Pure Folly: a new generation of artistic architecture


The building of follies is not a phenomena restricted to the times of recklessly spending sons of wealthy fathers, full of potty ideas fresh from their Grand Tour. Some were satirical social statements, others have actually served a purpose, and now there is a new wave of artistic structures that are proud to bear the moniker...


Blueprint

Words: Clare Farrow

In his lecture on poetry in the Seven Nights series, the Argentinian essayist Jorge Luis Borges analysed the elusive sonic beauty of poetic language and the etymology of words that hold a certain magic for us, such as the English word 'moon', with its Old English and Germanic roots, which to Borges' mind best captures the slow, suspended roundness it describes.

Temple of the Four Winds, at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire. It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, as indeed was Castle Howard itself. Photo Credit: Mike Kipling
Temple of the Four Winds, at Castle Howard, North Yorkshire. It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, as indeed was Castle Howard itself. Photo Credit: Mike Kipling

In the language of architecture, perhaps the most poetic words we have are 'pavilion' and 'folly'. Both imply a leap beyond the practical, beyond the 'drains' that conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth once good-humouredly proposed as the dividing line between art and architecture. The etymology of both words is fascinating: 'pavilion' comes from the Old French 'paveillon' and the Latin 'papilio', meaning 'butterfly', but also 'tent'; and the word 'folly' from the Old French 'folie', meaning 'madness', but in modern French also 'delight' and 'favourite dwelling'.

The 18th-century Turkish Tent, of Charles Hamilton’s Painshill, Cobham, Surrey. Photo Credit: Painshill Park Trust
The 18th-century Turkish Tent, of Charles Hamilton's Painshill, Cobham, Surrey. Photo Credit: Painshill Park Trust.

For German curator Nikolaus Hirsch, who spent more than a year examining the potential of the folly in architecture and other disciplines, it is the light touch of 'madness' that distinguishes it from its more serious sister, the pavilion. But it is 'an intelligent madness', such as Lewis Carroll might have approved of, in which the 'suspension' of reason and function opens the door to imagination and experimentation: a 'foolishness' that has in its possession the elusive power of ambivalence, and therefore freedom.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe, Bucks, is one of 40 follies there designed by William Kent and James Gibbs. Photo Credit: The National Trust Picture Library
The Temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe, Bucks, is one of 40 follies there designed by William Kent and James Gibbs. Photo Credit: The National Trust Picture Library

In 18th-century France and England, the folly was the plaything of the rich, inspired by the Grand Tour's sights of Venice, Rome, and the faded grandeur of the Italian aristocracy. The folly reflected the values of travel and education, but also pleasure, luxury, ornamentation, and a kind of playful imagination, in which a small-scale structure with no practical purpose at all, might transport you to exotic places -- a Chinese or Indian temple, Turkish tent or ancient Roman ruin. In a sense these follies, like stage sets (sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent) or grown-up toys in an idealised landscape, were 'souvenirs': memories or reminders of other times, other places.

Designed by Sir William Chambers, who had lived in Canton, the 18th-century 41m-high pagoda at Kew survived German bombs. Photo Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Designed by Sir William Chambers, who had lived in Canton, the 18th-century 41m-high pagoda at Kew survived German bombs. Photo Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

The fashion for follies allowed designers to indulge their imaginations, as well as knowledge. In Kew Gardens, architect Sir William Chambers, who had lived in Canton, designed a 41m octagonal Chinese pagoda (1761-1762) for George III's mother. It was built in less than 12 months, with roofs of green and white-varnished iron plates, red, green and blue banisters, 80 wooden dragons gilded with real gold for the roof corners, and a gold finial on the top.

Designed by Sir William Chambers, who had lived in Canton, the 18th-century 41m-high pagoda at Kew survived German bombs. Photo Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Designed by Sir William Chambers, who had lived in Canton, the 18th-century 41m-high pagoda at Kew survived German bombs. Photo Credit: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

In contrast to Chambers' more secretive, mathematical, Palladian follies, the pagoda was criticised for its lack of purism and tapering height, and was not predicted to last. And although the colours, dragons and varnished plates indeed didn't last long, the folly was tough enough to survive a German bombing in the Second World War, and was even used by scientists to test the vertical flight trajectory of dummy bombs, through holes drilled in the floors.

The 4th Earl of Dunmore popped a pineapple on his pavilion in central Scotland in the 1760s, an example of the crossover between folly and pavilion. Photo Credit: Angus Bremner
The 4th Earl of Dunmore popped a pineapple on his pavilion in central Scotland in the 1760s, an example of the crossover between folly and pavilion. Photo Credit: Angus Bremner

Known in France as 'fabriques' ('invented', 'fashioned'), 18th-century follies conjure up a world of fashion, extravagance and pretence, of powdered wigs and beauty spots. This association of the folly with theatrical self-indulgence continued through the 19th century: think of English gothic towers and romantic ruins that emulate the poetry of Tennyson and Byron, such as the follies of Castle Howard. They persisted even into the 20th century: Nancy Mitford described in her novel The Pursuit of Love (1945) how 'A marble folly on a nearby hill [was] topped with a gold angel which blew a trumpet every evening at the hour of Lord Merlin's birth... The folly glittered by day with semi-precious stones, by night a powerful blue beam was trained upon it.'

Scottish artist Anya Gallaccio’s grotto of obsidian glass and Brazilian amethyst, The Light Shines Out of Me, is at the Jupiter Artland in Edinburgh. Photo Credit: J Mckenzie
Scottish artist Anya Gallaccio's grotto of obsidian glass and Brazilian amethyst, The Light Shines Out of Me, is at the Jupiter Artland in Edinburgh. Photo Credit: J Mckenzie

But all that glitters is not necessarily meaningless. Follies might be the cake to architecture's bread, but that does not mean they should be taken too lightly. In an exhibition last year in the gardens of Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, held to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of Louis XIV's landscape architect André Le Nôtre, international artists were invited to create follies as a form of 'garden theatre'. One of the most theatrical was a gilded four-poster bed, floating in a formal lily pond.

At Ilton, North Yorkshire, is the Druid temple folly, created in the 18th century by William Danby of nearby Swinton Hall to provide work for the unemployed. Photo Credit: Johnny Tucker
At Ilton, North Yorkshire, is the Druid temple folly, created in the 18th century by William Danby of nearby Swinton Hall to provide work for the unemployed. Photo Credit: Johnny Tucker

Light, witty and seemingly frivolous, the folly by Vincent Olinet is entitled Pas encore mon histoire. The artist explains: 'The title plays with the double meaning of "encore" in French, which can be understood as "yet" and "again". So I used it in the sense that the story is not written yet...but at the same time, here I am, telling and acting the story again and again...You can read the bed on different levels: fantasy and imagination of course, but also as a "vanitas" -- that nothing will last in this world -- and also as an uncanny/surrealist picture of a four-poster bed abandoned on the water...I let the audience complete the story. I build a frame or a set, where the work itself can act and play.'

For an exhibition in gardens outside Paris, artists were invited to create follies. One was this gilded four-poster bed, floating in a lily pond, by Vincent Olinet. Photo Credit: Vincent Olinet, Courtesy Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris
For an exhibition in gardens outside Paris, artists were invited to create follies. One was this gilded four-poster bed, floating in a lily pond, by Vincent Olinet. Photo Credit: Vincent Olinet, Courtesy Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris.

In the early 18th-century atmosphere of coffee houses and Enlightenment, the folly might also be read on different levels. In the landscaped gardens of Sir John Vanbrugh and Charles Bridgeman at Stowe, the political Whig ideals of its owner Richard Temple were exemplified in more than 40 follies by William Kent and James Gibbs. Among them was The Temple of Ancient Virtue, positioned to receive the morning sun, and the more accessible Temple of Modern Virtue, a pretend ruin in the shadows. The satirical subtext could be read clearly: the corruption and easy virtue of 18th-century society and government in contrast to the shining ancient model. This is the folly laughing at itself, but using its identity as a decorative sham to make a serious statement.

It is this socio-political aspect of the folly that Nikolaus Hirsch, director of the 2013 Gwangju Folly Project in South Korea, chose to experiment with, pushing it out of its usual secluded space into an exposed, confrontational, public theatre: the modern city of Gwangju. Inspired by the notion of 'intelligent madness in the logic of Erasmus's [essay] In Praise of the Folly' (1509), Hirsch invited a number of architects, artists and writers, including Superflex, Eyal Weizman and Samaneh Moafi, to reinterpret the folly as a 'provocative intervention in public space', using the 'suspension of function' to 'produce a critical tool'.

Richard Pimm created his Bottle Dome, also known as The Fernery, at Westonbury Mill, Herefordshire, from recycled wine and sherry bottles. Photo Credit: JRichard Pimm.
Richard Pimm created his Bottle Dome, also known as The Fernery, at Westonbury Mill, Herefordshire, from recycled wine and sherry bottles. Photo Credit: JRichard Pimm. www.westonburymillwaterGardens.com

Meeting Hirsch in the new Serpentine Gallery, he told me about the history of Gwangju, where a student uprising in May 1980 that resulted in many deaths also initiated a process of democratisation, in which dissidents eventually became politicians. Like other uprisings (in Tiananmen and Tahrir squares), the call for freedom was focused on a symbolic public structure.

A 'rupture with reason' is the interesting aspect of the folly for Hirsch: 'A foolish moment, a presumably irrational action, a conviction over what society defines as the norm...' This seems to be the secret of the folly, or its 'possibility': that a foolish plaything can become a tool for opinion -- a 'test' and 'critical medium' as Hirsch proposes -- precisely because it was given no meaning beyond make-believe. The same suspension that makes it nonsensical is what allows it to slip between the wires. 'Revolution would not be possible without madness,' adds Hirsch.

The Shell Grotto in Margate has defied radiocarbon testing and is thought to be anything from an ancient pagan grotto to a Recency folly. Photo Credit: Thanet District Council
The Shell Grotto in Margate has defied radiocarbon testing and is thought to be anything from an ancient pagan grotto to a Recency folly. Photo Credit: Thanet District Council

It was this history of uprising that Hirsch wanted to examine, 'combining stories of Gwangju with other stories; decontextualising history and putting it into a global context'. This is evident in the Gwangju Reading Room, described by David Adjaye and writer Taiye Selasi as 'a public space, designed for that most intimate of memorials: the book'. A tribute to the triumph of the will, it contains 200 books on the theme of human rights (from Solzhenitsyn to Isabel Allende), and is permanent, though Hirsch rejects the word. 'Permanence does not have to be an ideology... In the end, the people might choose to dismantle it,' he says.

The Gwangju Reading Room, by David Adjaye, contains 200 books of the theme of human rights. Photo Credit: Kyungsub Shin
The Gwangju Reading Room, by David Adjaye, contains 200 books of the theme of human rights. Photo Credit: Kyungsub Shin.

In the same spirit of democracy, Vote, set up in the student quarter by Rem Koolhaas and Ingo Niermann, poses questions (chosen by non-governmental organisations and changed every two weeks) that participate in, but also challenge, the public space. The freedom it offers is undeniable, but it's an ambivalent freedom: democracy, but without the usual privacy of a vote, exposing people on the street. The same ambivalent approach is shown in the 'different notions of site', which include a travelling folly on the 20.1-km-long metro, and Ai Weiwei's Cubic Meter Food Cart -- a mobile structure, defying authority and 'remembering' through its illegal presence; 'oscillating', as Hirsch describes, 'between aesthetic autonomy and socio-political potential'. But is it really a folly or a working, questioning, witty, political work of art? And there's the crux and beauty of the folly: its interdisciplinary promise, and escapist, elusive character that, just as one definition seems to be establishing itself, slips away like the Cheshire Cat's smile, only to appear in another guise, in another place.

Rem Koolhaas’ Vote in a Gwangju street addresses public participation. Photo Credit: Kyungsub Shin
Rem Koolhaas' Vote in a Gwangju street addresses public participation. Photo Credit: Kyungsub Shin

In New York, the annual Folly competition, organised by the Architectural League in the Socrates Sculpture Park, defines the folly as a structure 'with no discernible purpose...placed within a garden or landscape'. Inviting proposals from emerging designers and architects to design, build (during a three-month studio residency) and exhibit (from early May) a full-scale folly project, with a production cost of $5000, its aim is to 'explore the intersections between architecture and sculpture, and the increasing overlaps in references, concepts and techniques between the two disciplines'.

Delhi-based artist collective Raqs Media puts a folly on the Gwanju Metro to extend the city’s Folly project beyond the static. Photo Credit: Bas Princen
Delhi-based artist collective Raqs Media puts a folly on the Gwanju Metro to extend the city's Folly project beyond the static. Photo Credit: Bas Princen.

In 2013, winner 'tree wood' by Toshihiro Oki, Jen Wood and Jared Diganci -- a geometric structure intersecting the trees, with a chandelier suspended from its frame -- was praised by the jury for its 'simple and poetic' interpretation of the folly. In 2014, the winning folly was SuralArk by the architecture practice Austin+Mergold. It is in the form of an overturned boat in a patchwork of vinyl siding (a material commonly found in suburban American architecture). Permeable to light, the ark will emit a warm glow, providing 'a place for respite and contemplation'. It can be seen from 11 May to 3 August.

With his Cubic Meter Food Cart, Ai Weiwei was inspired by the function, economics and history of Gwangju’s ‘tented wagons’. Photo Credit: Bas Princen + Ai Weiwei Studio
With his Cubic Meter Food Cart, Ai Weiwei was inspired by the function, economics and history of Gwangju's 'tented wagons'. Photo Credit: Bas Princen + Ai Weiwei Studio.

While the folly can be an experiment in an urban context, it is still most true to itself in a landscape or garden: close to nature, in its secretive, suspended world of memory and imagination, its spirit of 'what if?' and 'why not?'. In the 1570s, sitting in his writing tower surrounded by books, mythological paintings and classical maxims, Michel de Montaigne quoted a line from Horace: 'Mingle a dash of folly with your wisdom'. It is this humanist touch of irrational lightness, accessing a door to imagination, pleasure and invention, that is best showcased in the British folly, more quirky than its French and Italian counterparts, it is estimated by The Folly Fellowship to number more than a thousand, and often accompanied by rumour and mystery.

With his Cubic Meter Food Cart, Ai Weiwei was inspired by the function, economics and history of Gwangju’s ‘tented wagons’. Photo Credit: Bas Princen + Ai Weiwei Studio
With his Cubic Meter Food Cart, Ai Weiwei was inspired by the function, economics and history of Gwangju's 'tented wagons'. Photo Credit: Bas Princen + Ai Weiwei Studio.

Examples are the Shell Grotto in Margate (discovered in 1835), which has defied radiocarbon testing and is thought to be anything from an ancient pagan grotto to a Regency folly; The Needle's Eye pyramid in Wentworth, Yorkshire (1746), reputedly the outcome of a drunken wager that it was impossible to drive a carriage through the eye of a needle; and the Druid's Temple in Ilton, North Yorkshire, an 18th-century tribute to Stonehenge, which provided labour for unemployed workers.

With his Cubic Meter Food Cart, Ai Weiwei was inspired by the function, economics and history of Gwangju’s ‘tented wagons’. Photo Credit: Bas Princen + Ai Weiwei Studio
This year's winner in New York's yearly Folly competition, organised by the Architectural League, was SuralArk, by practice Austin+Mergold. Photo Credit: Austin+Mergold.

The story of the folly is also the story of eccentric and passionate individuals: Charles Hamilton, for example, politician, painter, plantsman and designer (of Holland Park gardens), who in the 18th century built the Painshill follies until he ran out of money and had to sell the estate and Lord Berner, who built Faringdon Folly on Folly Hill in 1935, explaining to the planning authorities that 'The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless' (though it attracted visits from Igor Stravinsky and Elsa Schiaparelli, gives a view over four counties and 31 parish churches, and was used by the Home Guard during the war); There is also Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, designer of Portmeirion; and John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, who built The Pineapple on top of a pavilion in the 1760s.

Last year’s winner was ‘tree wood’ by Toshihiro Oki, Jen Wood and Jared Diganci – a structure intersecting the trees and holding a chandelier. Photo Credit: Nate Dorr
Last year's winner was 'tree wood' by Toshihiro Oki, Jen Wood and Jared Diganci - a structure intersecting the trees and holding a chandelier. Photo Credit: Nate Dorr

The Dunmore Pineapple, åa building that you can now stay in (like the Gothic Temple in Stowe and Banqueting House at Gibside), has too much function to be a folly in the truest sense of the word; it marks a frequent crossover with the pavilion or summerhouse. But the tradition of idiosyncratic delight lives on: in follies such as Richard Pimm's Bottle Dome, made from recycled wine and sherry bottles; and Anya Gallaccio's grotto, in Brazilian amethyst and obsidian glass, which recalls the Painshill Crystal Grotto (restored in 2013).

For landscape architect Kim Wilkie, memory is intrinsic to design, and his thoughts on the folly seem to come close to defining its origins: 'The notion of a folly touches something deep in the imagination. From fairy stories to Alain Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, follies conjure up rather secret, mysterious places where magic and mischief happen...Madness is a kind of intelligence, and follies can induce an unexpected clarity of imagination. A folly is a good moment where landscape, architecture and fantasy conspire together.'

Landscape artist Kim Wilkie created Orpheus, an inverted pyramid of grass steps descending to a pool of water, at Broughton Park, Northamptonshire for the Duke of Buccleuch.Photo Credit: Kim Wilkie.
Landscape artist Kim Wilkie created Orpheus, an inverted pyramid of grass steps descending to a pool of water, at Broughton Park, Northamptonshire for the Duke of Buccleuch.Photo Credit: Kim Wilkie.

I asked Wilkie if his 'landform' work Orpheus, an inverted pyramid of grass steps descending to a pool of water, might also be termed a folly; and if the genre still has a place in what Rem Koolhaas described in a 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale statement as an 'interchangeable and global...modernity'. 'I hadn't actually thought of Orpheus as a folly, but in a way you are right. It is a slightly hidden and secret space that draws you down into the underworld, although at the same time it is acoustically great for concerts and celebrations... I believe that follies offer spaces for contemplation and flights of fancy, so as long as we have imagination and time to stop and stare, follies will always have a place in landscapes. Our focal length and direction is likely to change with time and culture, and I would hope that, rather than dreaming of travel, we would now dream of being able to stay still and dig deep into the place.'

Madness, intelligence, memory, fantasy, critique, experiment: the very fact that the folly refuses to be pinned down seems reason enough to nurture it.





Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial