A folly in architecture is defined as a building or structure that is purely decorative, with no functional purpose. Follies developed as a fad on large estates in 18th century Europe, and have modern counterparts today, such as the red-painted follies at the Parc de la Villette in Paris.
The commonly held notion is that follies have no reason for being other than whimsy and extravagance. However, when you look at them in a different light, follies can in fact enhance people’s experience of a building. A folly can be the nonessential essential thing that turns a good building into a great one.
A folly is not confined only to architecture—all art forms can and do have their follies. For instance, some of cinema’s most memorable moments are follies. Take director Sergio Leone’s 1968 classic, Once Upon a Time in the West.
After the success of his low-budget “dollars trilogy” spaghetti westerns, director Sergio Leone convinced Paramount Studios to bankroll the film. Nearly three hours long, leisurely paced, and so elliptically plotted that an audience couldn’t be sure what was happening until the end, the movie was a box office flop. It also just happened to be a masterpiece.
Leone’s folly in Once Upon a Time in the West is its first ten minutes. The film opens at a ramshackle train station in the middle of nowhere. Three unnamed gunmen arrive to wait for the train. And for ten minutes, we watch the gunmen kill time while they wait. One of them calmly stands as water drips into the brim of his hat. Another uses his gun to play with a fly. The third cracks his knuckles. No music plays during the scene; all we hear are incidental sounds, the incessant squeaking of a windmill, and a few inconsequential lines of dialogue. Ten minutes into the movie, the train arrives and the movie’s plot begins.
When Paramount released the film in the United States, entire scenes were deleted, making its challenging plot even more incoherent. Yet somehow, those first ten minutes—Leone’s folly—survived.
If those ten minutes of film had never been shot, or if they had been cut from the movie, it would still be a great movie, and no one would have felt that something was missing. But having seen them, no one who loves the movie can imagine it without them. The reason is that, even though nothing happens during the scene, it is a delight to watch. We see filmmakers having fun with their medium, and we in turn also have fun. And that’s what a folly should give us: a sense of fun.
Many great buildings have elements that, if they were absent, would not be missed. But having been built, those elements become not only essential parts of the buildings, but often the most beloved parts.
Follies have been part of Perkins+Will’s work since its early days. During a 1986 interview, Larry Perkins told a story about the design of the Crow Island Elementary School, the firm’s first high-profile project, on which Perkins, Wheeler & Will (as it was called at the time) teamed with Eliel Saarinen. At one point, Larry showed Saarinen the design for the clock, symmetrically located on the school’s prominent brick chimney. Saarinen, “with his eyes crinkling a little bit and a trace of a smile,” started sketching. “The clock slipped off to one side. It was done with pure whimsy and I said, ‘That’s delightful. But how do I sell this to the board?’ He said, ‘Oh, Mr. Perkins, I am not one hundred percent functionalist.’” Larry added that the clock’s off-center design, as well as other whimsical details, was done “for no reason at all, but it’s fun.” What better way to describe a folly than “but it’s fun”?
Let’s continue to devote ourselves to designing buildings and spaces that satisfy programs, respond to sites, and meet budgets. But let’s also not forget to have fun, and to allow at least some of our follies to live on.