New York

“Follies”

Leo Castelli Gallery

There were three aspects to this exhibition. First it presented the architect as superstar, the destiny of art on his or her sturdy shoulders; second, it raised the issue of the relationship between art and privilege; third, it offered a profound meditation on the generic nature and selfish use of art. Each aspect impinged on the others, as if to dissolve them in itself. The catalogue includes Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Landscape Garden,” which argues that only great wealth, affording one “exemption from the ordinary cares of Humanity” and freeing one from ambition, positions one to realize “the richer productions of Art,” to create the most “novel forms of Beauty.” Many of the artists’ texts pay homage as much to the privilege of wealth as to the novelty of the art they propose to build—indeed, there is a strong suggestion throughout that the highest art is only for the economically privileged. This is perhaps not so much a species of capitalist decadence, the sort of conspicuous consumption that contributes to social revolution, as a plea for the right conditions for the best possible art, the architects’ sycophancy serving the higher purpose of their work. The question is, do they realize Poe’s ideal—the creation through art of “such Paradises” as are not to be found in reality?

I don’t think so. These works are not artificial paradises but extraordinarily ingenious monuments to the architects’ vanity, and to that of their patrons. The structures are tours de force of the new romanticism, but in general they lack romanticism’s essential element—a sense of the mystery of being, and of the longing that mystery arouses. Instead, they sport an almost pornographic hedonism. The best of the pieces show an erotic fierceness in mating element with element, culminating in a forced, impossible look, like that of a de Sade tableau, but even these lack any sign of what de Sade is really about—the will to power, a will finally so hungry that it consumes itself.

Historically, as Anthony Vidler remarks in his elegant catalogue introduction, the folly “held within it connotations of libertine, eroticism and pornography.” Follies also “became the vehicles for . . . instant nostalgia encouraged by historicist regrets and supported by consumerist atavism.” Unfortunately, the “solipsism” of nostalgia and the use of the folly as an “asylum for the forbidden, for the repressed, for the denied and the absolutely impossible” are less in evidence in the proposals here than the “pure,” “because withdrawn from the world,” discipline and reason that Vidler also associates with the tradition. These works’ nostalgic scavenging of the past feels like an academic treasure hunt, and their lunatic look seems calculated and stylized. Neither buildings nor people actually go mad like this. The architects want their buildings to have cosmic implications, but they remain merely upper class.

Bernard Tschumi is among the best of the logic-choppers here, although his game of formal combinatorics reminds me of college exercises in symbolic logic—indeed, he speaks of rules of transformation as if they were the divine right to miracle-making—and the quotation from Michel Foucault in his catalogue essay seems tacked on. Nonetheless, this is conceptual architecture just below the threshold of enchantment. Eisenman/Robertson offer us a similar deconstructive—they call it “decompositional”—architecture, which also tries hard to be “suspended between reason and madness, between art and folly,” but comes out looking like an offbeat Rubik’s cube. Batey & Mack’s tent folly and Quinlan Terry’s West Green House are more intriguing, the one for its air of abandoning culture, the other for its overworking of it. It is a little disheartening to know that the one is a place to get drunk in, the other a way of beating the tax collector, as a memorial column humorously tells us in Latin. (Romance always did have deviously realistic purposes.) Emilio Ambasz’s island/mountain folly is of interest for the way it asserts nature as architecture; the play on the nature/art duality makes for some of the more provocative pieces here, such as Joseph Rykwert’s Janus grotto, Frank Gehry’s snake-and-fish-shaped prison, Michael Graves’ open and closed structures, Paul Rudolph’s hanging-garden house, and Rafael Moneo’s Clepsydra piece. These nature-inspired projects seem more in the spirit of the folly than the more geometric buildings and the historicist works, such as those by Machado-Silvetti, Ricardo Bofill, and Arata Isozaki. But none of the structures really synthesize all the elements Vidler tells us are essential to the folly effect. Those that incorporate landscape directly, not just as a touchstone, come off best.

I keep thinking of Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, which shows not only how completely dominated we are by folly but also how hard it is to create an inclusive sense of it. Perhaps these architects will produce authentic follies only when they make structures that satirically reflect back on their patrons, as Erasmus’ book did on the church. But is there a relationship between Erasmus’ sense of the folly of humanity and the architectural folly, which speculatively articulates the ambiguity and unhappiness of reason, showing its need for games and nostalgia—perversity—to continue to believe in itself? Only that the reasoner, like the folly architect, shows the same ambivalence to his object.

Donald Kuspit