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Let’s celebrate follies – England’s most distinctive contribution to world architecture

As the Serpentine Gallery unveils its new Pavilion and Summer Houses, Stephen Bayley pays tribute to the nation’s great useless ruined castles, temples of virtue, labyrinths, alcoves and towers

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

No reliable statistics exist — it’s not the sort of thing you can audit — but England is surely the most haunted country on earth. And haunted not just by white ladies, ghosts, headless highwaymen, spooks and phantoms, but by a recurrent dream of Eden and other more recently lost pre-industrial worlds.

Thus follies and summer houses, Eden’s buildings, are among the nation’s most distinctive contributions to world architecture. They might be ‘fragile and neglected trivia’, according to Clough Williams-Ellis, but their ghosts remain and every garden centre pays tribute to a collective yearning for open-air theatricality, so that dreams dreamt in Shugborough might be replicated in Solihull.

If you had made a fortune from slaves or sugar, you would build yourself a country house with follies in the garden. There were certain preconditions besides wealth: idleness, wit and a taste for delicious melancholy. Additionally, the folly builder had to possess a sense of delight together with a tolerance of bold approximation in matters of commodity and firmness. But, most of all, he needed a belief in the evocative power of architecture — even of the sham sort.

At Painshill Park in Surrey, you find a Gothic Tower, a Gothic Temple, a Turkish Tent, a Chinese Bridge and a Crystal Grotto. One sight of the Tatton Sykes Memorial Tower at Sledmere in Yorkshire is enough to prompt a thesis on the strange, tormented psychology of the propertied classes. ‘Vain then are pyramids, and motto’d stones/ And monumental trophies raised on high!’ At least, according to John Cunningham in 1761.

The year 1953 was an annus mirabilis for folly studies. Barbara Jones published her Follies and Grottoes, still the best work on the subject, and it was reviewed in The Spectator by Williams-Ellis, no less, the Welsh architect whose own Mediterranean fantasy at Portmeirion, near Porthmadog, is a gelato-tinted, baroque-inflected folly in the grand manner.

But in the same year, an even more memorable book described the larger poetics of architectural confectionery. This was Rose Macaulay’s epic The Pleasure of Ruins. The proposition here is that even more beautiful than beauty are the ruins of beauty. Macaulay’s was a vision of satyrs, screech owls, broken columns and overgrowth all richly conducive to introspection. Pleasure to be taken in follies sounds a note of perversity, as Henry James said. Thus, precisely revealing of the national character.


There were European prototypes and exemplars. The Sacro Bosco (Sacred Wood) at Bomarzo near Viterbo or the bizarre Villa Palagonia at Bagheria near Palermo. Perhaps François Racine de Monville’s Maison Colonne (Column House) at the Désert de Retz near Versailles (pictured on p33), where a gigantic broken column becomes a dwelling. But it was the English who created the unique synthesis of the folly. It was the English who realised that melancholy could be positively fun and set aside parts of their gardens for cultivating it.

Thus one early example of the folly was the garden hermitage with its resident ornamental hermit, a poor soul hired to live in solitary deprivation to stimulate higher thoughts in the minds of observing visitors. At Selborne, Gilbert White had his brother dress up as a hermit and strike abject poses when visitors were expected.

The word ‘folly’ comes from the French folie, which means foolishness. And an element of madness was no doubt essential to the conception of these monuments to eccentricity. Follies could take many forms. An occupied hermitage, of course, but ruined castles, kiosks, cottages, pyramids, altars, temples of virtue, alcoves, sepulchres, labyrinths, pavilions, pagodas and towers were all part of the repertoire. Many of the greatest architects designed them: Soane, Vanbrugh, Wren, Hawksmoor, the Adamses and Nash. But there were folly specialists too: Sanderson Miller almost single-handedly populated West Midlands gardens with ruined castles.

Follies had to be eye-catching. That was the whole point. Alas, they were often made of cheap materials and deteriorated quickly, becoming ruins of ruins. At Fonthill near Bath, William Beckford, who had launched his career as an eccentric by planting a million trees to hide his house, and building a wall seven miles long and 12 feet tall to deter uninvited guests, had James Wyatt build an ‘abbatial folly’ in 1812. Alas, Wyatt’s technique of using timber stuccoed with cement proved structurally unsatisfactory, even as it enabled the rapid creation of absurd cathedral dreams — with a confidence not detained by pedantry. Fonthill collapsed.

Perhaps the last great folly was built in the mid-1930s at Faringdon by Gerald Tyrrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners. Walking one day he thought to himself, ‘This hill needs a tower’ and commissioned his friend Gerald Wellesley, a full-time Duke of Wellington and a part-time architect, to design it. Because of mischief in the commission and its execution, the Faringdon Folly is a curious mixture of classical and gothic, appearing from a distance more like a crematorium chimney than something Rose Macaulay would enjoy. But Berners understood his business: he explained to the planning inspectors, ‘The great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless.’ Maybe not: today you can find a notice that says, ‘Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.’

When Clough Wiliams-Ellis was writing in 1953, he drew attention to the contemporary neglect of garden follies ‘heedlessly reduced to rubble through the destructive lust of bored troops, evacuees, native hooligans or. …insensitive official activities’. In the same spirit of dismay at history’s disappearance, James Lees-Milne began his house-collecting for the National Trust.

It was surely hard for whimsical follies to be built in the practical years of the postwar settlement, although Guy Sheppard’s labyrinth in Battersea Pleasure Gardens for the Festival of Britain in 1951 had some folly characteristics. So, too, does Grayson Perry’s recent House for Essex in Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture programme, but it does not quite qualify as it was designed for accommodation, not for philosophical speculation. Perhaps the nearest the modern age has come to follies is Ant Farm’s ‘Cadillac Ranch’ in Amarillo, a 1974 installation of Detroit barges in the Texas desert, or Jim Reinders’s ‘Carhenge’ of 1987 at Alliance in Nebraska, with 38 cars arranged as if a megalithic stone circle.

It’s nice to interpret the Serpentine Gallery’s astonishing sequence of Summer Pavilions as a part of this tradition. Over 17 years, outstanding architects have been given the freedom to speculate, often in non-durable building materials. Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Peter Zumthor and Oscar Niemeyer are our Wren, Hawksmoor and Soane. This year it is the Danish-born US-resident Bjarke Ingels who has designed a ripped-apart book, adding something new to the morphological types of the folly.

And this year for the first time there are Summer Houses, commissioned, like the Summer Pavilions, with genius by the outgoing director, the anachronistically elegant Julia Peyton-Jones. Designs from Kunle Adeyemi, Barkow Leibinger, Yona Friedman and Asif Khan all have as their reference point Queen Caroline’s Temple in Kensington Gardens. This folly is a fine three-bay pedimented loggia with quoins of vermiculated rustication overlooking the Long Water, built in 1735 by William Kent for the founder of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Although a breathless, neophiliac cosmopolitanism is the Serpentine’s fuel, this tribute to Kent’s conjunction of royal patronage, gardening mania, a taste for the picturesque and immersion in rural pleasure could scarcely be more particularly traditional and local.

Summer’s lease, of course, hath all too short a date. The Pavilions and Summer Houses will all be gone in four months. But the idea of the folly endures. Happily, it haunts us.

The Serpentine Pavilion and Summer Houses are on show until 9 October.

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