From giant toads to magicians’ hats, this extract from new book California Crazy delves into the bizarre world of vernacular architecture in this extract

Jim Heimann
Toed Inn, Santa Monica, 1931

California has never lacked superlatives.

The Golden State’s claim as host to the largest concentration of bizarre buildings is just another feather in the cap of a state whose reputation was built on towns that called themselves the “artichoke capital of the world” or “home to the world’s largest chinchilla farm.” While Southern California contained a large number of the most impressive structures, the rest of the state enjoyed a healthy number of architectural anomalies, too.

Given the freewheeling nature of California, its perceived lack of history, wealth of affordable land, and anything-goes attitude, it is easy to see why the state and climate were perfect for embracing these buildings. Reinforced by Chamber of Commerce boosters, railroad companies, and real estate promoters, California was quickly transformed by a series of land booms in the latter part of the 19th century that continued through to the first part of the 20th.

Hollywood’s influence on California’s architecture was direct

These booms brought the state a tremendous influx of new arrivals, who brought their architectural heritages with them. The lack of an architectural tradition and the motivation by transplants to the Golden State to start fresh and experiment brought an eclectic vision to the area.

The heyday of this vision coincided with two developments, one local, one national: the rise of filmmaking in Hollywood and the affordable automobile. These two forces would combine to make California, and particularly Southern California, a hotbed of unusual architecture in the 1920s and 30s. Hollywood’s influence on California’s architecture was direct. A tone of fantasy was encouraged, with the architecture and sets associated with movie-making rubbing off on the local environment.

In the 90s, a certain legitimacy descended on architectural aberrations when established designers began to adopt their own versions of roadside architecture. The Disney Company stepped up to the plate when it hired Michael Graves to design a new Team Disney headquarters on its Burbank lot. A postmodern tour de force, the building features a pediment held up by massive statues of the Seven Dwarfs.

La Salsa man, Malibu, 1988

Across the street, a new animation building visible from the adjacent freeway is rimmed by a stylized filmstrip and capped with the alchemist’s hat worn by Mickey Mouse in the Disney film Fantasia. The hat alone is several storeys high.

Universal Studios also contributed to this themed architecture in its CityWalk (1993) expansion by Jon Jerde. A giant jukebox and an oversized surfboard were part of the neon-decorated street mall.

In Venice, California, the Chiat/Day advertising agency commissioned Frank Gehry to design its building (1991), which includes a giant pair of binoculars by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. An immediate landmark, and later to become Google’s Southern Californian outpost, the binoculars serve as the portal to an underground parking structure.

Read more: Here are the ethical homeware brands shaking up interior deisgn

The stem of the binoculars contains several conference rooms lit by skylights in the lenses. Meanwhile, the highly visible projects produced in Las Vegas did not deter others from producing their own versions of unusual buildings. Although not as ambitious as the deep-pocket ventures of the casinos and hotels, these eye-popping projects remain true to the basic premise of advertising: amuse viewers and attract attention.

This spirit is still very much alive, evidenced by everything from the molded figures that have proven so popular in the upper Midwest to the latest giant inflatables, and from modest roadside stands to sprawling corporate headquarters. The increasing international presence of such buildings seems to indicate that the world is now the stage for the California Crazy phenomenon.

California Crazy by Jim Heimann is available for pre-order through Taschen at, priced £40

Related articles