Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some of My Favorite Follies

Here are some follies I have found inspiring. I have been fortunate to study at least a few of these in person, with Blackwell's honey house and SHOP's camera obscura as exceptions. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites:

1. Meditation Pavilion, Brion-Vega Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, Italy, by the great master, Carlo Scarpa. This is an original sketch I made on site. Scarpa's obsessions concerning constructivism & symbolism are perhaps best represented in his works at this private family cemetery.

You can see more pictures of the cemetery here:

2. The Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, Italy. This work by Bramante is more an intensely rationalized sculptural treatise on high Renaissance artistic and architectural tenants, as set out by Brunelleschi, than any type of useful structure.

3. The Honey House by Marlon Blackwell in Cashiers, North Carolina. This is a structure built by the Arkansas architect to store honey. Taking cues from "utilitarian" structures such as mobile homes, roadside stands, factories, and farm buildings and employing contemporary design and construction concepts, Blackwell exemplifies an approach which is highly inspirational to my own folly design.

4. This camera obscura designed by SHOP Architects is an example of how follies can be experimental instances of design and construction with its extensive use of digital fabrication techniques.

5. NC native and Chapel Hill resident Patrick Dougherty's "stick houses" are sculptural installations, painstakingly created using woven tree saplings, resulting in follies which draw on mystery and whimsy.

It is my hope that these few illustrations further illustrate the phenomenon that is the architectural folly, and that they cause you to search out your own beloved examples. In future postings, I will discuss my own folly design- however, these notable endeavors are not meant to be compared to my own modest effort, only to introduce the notion of creating a folly in the first place.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What is a Folly?

When I first decided to compose an entry for CAM's call for designs, my office mates (Michael Ross Kersting and Mark Wilson, both of which have continued to contribute ideas and provide guidance for this project) and I began to formulate a loose answer to the question, "What is an architectural folly?" This definition would not prove easy to articulate. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: " A popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder." Presumably, this implies a folly results from a disregard for pragmatism in both functionality and economy; a mistake of sorts, a blind effort made despite sensible inclinations to the contrary. The phenomenon of the folly has occurred throughout history, navigating through the ebb and flow of artistic styles and architectural convictions. A quick study of past follies confirmed an infinite variety of methods, which realize an even greater array of types & styles. In short, there is no archetypal folly, only disregard for a simple question:


However, there are certain discernible patterns which emerge when studying follies, and one is able to get a feel for what one is expected to produce when asked to design such a structure. The most obvious observation one can make about many follies is that they are usually relatively small. Often, follies are small buildings or garden structures which are meant to be experienced wholly, with relative ease, consumed by the senses and digested by one's faculties without considerable effort. This diminutive scale, however, does not imply that follies are modest. To the contrary, these tiny buildings are, at times, exceedingly elaborate in decoration & assemblage. In other examples, they are painstakingly minimalistic or compulsive in their assertion of social, technocratic, or symbolic ideals. A good analogy can be found in the culinary concept of an amuse-bouche: a single bite which completely encapsulates the chef's ideas about flavor and preparation.

It was the realization of this obsessive nature in follies which set into motion the development of my submission to this exhibit. I began to understand that follies (at least the best examples) were not consciously created to be defined in this way. Follies, simply put, are a manifestation of obsession. Sometimes these fixations produce a folly as collateral artifact, such as in a Venturian duck-like, teapot-shaped stand (Fig. 1) or a faux castle ruin in a mysterious forest (Fig. 2). Other times, a folly is a demonstration of technical or intellectual prowess (see Fig. 3).

All of this, when thinking of my own proposal, prompted me to ask of myself: "What is my obsession?" Luckily, as with most penchants, it did not take much pondering and introspection to identify a concept which I would like to address with my folly. Since my childhood, which was split between two steel towns outside of Pittsburgh, I have always been fascinated by articles of industry. Factory buildings, smoke stacks, train cars, river locks, dock structures, cauldrons, and cranes- I was surrounded, and I drank them all in. The hearty structures and heavy equipment, muted in dusty tones, seemed to organically materialize through some anonymous authorship or unknown lineage of evolution, always serving their intended purpose with firmness and economy, but also boasting a kind of accidental beauty in proportion and composition ( Fig. 4). In my later youth I began my studies of drawing and painting. Very soon, these buildings and objects became my exclusive subjects. Later, when I entered architecture school, I found that I was not alone in my fascination. I read the famed Le Corbusier's manifesto titled "Towards a New Architecture." In it, the Swiss modernist spoke of the production of industrial objects, "not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculation (derived from the principles which govern our universe) and the conception of A LIVING ORGANISM, the ENGINEERS of to-day make use of the primary elements and, by co-ordinating them in accordance with the rules, provoke in us architectural emotions and thus make the work of man ring in unison with universal order. Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent FIRST-FRUITS of the new age..." (Fig. 5) I began to explore these principles and influences in my own academic projects at Kent State University, often set in areas such as Cleveland and Akron, OH, amid the shifting social landscapes of formerly prolific industrial bases.

After school and a short interlude in the professional arena, I moved to Wilmington to join Michael Ross Kersting Architecture. Predictably, I was lured by Michael and his associates to initially help them turn a wonderful old boat making facility's hulking main building into our new offices and the offices of three other partner businesses. Together, Kersting Architecture, Kingpost Construction, Thibodeau Woodworking, and Fitzgerald Wood Products envisioned their newly refurbished industrial site as a collaborative campus for designers and craftsmen. The site is completely surrounded by three strands of a highly active coastal CSX rail line. (See Fig.'s 6 & 7) We came up with the name "The Switchyard" for the complex because of the three nodes of connection between the lines, often used as a holding area for cars awaiting an engine coming in the other direction. As I sat at my desk which over looks the tracks, and pondered the "little building" I would create, a familiar figure began to take shape in my memory...

Figure 1: Teapot Service Station in Zillah, WA

Figure 2: Castle Folly, Benjamin Ferrand, 1796

Figure 3: Folly by Buro Happold et als.

Figure 4: Lock & Dam

Figure 5: Images of grain elevators in Towards A New Architecture

Fig. 6: Aerial view of Switchyard site

Fig. 7: Switchyard main building

Friday, December 18, 2009

Here are some excerpts from the original design proposal for SwitchTower4022. I will talk more later about the images shown. Many of the details shown have changed due to budget concerns, material availability, & just plain tinkering. The folly will continue to evolve throughout the process, but this is where it began.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to the SwitchTower4022 blog!

Recently, I was honored with an invitation to design & build an "architectural folly" on the grounds of the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC. This installation is in conjunction with an exhibit titled "Inspiration & Transformation" commemorating the designers of the museum itself, the renowned partnership of Gwathmey/Siegel. The folly project is an attempt by the museum to reach out to designers, as well as an opportunity for architects & artists to explore ideas surrounding the way we design, construct, perceive, & inhabit structures.

My design, titled "SwitchTower 4022" will be constructed and installed at the CAM over the coming weeks. I have created this blog to document the project not only for posterity, but also because the intended thesis of the design has as much to do with how the tower will be constructed as does the final articulation of its components. If you are following the project from its beginning, stay tuned for entries about the definition of a folly, the inspiration & ideas behind this particular design, as well as notable examples of follies past & present. Updates are also planned with photos documenting construction progress. If you are just now doing some web browsing, trying to figure out what exactly you saw as you drove down 17th st.- take a look to see just how SwitchTower 4022 came (hopefully) to be.