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12 Buildings that Imitate Objects in the World

Daniel Hautzinger
Santiago Calatrava's El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe in Valencia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: HuseyinUlucay
Santiago Calatrava's El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe in Valencia is like the skeleton of a whale. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: HuseyinUlucay

For a short time this summer, a giant Macbook sat next to the Chicago River. Apple’s new flagship store, located off Michigan Avenue on Pioneer Court across from the Tribune Tower, briefly displayed a large white Apple logo on its sleek, rounded gray roof back in June, making the entire building look like the back of the company’s signature laptop. The 20,000-square-foot store, which opens today, was designed by Foster + Partners, who incorporated influences from the Midwestern-originating, horizontal-emphasizing Prairie Style epitomized by Frank Lloyd Wright. But the addition of the logo was met with derision, and the Chicago Tribune has reported that the roof of the store will most likely remain Apple-free.

Plenty of other buildings around the world have been modelled after objects in a more or less blatant manner. Take a look at some examples, from the subtle to the outrageous.

BMW Headquarters

Karl Schwanzer's BMW Headquarters and Museum in Munich. Photo: BMWBMW's Headquarters in Munich is a giant four-cylinder engine. Photo: BMW

Designed by Karl Schwanzer, this Munich office tower resembles a four-cylinder engine, a likeness made even more striking by the large BMW logo on top of the bowl-shaped BMW Museum next door. Opened in 1973, the tower features four separate office columns that are actually suspended from a steel beam construction on the roof rather than resting on a foundation. The roof also features BMW logos – a decision that was initially rejected by the Munich city planning authority. BMW went ahead with the logos anyway, incurring a fine, but they eventually received permission.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center

Norman Foster's Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo: Foster + PartnersNorman Foster's Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Kazakhstan draws on the nomadic tents of the region for inspiration. Photo: Foster + Partners

Like the new Chicago Apple Store (and the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino), this building was designed by Foster + Partners, Norman Foster’s firm. “Khan Shatyr” means “King of the Tents” in Kazakh, and it opened in 2010, the day before the 70th birthday of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been Kazakhstan’s president since the country’s independence in 1991. It is the world’s tallest tensile structure, being covered by a polymer, and is inspired by traditional nomadic buildings. Its interior contains a beach and tropical plants, as well as shops, a movie theater, and arcade including a bumper-car area. Foster's design follows in the footsteps of the work of the German architect Frei Otto, whose undulating, tensile buildings such as the famous West Germany Pavilion at Expo 67 Montreal were inspired by bubbles and spiderwebs. 

Burj al-Arab

Tom Wright's Burj al-Arab in Dubai. Photo: Jumeirah InternationalDubai's Burj al-Arab resembles the sail of a dhow, a traditional trading vessel. Photo: Jumeirah International

With a name that translates to “Tower of the Arabs,” this building on an artificial island in Dubai was the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1999 (it is now the third tallest). Its unique design, by Tom Wright and the British firm Atkins, is meant to resemble the sail of a dhow, a boat that was historically integral to trade across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. It has also often been imitated – the developer of the similar-looking Trump Ocean Club in Panama City sought a protective order in court to prevent a lawsuit, which never materialized. (Speaking of ship-inspired buildings in Dubai, the Dubai Opera, also designed by Atkins, with Janus Rostock, is likewise meant to look like a dhow.)

Evolution Tower

Tony Kettle's Evolution Tower in Moscow. Photo: Kettle CollectiveEvolution Tower in Moscow is based on both a DNA spiral and the image of lovers intertwining. Photo: Kettle Collective

This physics-defying tower, designed by Tony Kettle and Gorproject in collaboration with the artist Karen Forbes, was completed in Moscow in 2015. Not only is it modelled on the double helix of a DNA strand, it also incorporated an earlier, unrealized idea for the space: originally proposed as a Wedding Palace, the building was to twist and intertwine like two lovers.

City of Arts and Sciences

Santiago Calatrava's L’Hemisfèric in Valencia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: HuseyinUlucaySantiago Calatrava's L’Hemisfèric resembles a giant eye. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: HuseyinUlucay

If you like futuristic buildings that look like something else, Valencia’s la Ciduad de las Artes y las Ciencias is your place. The complex was built on the dry bed of the River Turia, which had been rerouted after a catastrophic flood in 1957. The City looks so space-age that parts of the movie Tomorrowland were filmed there. Many of its buildings, which house scientific exhibits, animals, and cultural events, were designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, including L’Hemisfèric, which looks like an eye, and El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe, which resembles the skeleton of a whale. L’Oceanogràfic, designed by Félix Candela, is inspired by a water lily. (Closer to home, you might know Calatrava for his 2001 addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which features a stunning sunscreen that opens and closes, resembling a bird, an airplane, or a sailboat.)

Félix Candela's L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: David IliffFélix Candela's L’Oceanogràfic is built in the shape of a water lily. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: David Iliff

Marina City

Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago. Photo: Bill RichertBertrand Goldberg thought of Marina City's balconies as the petals of a sunflower. Photo: Bill Richert

One of Chicago’s most iconic pieces of architecture, these twin symbols of the city, designed by Bertrand Goldberg and completed in 1968, look like, as everyone says, corncobs. Goldberg saw the balconies as like a sunflower’s petals. The buildings also represent a hugely influential shift in the conception of skyscrapers: they are one of the first examples of a mixed-use building, containing office space, residences, a theater, parking for cars and boats, and retail space at their opening. Marina City helped revitalize downtown Chicago, bringing people back to live in the city center after the exodus to the suburbs of the ‘50s.


Jeanne Gang's Aqua in Chicago. Photo: Alan BrunettinJeanne Gang's Aqua is inspired not by water but limestone outcroppings. Photo: Alan Brunettin

Another one of Chicago’s favorite buildings, the name of Jeanne Gang’s skyscraper, opened in 2009, would have you believe its undulating surface of concrete balconies is inspired by the ripples of the nearby river or lake. But Gang actually based her conception on the irregular limestone outcroppings that can be found throughout the Great Lakes region.

30 St Mary Axe

Norman Foster's 30 St Mary Axe in London. Photo: Foster + PartnersNorman Foster's 30 St Mary Axe in London is nicknamed the Gherkin. Photo: Foster + Partners

Another Norman Foster building, this is one of the most recognizable pieces of London’s skyline. Nicknamed “The Gherkin” because of its shape, it opened in 2004. Nor is it the only modern building in London to receive a (disdainful) nickname: Foster’s London City Hall was called “The Glass Gonad” by former mayor Boris Johnson, Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch is said to look like a walkie-talkie, and London’s tallest building, Renzo Piano’s Shard, embraces its look and name.

Torre Glòries

Jean Nouvel's Torre Glòries, formerly known as Torre Agbar, in Barcelona. Jean Nouvel's Torre Glòries is supposed to be a geyser, but has received less flattering comparisons.

Barcelona has its own gherkin, Jean Nouvel’s Torre Glòries, formerly known as Torre Agbar. Opened in 2005, Nouvel said it was inspired by a geyser, a resemblance borne out by the LED panels that can light up on its façade. Other people have given it less kind nicknames – you can probably guess what they are.

Beijing National Stadium

Herzog and de Meuron's Beijing National Stadium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: Peter23Herzog and de Meuron's Beijing National Stadium, inspired by pottery, is referred to as the "Bird's Nest." Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: Peter23

You remember this from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Designed by the partnership of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in collaboration with Arup, China Architecture Design & Research Group, and the artist Ai Weiwei, the wild latticing of the outside was inspired by Chinese crazed pottery; but the world saw something else, and it is now referred to as the “Bird’s Nest.”

Wells Fargo Center (Denver)

Philip Johnson's Wells Fargo Center in Denver. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: refractor.Philip Johnson's Wells Fargo Center in Denver is often called the "Cash Register Building." Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user: refractor.

Designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson in 1983, during his postmodernist period, this Denver skyscraper is often called the “Cash Register Building” because of its distinctive double curved roof and lobby. The fact that it was built for Wells Fargo probably helps the identification.

Longaberger Company Headquarters

The Longaberger Headquarters in Newark, OhioThe former Longaberger Headquarters in Newark, Ohio is shaped like the company's signature product

Perhaps the most egregious example on this list, the former Longaberger Company Headquarters in Newark, Ohio is shaped like the company’s signature product: a basket, blown up 160 times in size. Opened in 1997, the building is affectionately known as the “Big Basket,” but the Company moved out and sold it in 2016.