According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an architectural folly is: ‘any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder’. There have been moments in history in which such ‘folly in the builder’ has been all-too-horrifically apparent. On 29 June 1846, the resignation of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, a Conservative, paved the way for a return to power of the Liberals, led by Lord John Russell. One year earlier, the Potato Famine had struck British-controlled Ireland with mortal force.
The reality of a welfare state was a century away and, according to the principles of laissez-faire government to which Russell subscribed, reward without labour – even for the starving – was unacceptable. On the other hand, hiring the needy for constructive ends would have deprived existing labourers of their jobs. Under the guidance of senior civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan, an individual convinced that ‘the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson’, a new ‘relief’ programme of public works was initiated.
In the following years, hundreds of thousands of Irish built roads that went from nowhere to nowhere in remote rural areas that had no need of such roads in the first place; they erected estate walls and piers in the middle of bogs; they constructed fantastical buildings in the grounds of the elite. Many of the workers, malnourished and weakened by illness, died. By late December 1846, half a million men, women and children were employed in the construction of these stone roads to nowhere. The men smashed up large rocks to generate smaller fragments that the women carried to the construction sites in baskets, where they were fitted into place. In early 1847, at the height of the programme, 700,000 Irish were devoted full-time to the construction of useless infrastructure while never quite earning enough to be able to afford to eat. The tragically futile results of the scheme came to be known as the ‘famine follies’. For his role in organizing the programme, Trevelyan is today considered by many to be guilty of genocide.
Ireland’s famine follies are but one instance in the bizarre and not infrequently problematic history of this architectural typology – a history in which, more often than not, an indifference to large questions of social justice culminates in small works of architecture. It is precisely this legacy of questionable integrity that makes the choice of the folly as the centrepiece of the Gwangju Biennale’s urban construction programme so interesting. To build follies in the 21st century is to take a much-maligned, anachronistic symbol of social inequality and project it onto the hyper-deterministic, ultra-Miesian logic of urban space in the age of late capitalism; it means to confront the fact that form follows function in the sense that the form of the city precisely maps its function in terms of speculative value, leaving no further room for manoeuvre, no space for whimsy. To build follies is to introduce, through an injection of architectural fancy, a glitch in the homogenous field of alienated neoliberal rationality that is the contemporary city.
Can the folly’s complex history of hedonistic indifference be credibly reclaimed as a keystone of collectivity within the city? Headed by director Nikolaus Hirsch with curators Eui Young Chun and Philipp Misselwitz, the second cycle of the ‘Gwangju Folly’ programme, which opened in November 2013, argues that it can – with greater force than the first edition did in 2011. The curatorial team called on a diverse list of artists, writers and architects to define folly-making as a critical practice in which these activities converge and overlap in a series of carefully engineered spatial aberrations. The results run the gamut from the performative to the architectural, and often hide playfully in plain sight, masquerading as mundane elements of everyday urban life: a set of subway cars transformed by Raqs Media Collective into a theatrical space (Autodidact’s Transport, all works 2013) or a public toilet refurbished by Superflex to exactly reproduce those used by the Executive Board of unesco in Paris (Power Toilets/UNESCO).
Gwangju’s follies achieve their moments of greatest intensity when they engage the city as a stage upon which the political struggle plays out. Architect Rem Koolhaas and writer Ingo Niermann’s intervention – a simple gateway crowned by a digital display, entitled The Vote – invites shoppers in a busy pedestrian neighbourhood to literally ‘vote with their feet’ by choosing their path down the street according to their position on everyday issues, a reminder that even the small gestures of everyday life can be moments of political expression. Eyal Weizman’s folly, Roundabout Revolution, is a characteristically acute observation of the historical significance of certain seemingly banal urban elements; it taps into the history of Gwangju as a revolutionary city that played a key role in the introduction of democracy to the Korean peninsula in the early 1980s. It is a celebration of the roundabout as an innovative structure embedded in the city – a dynamic space of transit in which, unlike the state-sanctioned arena of the public square, no clear hierarchy exists: a fact that made it the birthplace of uprisings in cities from Cairo and Tunis to Manama and Gwangju itself Marking on the ground the superimposed outlines of these revolutionary roundabouts, Weizman’s intervention produces a beautiful and painfully intense image in which the ‘folly of the builder’ is indeed apparent – the folly of violent repression to which so many have lost their lives in the last 50 years in the name of the struggle for democracy.
There can be little doubt that when the ‘Gwangju Folly’ programme was founded, the biennial’s president, Yongwoo Lee, knew he was venturing into one of the riskier territories of architectural history – one in fundamental contrast with the prevailing logic of rationalist modernity. ‘Gwangju Follies II’ courageously reclaims the folly from its own history to recast it as a moment of political consciousness within the city. Perhaps this is what truly defines the folly: it is a structure that does not remain remorseful of the impracticality of its purpose. Ideology, after all, is not always the most practical of things.