Articles and Features

The Art of Imitation: Novelty Architecture

canada dinosaur architecture
The ‘World’s Largest Dinosaur’ in Drumheller, Alberta is an ideal example of novelty architecture

By Tori Campbell

Novelty Architecture

Novelty architecture (sometimes known as ‘mimetic’ or ‘programmatic’ architecture) is kitschy, gaudy, and eye-catching. Defined by the intention to attract attention and draw in visitors, novelty structures mimick the shape and nature of something else to become novelties, masterful imitations. Popularised in the United States due to the prevalence of travel by automobile, the structures gained traction as they aimed to visually stick out to the fast-driving traveller. The success of these roadside attractions, with their large size and unexpected forms, have prompted the genre to grow to also encompass other buildings equally desperate for the consumers attention, most popularly, casinos.
Travel the world with us as we take a look at the quirky forms and flashy colours of some of the most insane examples of novelty architecture that can still be found today.

New York-New York Hotel and Casino: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

novelty architecture las vegas
New York-New York Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

The perfect place to begin to understand novelty architecture is Las Vegas. With all of the casinos on the famous Strip constructed to out-perform one another, the street has become a cacophony of sights but New York-New York Hotel and Casino shouts over the rest, making itself heard within the already visually overloaded landscape.
Designed to resemble the New York City skyline of the 1940s, the hotel is composed of multiple towers including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and the Seagram Building (although the latter was notably built after the 1940s).
In front of the building is a 150-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, as well as replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Terminal, and the former Whitney Museum of American Art.

Lucy the Elephant: Margate, New Jersey, USA

novelty architecture new jersey
Lucy the Elephant: Margate, New Jersey, USA

The oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in America, and arguably one of the first examples of novelty architecture in the world, is a six-story elephant named Lucy.
Built in 1881 by James V. Lafferty in New Jersey, just south of Atlantic City, the elephant was constructed in order to promote real estate sales and attract attention. Crafted of wood and tin sheeting, Lucy stands at 65 feet (19.7m) in height, 60 feet (18.3m) in length, and 18 feet (5.5m) in width and weighs about 90 tons. The building has been through numerous reconstructions and uses in the last century and a half: beginning as a viewpoint for property investors she eventually served as a restaurant, tavern, business office, and cottage; and was notably listed on AirBnB for three nights in 2020 to drum up interest. In 1976, Lucy was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 2012 it defied all odds by surviving Hurricane Sandy completely unscathed (though the “toes” did get a bit wet). You can plan your trip to visit Lucy here.

The Venetian Macao: Macao, China

novelty architecture macao
Canals designed to look like the canals of Venice at The Venetian: Macao

The Venetian casino in Macao obviously gains the bulk of its inspiration from the architectural wonder that is the city of Venice. However, it also owes much of its influence to Las Vegas’ influence as capital of novelty architecture. Featuring its own series of indoor canals and gondolas intended to give visitors an ‘authentic’ Venetian experience; it also boasts 3,000 guest suites, 330 retail stores, and an arena and theater.
The casino, the second largest in the world, is the younger sibling to Las Vegas’ original Venetian (built in 1999) thus becoming a unique example of novelty architecture as it stands as a copy of a copy.

The Big Basket: Newark, Ohio, USA

novelty architecture ohio
The Big Basket: Newark, Ohio, USA

In 1997 the new headquarters of The Longaberger Company opened in Newark, Ohio to a surprising amount of acclaim for an office building. The Longaberger Company, an American maker and distributor of handcrafted maple wood baskets, had the unusual home office designed in the shape of a seven-story structure emulating their product: it resembled an absolutely massive basket. The building was owned by The Longaberger Company until 2016, and has since been purchased and is undergoing renovations to become a luxury hotel. Owners and fans of The Big Basket, as it is affectionately referred to, are currently working to have the building added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Phaya Thaen Public Park: Nai Mueang, Thailand

novelty architecture thailand
Phaya Thaen Public Park: Nai Mueang, Thailand

Within the Phaya Thaen Public Park in Nai Mueang, Thailand you can find a massive toad overlooking the Chi River. Related to the Thai belief of Phraya Khan Khak ‘the Toad King’, a regal toad spirit who controls rainfall, the Isan region holds yearly festivals in mid-July in coordination with the pre-farming season to pay their respects. Asking Phraya Khan Khak to bring rain from the heavens for a bountiful harvest, this massive toad also does double duty as a home to a five-story museum on traditional Thai folklore and animal biology.

Peachoid: Gaffney, South Carolina, USA

Emblematic of the typical North American roadside attractions that first popularised novelty architecture, the Peachoid, found in Gaffney, South Carolina is a 135 foot (41m) tall water tower designed to resemble a peach. Affectionately referred to as simply ‘The Peach’, ‘Mr. Peach’, or ‘The Moon over Gaffney’, the Peachoid was built in 1981 by the Gaffney Board of Public Works in a novelty architectural style in order to have it built using federal funding. Peter Freudenberg, a macro-artist, painted the clefted structure to realistically resemble a peach. The Peachoid received a chain-link security fence in 2018 after years of continued vandalism.

Kindergarten Wolfartsweier: Karlsruhe, Germany

novelty architecture germany
Kindergarten Wolfartsweier: Karlsruhe, Germany. Courtesy: presse.karlsruhe.de

The big white cat in Karlsruhe, Germany provides plenty of whimsy for the children that attend kindergarten inside the feline. Designed by Tomi Ungerer and Ayla Suzan Yöndel, the Kindergarten Wolfartsweier building, opened in 2011, is a playful alternative to a traditional schooling facility; allowing kids to enter through a bewhiskered mouth that doubles as a front door and gaze out through the animal’s windows for eyes. The cherry on top of this imaginative experience is the cat’s tail that serves as a slide.

Big Dog, Sheep, and Ram: Tirau, New Zealand

new zealand novelty architecture
Big Dog, Sheep, and Ram: Tirau, New Zealand

Tirau, New Zealand, a small town with a population under 800, has a unique affinity for corrugated iron structures: hosting a cow with a shopping cart, a praying mantis, and a shepherd all crafted in the material. However, by far the largest and most famed of these structures are the Big Dog, Sheep, and most recently, Big Ram. The Big Sheep came first, host to a wool and craft shop, with the Big Dog joining shortly after (both in the 1990s) as an addition for a local visitor center. The Big Ram, completed in 2016, helps to round out the trio and earns Tirau the surprising accolade of hosting the largest corrugated iron sheep, sheepdog, and ram in the world. 

World’s Largest Dinosaur: Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

novelty architecture canada
World’s Largest Dinosaur: Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

Another superlative example of novelty architecture can be found in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. The ‘World’s Largest Dinosaur’, a model Tyrannosaurus constructed of fiberglass and steel stands at 86 feet (26.3m) tall and 151 feet (46m) long, making it exponentially larger than even the largest known specimens of the actual dinosaur (only 13 feet tall and 42 feet long). This particular dinosaur lives in Drumheller as the town is located in the Badlands of east-central Alberta along the Red Deer River and is home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. The ‘World’s Largest Dinosaur’, opened in 2001, is among good company as the town features numerous public art dinosaur models. 

Luxor Hotel: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

novelty architecture las vegas
Luxor Hotel: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

As one of the most thriving locales for novelty architecture, it would be remiss to not finish this list with another example from Las Vegas: the Luxor. Named after the Egyptian city of the same name, the Luxor’s aesthetics were plucked straight from ancient Egypt; albeit reimagined with a distinct Las Vegas bent. The 30-story metal and glass pyramid (one of the largest projects of its kind), similar in size to the Bent Pyramid of Egypt, boasted a ‘Nile River Tour’ upon its opening, carrying guests past ancient artwork on a river that encircled the casino. Additionally, the hotel also hosted King Tut’s Tomb and Museum, a replica of King Tutankhamen’s tomb that has since been donated to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. The massive fabrication brings novelty architecture to new heights, and dramatically magnifies the kitsch and camp of the genre.

Relevant sources to learn more

Explore more of Las Vegas architecture with the iconic book from Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour
Take a look at Architectural Digest’s roundup of novelty architecture
Interested in the food-based structures? Atlas Obscura has you covered

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