On Folly | Adam James Pollock
In our current time, perhaps no word can describe the general demeanour and characteristic carelessness of the population better than folly, from the Old French meaning madness, or, in contemporary use, a lack of good sense. Throughout the ages, there has always existed a certain permissiveness towards a degree of jollity and foolishness; it was regarded as worthwhile to be somewhat silly on occasion, as it was good for the spirit. Nowadays, however, such folly is not only permitted but actively encouraged, posited as good and correct as a mode of self-expression, no matter the extent.
In the English language, however, another definition of folly also exists. It is the name given to largely decorative buildings constructed for little purpose other than the pleasure of their beholding. Often created in homage to another culture or region of the world, such buildings became commonplace additions to French and English landscape gardens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, albeit with the earliest examples appearing several centuries before this. Though some may view these constructions as crossing the border from architecture to art, I view architecture as the most accessible and most public of all the art forms as every individual is, to an extent, a stakeholder in it.
Despite many follies being created seemingly without a tangible purpose, more often than not their design is suggestive of meaning greater than beauty itself. Miniature Parthenons and pyramids have been built across country estates, with Chinese temples being equally as common a feature, the former espousing in its creators the classical virtues, the latter encouraging peace. Such buildings allow for an escape from the mundanities of a wholly singular culture, transporting whoever observes and engages with them to another place or time for however long they choose. From ladies watching the hounds from a hunting tower to adventurers discovering an ancient Roman ruin, the choice of fantasy was there for whoever dared to create it. Still, today, follies are being created, though not to the extent of previous centuries; only in October past did Nicholas Coleridge’s recently constructed folly at Wolverton Hall win a Georgian Group Architectural Award.
I do wonder, however, how long such architecturally and culturally significant buildings can survive in this era characterised by the other kind of folly; when historic statues are easily removed by mob rule, and the history of significant buildings such as those under the ‘care’ of institutions like the National Trust is being rewritten. Will there come a time when the creation of structures such as the Turkish Tent at Painshill in Surrey or the 41-metre-high Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens will be regarded, too, as not fit for public consumption, viewed not as cultural appreciation but appropriation?
There have been many claims in recent years of cultural appropriation in other art forms, largely in the textile and digital art mediums, so it is not a far cry from reality to imagine a scenario in which this view could enter the architectural realm. Indeed, to an extent, it already has, both for contemporaneously constructed buildings and retrospectively certain structures are being viewed as offensive and oppressive. In recent years, China has come under fire for its commitment to creating entire European-style towns and villages, as well as exact replicas of grandiose Western buildings. In a rare move from China which should be repeated in the West, the government has clamped down on creating structures which are notably alien to Chinese architectural traditions, stating that public buildings should “reveal a city’s culture” rather than make it blend in with cities across the world, in a move that mirrors the Gothic Revival in Britain from the mid-18th Century.
On the flip side of the same coin, architectural creations are now also being retrospectively denoted as modes of cultural appropriation, especially in academic circles. Most notably can this be found in places that were previously colonies of other nations, such as India (and Pakistan). It is argued that any buildings which the colonialists created in local styles in these areas were not attempts to be sympathetic to the local cultures, but were rather attempts to subsume these cultures into their own hegemonic order, subsequently erasing the original culture which developed the style in the first place.
It is in such a context I wonder what will happen to our dear friend the folly, who has been a fixture of the British architectural landscape for almost half a millennium. Will it remain steadfast in its existence as an inspiration of fantasy and whimsy, or will it be defeated by a different kind of folly? As with everything, only time will tell. I must, however, agree with Erasmus who wrote that “the highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly”. I can only hope he meant the architectural kind