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

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