05. Nalina Moses On The Folly

There’s an uncertain terrain between fine art and high architecture, between sculpture and building, a terrain that’s populated with landscape interventions, site installations, monumental sculpture, and temporary buildings. Contemporary practitioners breach the boundaries from both sides, searching to expand the limits of their media. One traditional form that resides here is the folly. The term is commonly applied to sculpture that’s larger in scale than is typical, and to architecture that’s smaller in scale than is typical. It also serves as a somewhat pejorative catch-all for constructions that lack ambition in their execution or depth in their effects.At an exhibit at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, “Folly: The View from Nowhere,” the architects Escher GunaWardane present a historical overview of the folly and also construct one of their own. Their thorough and thoughtful survey documents relevant historical artworks and buildings, as well as vernacular structures like water towers and billboards. While the catholic spirit of the survey moves to collapse the distance between objects, buildings, and other constructions, the exhibit as a whole strengthens the idea that the folly is a form with its own distinct characteristics.The Escher GuneWardane installation “Folly I” is an immense, free-standing square staircase, built from plywood and covered in rough white plaster, that fills the high, bright interior space of the MOCA gallery. The staircase leads visitors to a mezzanine, from which they look out onto a ceiling-hung photographic panorama of Los Angeles, a panorama invisible from the gallery floor. Although the designers based the staircase’s dimensions on a traditional Sanskrit unit of measure and its design on a geometrically derived spiral, the structure, from both outside and from within, feels uncomfortably oversized. It obstructs views within the gallery and pinches perimeter walls where the survey is mounted.The panorama, printed on a thin plastic scrim, is a deliberately mismatched collage of smaller photographs. There’s a moment of dissonance as the viewer identifies city landmarks (the hills, the ocean, the spread of hi-rise buildings downtown) and then suddenly understands that they are not true to the location and orientation of the gallery building in west Los Angeles. Photos of the ocean, for instance, are not located along the walls where one might have actually looked out onto the Pacific. Escher GuneWardane composed the panorama in accordance with the principles of the Vastu Purusha Mandala, a traditional Sanskrit diagram. The idealized orthogonal relationship of earth, water, air and space in the diagram has been transposed to represent hills, ocean, city and sky. Yet rather than heightening the physicality and tactility of these elements, the fictive panorama flattens them into affectless, postcard-like views.While the folly has been conceived specifically for the space of the gallery, it has not been conceived specifically for the city, the landscape, or the cosmos. In a wall text, the architects suggest that this is the intended effect: “Placing oneself in relation to the imagined greater world beyond, one is somewhere and nowhere at the same time.” While “Folly I” might not entirely achieve this quality of “somewhere and nowhere at the same time,” a simultaneous placefulness and placelessness is evident. If sculpture possesses a freedom of place and architecture remains inevitably placed or fixed, then a folly might be a fantasy of place, a construction that embodies the desire for another place and promises imaginative transport there. Many traditional follies hearken literally to other places. Eighteenth-century garden pavilions, like the ones at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, England, were frequently designed to resemble structures in China, Morocco, India and Turkey. The pavilions embodied the romance of travel, adventure and exploration, as well as cultural fantasies of faraway places, places which the designers and builders might never have visited. Other follies hearken literally to other times. Many garden pavilions were built to look as if they were ruins, as if they had survived from a much earlier era. The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, a surviving structure from fourth century Athens, was reconstructed throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by classically-trained architects who knew it only through academic engravings. These constructions embodied a reverence and nostalgia for ancient classical civilizations.The wall text that introduces the MOCA exhibit quotes the critic Ada Louise Huxtable: “The virtue of a folly is that it provides the freedom to explore without rules.” In addition to a freedom from time and place, follies possess a great freedom from utility. Unlike buildings, follies are not strongly purposed, yet they often remain deliberately engaged in the language of architecture. Ornamental eighteenth century garden pavilions, like those at Stowe, are faithful to the formal conventions of classical architecture. In other instances, follies employ the language of architecture ornamentally to decorate utilitarian structures. For example. to soften the contemporary seascape of Grissom Island in Long Beach, California, the oil rigs there have been dressed as cheerful wood-frame houses.Those follies, which do have an explicit purpose and which one can step inside of, offer an ambiguous brand of inhabitation. Many traditional follies, like the garden pavilions at Stowe, provide cover but remain open to the elements. Contemporary follies often challenge the very idea of inhabitation. Francois Perrin’s Air Hotel (2007), is a low-lying tent of steel cables and mesh built on the sand in Miami Beach to coincide with the art fair in December of that year. Conceived as a shelter for visiting artists, it offers real protection from sun and wind. But its physical slightness challenges notions of luxury, comfort and protection, — in essence, what we expect from architecture. Seen beneath a skyline of hi-rise hotels and condominiums, it is so low that it’s barely perceptible. While built with engineered foundations, it appears unstable, as if it could be unmounted easily or blown away by strong winds. As its fundamental architectural commodity, shelter, is diminished, the folly becomes burdened with a special need to allure. In addition to a sense of placelessness, then, there lies at the heart of the most compelling follies a force of attraction, a formal seduction. Follies are often constructions of idealized beauty. Many contemporary Western architects still accept Vitruvian and Palladian systems of proportion as the true basis for design. These programs are very difficult to incorporate, and their unsullied beauty difficult to realize, due to the complex realities of a building’s program and construction. Because they were so reduced programmatically, LeDoux’s small toll station buildings — the Propylees in Paris, for instance — could be realized somewhat ideally. Similarly, Escher GunaWardane intend for their folly to embody Sanskrit geometrical systems. Other follies engage viewers with an instantaneous imagistic impression. In the MOCA survey there are photos of follies shaped like donuts, pineapples, teepees, the base of a Corinthian column, and the Eiffel Tower. The overwhelming symbolic appeal of these structures suggests latent desires, a need to inject dream-life into reality. The Elephant Tavern, an elephant-shaped hotel built in 1882 in Margate, New Jersey, can be dismissed as a kitsch, orientalist fantasy. Yet a pen and ink rendering of its interior possesses a pungent, dreamy resonance. For turn-of-the-century visitors who might never go abroad, traveling to this beach town and spending a summer’s night inside the creature’s belly fulfills an innocent, quixotic delight.Many traditional follies entice with tower and window views onto carefully manicured pastoral landscapes. Contemporary artists often create structures, like “Folly I,” which purposefully reshape views of an existing landscape. Dan Graham’s Octagon for Munster, installed at the city’s botanical garden in 1987, is a low octagonal shed built from panels of two-way mirror. Its pure geometry evokes the classical proportions of eighteenth century garden pavilions. While those pavilions were meant to rest within the landscape, Octagon at once dissolves into the landscape and transforms perceptions of it. Images of the surrounding woodland slide across its surfaces in cool, shimmering distortions.The most important factor that distinguishes a folly from other forms might be this transporting effect, this discordance in place. A sculptural work is not tied so deeply to its place; it remains complete in itself. In contrast, an architectural work is deeply rooted in place. A folly rests firmly in one place and points to another, through literal references or by manipulating its vistas. The folly has a meditated, unnatural relationship with the landscape; it is never entirely settled. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a complex of ornamental spires, fences, and arched passageways built from workaday materials by a local mason, Simon Rodia, from 1921 – 1955, offers a convulsive placelessness. In scale, language and effect, it is entirely disconnected from the dusty residential block where it is located. Some have interpreted the fantastically wrought, sculpturally evocative monument as the literal recreation of a religious pageant remembered from Rodia’s childhood in Italy. It might be better understood as a radically interior and individual vision made manifest in steel rod, grout, and ceramic tiles. Stepping within its walls and through its arches is like leaving the city and entering one man’s personal mythology.Although the MOCA survey makes no mention of Richard Serra’s large steel sculptures, these destabilizing pieces are especially pertinent to a discussion of the folly. The giant curved steel plates of 1987’s Torqued Ellipse IV, for example, have been subtly derived from ideal Euclidean geometries. While Serra’s work is site-specific, his work is not environmental, it does not purposefully engage its surroundings. In accordance, the enormous plates of steel are not fixed in place. Serra’s works are deeply seductive, pulling viewers into crevices and lacunae, in many cases simply the space between two sheets of steel. It is hard to walk byTorqued Ellipse IV without entering, and harder to walk through once and not return. The sculpture is imminently present, rooted not in its place but in its own materiality, in the literal, physical properties of the steel and the space it creates. It works by implosion, extracting viewers from their surroundings through amplified experiences of procession, perspective, acoustics, gravity and materiality. The sculpture offers a physical interiority so fantastic that it becomes its own other place. While its connotations are whimsical and ephemeral, the folly can shape powerful effects. Moving freely between sculptural and architectural languages, and drawing from both, the folly can call viewers from the here and now and direct them somewhere else, the locus of their desire.

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December 6 – February 28