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MOCA's monumental folly at Pacific Design Center*

December 12, 2009 |  8:30 am

After countless hours poring over images of architectural follies from around the world, L.A.-based architects Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena weren’t content to merely display their choices for "Folly — The View From Nowhere" at MOCA Pacific Design Center. They had to design their own.

"Folly I," a behemoth structure built inside the exhibit space, offers a mock 360-degree view of L.A.

Organized with Philipp Kaiser, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibit revolves around the site-specific folly created by Escher and GuneWardena, who were fascinated with the colorful, whimsical venue designed by Cesar Pelli.

The 24-foot-high "Folly I" is based on the Vastu Purusha Mandala, a square grid chart used to orient a structure and its inhabitants to the cosmos.

Escher and GuneWardena imagined an impossible view of L.A. combining the various elements that make up the city: the beach, the mountains, houses and freeways.

"There is no place in L.A. where you can see all four elements together so we created a folly with its own artificial landscape — an extension of what follies did in the 18th century," Escher said.

"The English word ‘fool’ is derived from ‘folies,’ a mid-1600s Portuguese dance where one twirls until dizzy and loses control of all senses," Escher explained.

Folly_02In a review of Frank Gehry’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable stated, "The virtue of a folly is that it provides the freedom to explore without rules."

The exhibit provides a chance to survey a collection of 100 images of architectural follies including Lucy the Elephant in Margate, N.J., and the Pantheon at Stourhead in Wiltshire, England.

Typically serving as memorials, meeting points or observation towers, traditional follies were commissioned by the aristocracy and found on private estates, gardens or parks in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Original forms were based on Greek and Roman temples.

"Follies are like hybrids," said GuneWardena. "On one hand they are seen as inconsequential, and on the other hand there is an aesthetic purpose."

Escher and GuneWardena’s main requirement in their selection process was that all follies on display have an element of pleasure and delight.

The earliest criterion of a folly was a subservient building, serving a minor purpose to the main house such as a guest lodge or hothouse. Others had a hidden function such as a place to have tea or play cards.

In contemporary terms many follies are used for commercial purposes and others are sham buildings disguising something else, such as an oil rig pumping station made to look like a high rise off Long Beach.

"The boundaries are blurry," Escher said.

"Follies emerged through the Age of Enlightenment where everything needed to be understood and cataloged," he added. "There had to be a counterpart, and follies were the response."

Although many structures were quirky in design, many were eloquent objects of study and scholarly research, not intended as superficial entertainment.

"We make the argument that driving through the landscape has replaced strolling through the park, which is why we considered roadside objects as follies," GuneWardena said. "What has changed is that follies are no longer privileged to aristocracy but something enjoyed by a whole variety of the population."

--Liesel Bradner

*Updated: an earlier version of this story did not explain that MOCA is the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Photos: Top, Lucy the Elephant in Margate, N.J. Credit: Jack E. Boucher / Library of Congress. Bottom, installation view of "Folly I" at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Credit: Brian Forrest / MOCA.