Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Allure of Folly

Balcarres Craig Folly, Kilconquhar
Fife, Scotland

When I read or hear the word ‘folly’ spoken, I immediately think of something silly or ridiculous, a mistake. However, on a recent trip about the United States, I was reminded of the sort of whimsical folly that pays tribute to the past.

‘Follies’, from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were buildings that were constructed for decoration only, sort of like massive garden ornaments that went several steps beyond the average wheelbarrow-pushing gnomes that bedeck many a garden today. The follies built by the rich and powerful in sixteenth century England and France were more along the lines of classical temples or artificial castle ruins. They were put up as decoration for lands and served no real purpose except to create a bit of atmosphere.

When I lived in St. Andrews, Fife, I remember, when driving through a certain village on a regular basis, I would often see some menacing gothic ruins on the hill above the village. For a long while my imagination ran wild with theories as to what it might have been, what might have happened there. Finally, I could no longer stand not knowing and asked one of the locals what it was. I figured that it had to be from at least the thirteenth century.

“No,” I was told. “That there was built in the late nineteenth century by the earl who owned the lands at the time. It's a fake ruin.”

I was completely gob smacked by this revelation. It looked so real from down the hill, so authentic, so damned cool!

Castle Howard, England
Tholos folly and mausoleum
After that, I started to see follies everywhere I went, or to question the origins of genuine ruins. I eventually got over that and began to sieve folly from the real deal. From the late nineteenth century more and more follies began to serve an actual purpose. Many were still wildly decorative but they also had practical functions such as housing or business space.

Follies come in many shapes and sizes, as fantasy or novelty buildings. But more importantly, to my mind, they are things that pay special tribute to the past in some way, to a certain period of history. And why not? We do so in literature and fine art. Why not architecture? Sculpture on a massive scale.

At the outset, I mentioned that I was reminded of follies on a recent trip about the States. Two places the road led us were Memphis and Nashville. When I think of these two cities I first think of the Civil Rights movement and of rock, blues and country music. I never imagined I would find two of the greatest follies to honour the ancient world!

The Memphis Pyramid, Tennessee
Memphis, where it sits cool along the east bank of the Mississippi, is a city well worth a visit. Along the river, Memphis’ own Nile, towering over everything else, is a monumental, stainless steel replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is, I believe, two thirds the size of the original but this does not take away from its magnitude. The thing is enormous and a fantastic way to honour the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis’ namesake.

However, it was in Nashville, three hours to the east that we really came face to face with the ancient world. In Nashville’s Centennial Park sits an exact replica of the Parthenon as it would have appeared in ancient Athens. Nashville was certainly making a claim on its being the ‘Athens of the South’! Those of you who have seen Percy Jackson – The Lightning Thief will remember the structure’s brief appearance in that movie.

Nashville's Parthenon, Centennial Park
I have been several times up the Acropolis in Athens to see the ruins of the Parthenon, imagining what it might have been like whole, before being used as a powder keg by the Ottomans. It will always be a special place, a place for the mind to revel in recreation. However, being able to walk inside Nashville’s Parthenon replica, to gaze upon the recreated monumental statue of the goddess Athena, was a very special thing. It gave me a sense of scale, of awe that I, as a writer, will able to make use of. It may not have been the real thing, but it certainly complemented my experience in Athens.

Nashville Parthenon, south pediment
When I exited the Nashville Parthenon, the sun was dipping in the west, casting orange light which angled between the rows of massive columns. The full-scale statues of the pediments seemed to shift with the shadows they cast. It was very peaceful, rendered even more so by a duo playing the cello and mandolin on the temple steps below the metopes and the images of Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus. It was all a bit dreamy, absolutely wonderful.

Statue of Athena, Nashville Parthenon
Many folks tend to dismiss follies but I say we should cherish them, for not only do they pay tribute to our past, to the great achievements of our ancestors, but they also enrich the world we live in, whether it is a pair of seemingly out-of-place columns flanking the doors of a public library or a massive pyramid overlooking the Mississippi. They are far and away more beautiful than an impersonal concrete edifice and make our day-to-day lives that much more interesting.

What is your favourite historical folly?

If you have one somewhere in the world, let us know what and where it is.
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