What Folly


The original definition of a Folly was “a costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder”.  In this regard the Marino Casino in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland is the perfect example of a folly.  Constructed by James Caulfeild, the 1st Earl of Charlemont on his grand estate, it was built as a residence for his daughter.  A diminutive and perfect example of neo-classical Italian style architecture constructed in the 1760’s and 1770’s.

Caulfeild and his architect, William Chambers, spent a fortune on the dwelling to construct an optical illusion. They toured Europe for inspiration, sourced materials from all over the world, such as the timber used to construct the parquet floors.

From a distance it looks like a single room pavillion decorated with columns, porticos, urns and classical friezes.  Within it is a perfectly proportioned and very human scale three bedroom house with kitchen and workrooms in the basement, reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms hidden on a second story that is invisible from outside.

The beauty of Marino Casino is that it is the only building remaining after the destruction of the Charlemont Estate.  Built to enhance the view from the main house, it now stands as a kind of symbol to the impermanence of power.  Like the head of Ozymandias.

The photo above shows the Indian Watchtower at Desert View on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  It is neither Indian nor a Watchtower.  It is another beautiful folly.

Designed by Mary Colter, the american architect born on this day in 1869.  She was one of very few females in architecture at the time and developed a reputation as a perfectionist.  The Desert View Watchtower is a classic steel and glass erection of the 1930’s which is then veneered to present itself as some ancient relic of an Indian Nation that never was.  Built to look like a renovated ruin, a common tradition in folly building.

In classical landscape gardening a folly served as a focal point for the gaze.  It helped to frame a view.  The follys themselves took inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman temples, Crusader commanderies, Norman keeps, Tudor mansions or even natural features like gorges or caves.  Wealthy young men and women might pick up some “souvenirs” of their grand tour of Europe and these could be cemented into a folly to give it more authenticity.  The follys of England and Ireland serve in this regard as a testament to the vandalism of the upper classes, the pinnacle of which is Lord Elgin’s Marbles in the British Museum.

There was a good side to the folly story.  During the Great Hunger in Ireland follys were constructed as a form of famine relief.  Pointless work to build useless buildings as an excuse to give money to starving families.  In those days it was unacceptable to Liberal Protestant Victorians to just hand out free food to Irish Catholics in distress.  There had to be a work ethic!

Ozymandias; by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,
who said “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
and on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s