Pavilions, Follies at the League: a Recap

At its offices on January 11, 2012, The Architectural League presented a panel discussion among emerging architects and designers on the topic of pavilions, follies, and other small-scale, contemporary projects. Phu Hoang and Rachely Rotem of Phu Hoang Office and Rachely Rotem Studio, Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg of SO-IL, and Michael Loverich of Bittertang all presented recent and current work (video excerpts of the presentations are available here). As Galia Solomonoff — who introduced and moderated the evening — noted after the presentations, the projects were all delightfully unfettered design investigations scaled to human use and participation.


“Exhale Pavilion,” courtesy of Hoang/Rotem

Hoang and Rotem showed, among other projects, “Exhale Pavilion,” their environmentally responsive beachfront “stage” at the 2010 Art Basel Miami exhibition. Deliberately and thoughtfully programmed for dance troupes and many other kinds of events, the 25,000 square foot pavilion offered a beautiful and flexible public face to the exhibition. Capitalizing on Miami’s predictably unpredictable summer weather, the project incorporated almost seven miles of hanging rope that not only inherited the variable form of the wind as it came off the ocean, but was synched to automatically change its lighting effects to correspond to wind speed.

SO-IL also presented work that was inherently (inter)active. Designed and built for MoMA/P.S. 1’s Young Architects Program in 2010, “Pole Dance” was conceived as a participatory environment that would reframe the relationship between people and structure. The pavilion consisted of a network that was at once physical, aural, and digital. Poles, bungees, and inflatables, which could be configured by human behavior and environmental factors, became the tools by which audience participants could imperfectly control the soundscape being broadcast within the courtyard of the project and then online at poledance.so-il.org.


“Burble Bup” interior, courtesy of Bittertang

Like these other two pavilions, Bittertang’s “Burble Bup” also offered a temporary enclosure meant to facilitate both public leisure and interactivity. Its organic woodchip foundation and canopy of exuberant inflatables provided a central gathering point for visitors during the four months it was installed in the courtyard of Liggett Hall on Governors Island. Its designer, Michael Loverich, explained that he hoped the pavilion would not only enclose these public functions, but also “enhance and embody them.” Indeed, the whimsical and protective space inspired creative energies, such as impromptu gatherings of musically inclined children.

All of these contemporary follies were conceptually and programmatically related, with their scale, mobility, and comparatively short lifespans allowing them to exist as temporary, unfinished laboratories. As SO-IL’s Jing Liu noted of her firm’s work, these structures facilitate playfulness and experimentation — an opportunity afforded at least as much to the designers as the eventual users.

However, the question of typology lingered, and I even overheard one audience member wondering aloud to a friend about the terminology: “I’m still not entirely certain what a ‘folly’ is exactly — I mean, is it a noun or an adjective?” The confusion is unsurprising considering the diverse array of free-standing structures throughout history that have carried the name “folly” or “pavilion.” But terminology aside, the comment surfaces a vital distinction on which the work of all the presenters pivots.

As a noun, folly carries a more historical, antiquated connotation, conjuring images of large, extravagant, and decorative 18th and 19th century garden pavilions and other inhabitable structures. This kind of folly is something seemingly impractical or quaint — perhaps a miniature Roman temple meant to symbolize some classical virtue, or a rural respite for a Duke’s quiet contemplation. A building, one imagines, that is far removed or not accessible to the public realm, constructed primarily for the aesthetic and cultural enjoyment of its owner.

“Pavilions” run the gamut of private, extravagant, “exotic” residences such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton to small, unadorned civic structures in the public arena. A more modern example, Robert Moses’ Orchard Beach Pavilion, is a large, imposing, and immutable public work, which through its grandeur, sheer size, and ambition, bespeaks the importance and nobility of public life and civic involvement. But in any of these diverse cases, the buildings are significantly unlike any of the projects presented by the panelists, all of whom showed follies/pavilions that were not only free and open for public use, but also temporary, playful structures unburdened by predetermined terms-of-use, sober symbolisms, or the stolid permanence of civic pavilions.

It is in this sense that the comment I overheard is particularly relevant. The contemporary follies/pavilions presented are adjective-like. As modifiers, qualifiers, and accessories to the participatory behavior they engender, these recent follies and pavilions escape noun-ness or the antiquated, the symbolic. As the word “folly” too plainly suggests, they anticipate, even court, some of our most creative behaviors: our foolishness, irrationality, and irreverence.

Their forms and functions lie plainly open to public interpretation — they are buildings of a different part of speech.

Gabriel Silberblatt is a staff member at The Architectural League. He lives in Brooklyn.