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Folly is a word that often is used to mean mistake, but an architectural folly is not a mistake but a combination of a magical trick and a work of art. A folly is a building that some would say has no practical use, but its also a  building that adds to the illusion you can see, and may generate psychological response in all who see it.

Some follies are manufactured ruins, some are highly decorated towers of other structures, many are scaled so as to make the garden, park or space appear larger. In many cases they are part of a landscape or scene that has been created, some are works of eccentrics, and some built just because they could be.

Deciding where you draw the line of what is a folly, is difficult because many are also other things, memorials, markers for shipping, land boundaries, viewing platforms, retreats, or the remains of other structures.

Today it would be difficult to build a notable folly, although some works of art, such as the Angel of the North, might come close. Imagine going to the local council and saying you were going to build an elaborate carved tower and put it into the most obvious place where everyone would see it. Or how about a plan to build something that looked like the remains of a house that had fallen down, on the highest hill peak around. Do you think you would get planning permission.  A folly would be unlikely to be looked at favourably, unless you stuck some large blades on it and make it into a wind turbine, and then you could build lots of them. The only other way would be to get an art grant, few silly people like to admit that they can't see art in some rubbish they are shown and are told is art. The story of the Emperors new Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen published first in 1837, shows that from the time of Anderson and Dickens, if not before, this fault existed in many people.

Follies can be found in many countries but probably three quarters of all follies worldwide are located in the UK.

The properties of follies

The concept of the folly is not easy to define, but they generally have the following properties:

  • They are buildings, or parts of buildings. Thus they are distinguished from other garden ornaments such as sculpture.
  • They have no purpose other than as an ornament. Often they have some of the appearance of a building constructed for a particular purpose, but this appearance is a sham.
  • They are purpose-built. Follies are deliberately built as ornaments.
  • They are often eccentric in design or construction. This is not strictly necessary, however, it is common for these structures to call attention to themselves through unusual details or form.
  • There is often an element of fakery in their construction. The canonical example of this is the sham ruin, a folly which pretends to be the remains of an old building but which was in fact constructed in that state.

But we can think of others that break these rules for example Fountains Abbey, where the ruin existed before the garden/estate next to it, and towers that offer good views, and maybe left estate workers wondering if they were being watched while out on the estate working, could they have been the equivalent of the closed circuit TV cameras we have today.

 Related types

Follies fall within the general realm of fanciful and impractical architecture, and whether a particular structure is a folly is sometimes a matter of opinion. However, there are several types which are related but which can be distinguished from follies.

  • Fantasy and novelty buildings are essentially the converse of follies. Follies often look like real, usable buildings, but never are, novelty buildings are usable, but have fantastic shapes. The many American shops and water towers in the shapes of commonplace items, for example, are not proper follies.
  • Eccentric structures may resemble follies, but the mere presence of eccentricity is not proof that a building is a folly. Many mansions and castles are quite eccentric, but being purpose-built to be used as residences, they are not proper follies.
  • Some structures are popularly referred to as "follies" because they failed to fulfil their intended use. Their design and construction may be foolish, but in the architectural sense, they are not follies.
  • Visionary art structures frequently blur the line between artwork and folly, if only because it is rather often hard to tell what intent the artist had. The word "folly" carries the connotation that there is something frivolous about the builder's intent, and it is hard to say whether a structure like the Watts Towers (USA) was constructed "seriously". Some works (such as the massive complex by Ferdinand Cheval in France) are considered as follies because they are in the form of useful buildings, but are plainly constructions of extreme and intentional impracticality.
  • Amusement parks, fairgrounds, and exhibitions often have fantastical buildings and structures. Some of these are follies, and some are not, the distinction, again, comes in their usage. Shops, restaurants, and other amusements are often housed in strikingly odd and eccentric structures, but these are not follies. On the other hand, fake structures which serve no other purpose than decoration are also common, and these are follies.

History of the folly

Follies began as decorative accents on the great estates of the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they flourished especially in the two centuries which followed. Many estates were blessed with picturesque ruins of monastic houses and (in Italy) Roman villas, others, lacking such buildings, constructed their own sham versions of these romantic structures. Such structures were often dubbed "[name of architect or builder's] Folly", after the single individual who commissioned or designed the project. However, very few follies are completely without a practical purpose. Apart from their decorative aspect, many originally had a use which was lost later, such as hunting towers. Follies are often in part misunderstood structures.

Follies are often found in parks or large grounds of houses and stately homes. Some were deliberately built to look partially ruined. They were especially popular from the end of the 16th century to the 18th century. Theme parks and 'world fairs' have often contained "follies", although such structures do serve a purpose of attracting people to those parks and fairs, so should we really call them follies.

Famine Follies - follies created to keep people busy without taking away others work. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 led to the building of several follies. The society of the day held that laissez faire, not a welfare state, was the appropriate form of civil management. The concept of a welfare state was a century away, and at that time reward without labour, even to those in need, was seen as misguided. However, to hire the needy for work on useful projects would deprive existing workers of their jobs. Thus, construction projects termed "famine follies" came to be built. These include:- roads in the middle of nowhere, between two seemingly random points; screen and estate walls; piers in the middle of bogs; etc. It would also have the affect perhaps of encouraging people to seek work, wanting to do something they viewed as useful, so not as daft as it might initially appear.

Finding follies

Follies can be found in many countries but probably three quarters of all follies worldwide are located in the UK.

We have a listing of Follies, and some location guides to some of them, linked from it.


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