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Pure folly? Precisely

Eccentricity and excess are hallmarks of a centuries-old architectural tradition.

June 30, 2005|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

Richard SHAPIRO'S folly began, as many great things do, with the smallest of ambitions. Though the modern art collector and antiques dealer already had seven fireplaces in his 1920s Holmby Hills villa, he wanted an outdoor hearth. A place, he recalls, where "I could sit in front of a roaring fire during a rainstorm or on a cold winter night."

Shapiro's design for an alfresco fireplace soon soared into architecture on helium, a Greco-Roman portico based on the precise mathematical principles of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. "I thought it might be hokey," the 63-year-old aesthete admits, "but then I accepted that what I was really doing was a folly." This is less an admission of lunacy than a precise architectural description. Characterized as a fantastical, largely purposeless structure that springs from a passionate, often obsessive imagination, a folly is a building that references history and myth with unabashed drama and whimsy, often standing in discord with its surroundings.

"They can take any form, any style," writes Gwyn Headley, author of three books on the subject. "A folly is a state of mind, not an architectural style. Follies can even have a use or purpose, whether that was in the creator's mind or not."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Royal Pavilion -- An article in Thursday's Home section on architectural follies included a photo caption that said the Royal Pavilion was in Brighton, Wales. Brighton is in England.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 07, 2005 Home Edition Home Part F Page 4 Features Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Royal Pavilion -- An article in last week's Home section on architectural follies included a photo caption that said the Royal Pavilion was in Brighton, Wales. Brighton is in England.

Shapiro concurs. "Folly is defined as a nonsensical creation or activity," he says. "I not only qualify, I take that as a compliment."

History is on his side. In Europe, where they keep company with grottoes and other curious garden structures, follies have been traced back to the 16th century and had a heyday among the aristocrats in the late 1700s in Britain.

In that era, nobleman "Mad Jack" Fuller erected seven follies, including architecturally faithful renditions of an Egyptian pyramid and obelisks as well as a Greek rotunda. In 1761, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, erected a 53-foot stone tower in Scotland carved to resemble a pineapple. Throughout much of the 20th century, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis turned Portmeirion in northern Wales into a village of rescued follies.

These are mere eye candy, however, compared to the Royal Pavilion built in the seaside town of Brighton by George IV, one of the most foppish of English monarchs. With five onion-shaped domes, the Indian-styled building with its over-the-top Chinoiserie interiors makes the Taj Mahal look timid and Grauman's Chinese theater look chintzy.

In the U.S., people are more likely to think of follies as crassly commercial enterprises, such as the Luxor pyramid in Las Vegas, or as oversized folk art pieces, such as the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the Bottle Village, a compelling cluster of 33 concrete and glass constructions built by Tressa Prisbrey in Simi Valley.

Shapiro's folly is in the grand tradition of European eccentricity. At first he considered housing his outdoor fireplace in a modern structure, "four posts and a cover that would stand in juxtaposition to the Mediterranean architecture of the house," he says. It would echo the way he placed minimalist sculptures and 20th century artworks amid the classical columns and ornate moldings inside his home.

It was a leap of the imagination to Neoclassicism. Having toured much of northern Italy, hopping from picturesque villas to village flea markets while buying antiques for his gallery on Melrose Avenue, Shapiro had become "smitten by history," he says. "I want to touch the ages."

Shapiro determined that he "would follow to the letter" the formula of Palladio's Villa Chiericati, a building in Vincenza with a facade that Shapiro had visited and liked. Palladio, he says, is "one of those guys who is both ancient and modern. There's spareness and efficiency in his designs. He took the basic proportions of the Greeks and Romans and updated it, making it grander and taller."

A self-taught designer and architectural scholar, Shapiro drew up the plans for his engineer and contractors. "Once you lock into Palladio's proportions, it's very simple," he says. "If the diameter of the column is X, their height has to be Y. If the height is Y, the building has to be Z wide." When it was complete, he would make it look even more authentic by ever so gently destroying it. "I liked the idea of deceiving myself," Shapiro says, "to look out the window and see an ancient ruin."

Situated at the end of the algae-green pool that Shapiro loves to see covered in leaves, Shapiro's Palladian portico exemplifies the architectural exuberance and excess of the folly.

From the bottom of its distressed concrete steps to the ornamental half-moon that sits at the peak of its triangular pediment, Shapiro's Palladian folly stands more than 21 feet tall.

The four Ionic columns were made from redwood by Joe Madden of Madden Millworks in San Pedro. They were fitted with resin capitals and fiberglass bases slathered in lime and plaster, then painted by a Hollywood scenic designer to achieve Shapiro's primary aesthetic goal.

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