet wide, capable of seating 13,000 people. With his characteristic disdain for straight lines (he believed they were unnatural), Gaudi modeled the rounded outlines of his towers on the peaks of a sacred mountain, Montserrat, just outside Barcelona.

2) Lucy the Elephant, Atlantic City

Billed as “the only elephant you can go into and come out alive,” Lucy the Elephant is the second-largest elephant building in the world (after the Elephant Tower in Bangkok).
Created in 1881 by James V. Lafferty, a real estate developer, the ninety-ton, six-story tall pachyderm has doubled as 
a real estate office, a summer home, and a tavern.
In the process it has become the most beloved non-gambling-related tourist attraction in the Atlantic City area.
On clear days the enormous structure is visible from eight miles out at sea.

1) Usen Castle, Waltham

Usen Castle, a 120-person dormitory belonging to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, might be the closest you can come to living at Hogwarts within the continental United States. Situated next to the student center is this literal castle, whose pie-shaped rooms (no two of which are the same) offer an extraordinary view of the Boston skyline. Built in 1928, the dormitory replicates the architecture of many better-known European landmarks, notably Windsor Castle in England, with its tall battlements and four-storied, square shape. Porcelain plates embedded on the walls depict coats of arms and historical figures. Completing the effect is the Castle Commons, a large, round room featuring a fireplace, a community kitchen, and several study areas for the sophomores who live there. Several of the staircases lead nowhere, while campus legend tells of secret passages hidden within the castle.