Visual Culture

The Quirky, Endearing Tradition of “Duck” Architecture

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jan 10, 2019 5:39PM

The Big Duck Building in Flanders, New York. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Dave Longaberger wasn’t an architect when he conceived one of America’s uncanniest structures—a seven-story office building shaped like a giant picnic basket—but nothing could deter him from erecting it. “If they can put a man on the moon,” he contended, “they can certainly build a building that’s shaped like a basket.”

As it turned out, Longaberger was right. In 1997, the headquarters of his eponymous basket company opened its doors, its form mimicking Longaberger Co.’s best-selling Medium Market Basket, right down to its arched handles and shiny, imitation-brass tag.

The Longaberger Co. building is one of many structures worldwide that plainly reveal their function—or a product they hawk—via their design. In Queensland, Australia, you’ll find a tropical fruit store in the form of a towering pineapple; in Meitan, China, a tea museum is housed within a 242-foot-tall teapot; and in Bailey, Colorado, a diner specializing in hot dogs takes the form of a mustard- and relish-slathered frankfurter.

Longaberger Headquarters. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Together, these designs have become known as “ducks,” a term coined by famed architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. The denomination first cropped up in their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, a deeply controversial takedown of sleek, regimented modernist architecture. In it, they argued that the sign- and symbol-laden commercial structures lining roadside, strip-mall, and suburban America were worthy of the same scholarly attention as “high” design. As writer Kurt Kohlstedt has put it: “Where other Modernist professionals saw a wasteland of kitsch and pseudo-historical decor, Venturi and Scott Brown found rich layers of meaning in the symbolism applied to otherwise-boring buildings.”

The trio centered their analysis on two types of structures: first, the “decorated shed,” where an existing building is embellished with an ornament (such as a sign or a sculptural form) pointing to its function; second, the “duck,” where the building itself expresses its function—often boldly. “The duck is the special building that is a symbol,” the architects explained in Learning from Las Vegas, while “the decorated shed is the conventional shelter, that applies symbols.”

Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour derived the term “duck” from a plump, Pekin duck–shaped building created in 1931 by Long Island duck farmer Martin Maurer, as a vessel for peddling poultry and eggs. The structure was designed by Broadway set designers and erected by a team of local builders using a wood frame, wire mesh, and concrete coating; Model T tail lights served as the duck’s glowing, red eyes.

Notably, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour had seen Big Duck (as the building has come to be known) in architecture critic Peter Blake’s ferocious 1964 invective God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape. Blake’s enemies were the buildings inspired by commerce and novelty that lined America’s highways. He included Big Duck as an example of the “the flood of ugliness engulfing America”—another nail in the coffin of good taste and beautiful design.

Coney Island Hot Dog Stand in Aspen Park, Colorado, 1991. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

But Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour took a different tack. They sought to honor Big Duck by naming a whole genre of architecture after it. And while they favored the “decorated shed”—and based many of their own designs on that model, such as their 1960–63 landmark Guild House—they maintained that both typologies were “valid,” using famed historical buildings to support their argument. The storied French Gothic cathedral Chartres, they wrote, “is a duck (although it is a decorated shed as well).” In the spirit of ducks, its floor plan takes the form of a Latin cross. Its ornate façade, on the other hand, acts like a sign affixed to a decorated shed: Its purpose is drawing attention.

Learning from Las Vegas, and its validation of roadside and highway strip architecture—both ducks and decorated sheds—inspired anger across the architectural establishment. But it also quickly became one of the most influential works of architectural criticism of the second half of the 20th century, making way for postmodernist design. By “punctur[ing] the pretensions of 1960’s Modernist architects,” as architecture critic James S. Russell deftly characterized the book’s impact, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour inspired architects to jettison the formalism and austerity of modernist structures and inject hybridity and playfulness in their place.

Today, “ducks” continue to crop up across America and beyond, but they are no longer relegated to strips and roadsides alone; in many cases, they’ve entered the tight-knit landscape of cities, commissioned by high-profile corporations and designed by lauded, awarded-winning architects. 2017 alone saw the opening of the LEGO House, a visitor center realized by Bjarke Ingels’s firm BIG, which resembles a colorful stack of the toy company’s signature, candy-colored building blocks; and the Chicago Apple flagship store by Foster + Partners, which is made to look like the tech giant’s blockbuster Macbook Pro—minus the glowing Apple logo.

Longaberger’s basket building still stands, too, though it is now empty following the company’s relocation in 2016, and eventual closure last year. The towering edifice of Surrealist proportions is a testament to duck architecture at its most direct—and a reminder to would-be and expert architects everywhere to dream big.

Alexxa Gotthardt