False Monuments: 7 Contemporary Garden Follies

Seven projects revisit the legacy of 18th-century garden follies, with new pavilions for new landscapes.

Kaelan Burkett Kaelan Burkett

The garden folly is an architectural form which grew out of well manicured landscapes in 18th-century Europe. Typically, these follies — like many of the gardens that contained them — were created primarily as forms of decoration, and often served no functional purpose. Many of these structures evoked architecture of the past, while many suggested exotic (and timeless) origins. Some were designed to appear as though miraculously preserved, others were built as ruins. Many were purely sculptural, so their scale and proportions were entirely arbitrary. Yet despite classicizing and orientalizing themes, despite attempts to make these structure appear to be from “other” places or “other” realities, traditional garden follies were symptomatic of the time and place in which they were made.

Ironically, these idiosyncratic structures have become referents for contemporary follies. Yet the role of follies has transformed along with the philosophies held by those who create them. The following projects each take on different approaches towards this legacy, with varying degrees of loyalty towards tradition. All take inspiration from their design and aesthetic roles within a garden landscape, yet some projects deny the possibility of a structure with purely a decorative role. Collectively, they embrace the ability of architecture to create beauty, wonder and whimsy in our lives.

A Garden Folly by Liederbach & Graham, Lake Forest, Ill., United States

Taking a cue from traditional follies, Liederbach & Graham renovated a monumental garden structure with neoclassical decorations. Unlike traditional projects of this nature, however, this “folly” is functional as well, containing a salon-type environment including a bar and artist’s studio, and featuring garden motifs on the walls — ironically, the greatest folly of the entire design.

Spirulina Fountain by BUREAU A, Geneva, Switzerland

The Spirulina Fountain also builds off the precedents of garden follies while still providing a functional role. The long metal structure extends through a public park in Geneva, evoking classical aqueducts with channels of water and structures supported by round arches. Yet the sleek structure is secondary to its contents. The fountain doubles as a farm for Spirulina algae, an edible plant that gives the water its bright green hue.

Trylletromler by .FABRIC, Copenhagen, Denmark

Trylletromler combines the influence of traditional garden follies with an interest in contemporary media — specifically, early precursors to film. The pattern created by the structure’s wooden fence imitates the zoetrope, a device which creates optical illusions of movement. Translated into architecture, this design offers a dynamic environment that leads visitors through the labyrinthine space. The structure inhabits a well-kempt, historical garden, providing a whimsical juxtaposition characteristic of a great garden folly.

The Garden of Forking Paths by Beals + Lyon Architects, Queens, N.Y., United States

Although the Garden of Forking Paths is also inspired by garden labyrinths, it is less a response to history as it is a reaction to the modern condition. The project is designed to provide an escape from the rigid and regulated experiences of daily life with a playful and mysterious pavilion enshrouded in plant life. True to the tradition of garden follies, the project uses architecture not to serve a simple and specific function, but rather to reimagine and recontextualize the space around it.

Arrow by Toby Reed + Peter Hogg, Australia

The Sculpture Garden Pavilion by Gluckman Tang Architects combines formal influences of garden follies and of utilitarian garden architecture, to create something new. While the pavilion, which contains a studio and gallery, appears from the outside to be a decorative monument, in the shape of a giant arrow, the structure is not simply informed by aesthetic concerns. The shape of the building is designed to accommodate wooden gates, while the building’s sleek siding is inspired by vernacular steel sheds.

Shadow Garden Pavilion by Eleena Jamil Architect, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

While the Shadow Garden Pavilion appears to fall in line with more traditional garden follies — existing somewhere between architecture and sculpture, albeit with a modernist aesthetic — the structure turns the concept on its head. Rather than existing within a garden, and transforming its landscape, the garden exists within the pavilion, which incorporates the plants into its sculptural form. Yet the work maintains the whimsy of architectural folly, with steel panels that serve little function besides creating a play of light and an ever-changing garden design.

The Met: Roof Garden Commission by Future Green Studio, Manhattan, N.Y., United States

As part of the annual Roof Garden Commission at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Future Green Studio collaborated with artist Dan Graham to create a sculptural pavilion that explores the role of the visitor’s gaze in architectural experience. The project combines sloping glass walls with hedge walls to provide a variety of optical games: visibility, invisibility, opaqueness and reflections abound. Like all follies, the structure recontextualizes its landscape, yet unlike many, the project is a theatrical venue that gives the audience a leading role.