Centering a Town: 9th. Effort (folly)

In this design I wanted to add a tower—the folly—to distinguish the building, giving it a point of focus and identifying its location and function as a center. I’ve gone out into the plaza, though I’ve also added to its space. The extra area isolates and thus highlights the tower, though I’m skeptical the space would be used and can think of several reasons why it might not be a good idea.

I had two designs in mind, the Urbino Ideal City:

and Bernard Tschumi’s folies for the Parc de la Villette, Paris:

The Ideal City, offspring of the Renaissance, shows a plan of order, defined by the grid on the plaza floor, which, if extended vertically, contains in proportion the buildings on the square. It is not just an orderly composition, it is a picture of order itself, based on current understanding of the world, its order, our ideal place within it. And this perspective, theoretically, extends infinitely out. People housed on earth are related to the universe, to the heavens above.

Tschumi’s recent folies take for their base design a 10.8 meter cube, itself divided into 27 equal cubes within. The basic cube in each folie undergoes various transformations—additions, subtractions, combinations. We sense order has been challenged and have no idea where they, we are going.

Madness serves as a constant point of reference throughout the Urban Park of La Villette because it appears to illustrate a characteristic situation at the end of the twentieth century, that of disjunctions and dissociation between use, form and social values. This situation is not necessarily a negative one, but rather is symptomatic of a new condition, as distant from eighteenth-century humanism as from this century’s various modernisms. Madness, here, is linked to its psychoanalytical meaning—insanity—and can be restated to its built sense—folly—only with extreme caution. We aim to free the built folie from its historical connotations and to place it on a broader, more abstract plane, as an autonomous object which, in the future, will be able to receive new meanings.

Tschumi/Madness and the Combinative

The folies themselves, red cubes in the plan, are laid out on an even grid of points, providing visitors to the park reference and orientation.

The folie grid, however, is challenged by lines and surfaces, above and below. There is no clear sense of relationship among the three, unlike the layout of the Urbino panel. Still, Tschumi’s Parc depends on the regular and predictable order of the Urbino: it is the launching pad for his departures. We are clearly, constantly, and pointedly reminded of what the Parc is not.

Our project starts from the following thesis: there are building-generators of events. As much through their programs as through their spatial potential, they accelerate a cultural or social transformation that is already in progress.


That is what I wanted to capture from both, a place where something significant can happen, that has a place in our lives and fits into our order, or amends or takes apart and recreates it, yet is open and questioned. Possibilities remain to be discovered, and each discovery leads to more questions, more possibilities—a place of process with meaning, without closure, without end.

A rough plan for the second and third floors. I explain the program in other posts. The three-story wing on the left has larger classrooms, while the smaller rooms on the right wing could hold seminars or provide small meeting space or be used as offices for any of the building’s functions. The rooms are accessed by corridors in the front of the larger rooms and behind the smaller. The first floor of the right wing is open and could be used for civic office and exhibition. Or the entire first floor could be devoted to those.

The plaza floor marks out the grid that determines the tower and building, composed of about 10 x 10 foot squares. Overall, the building is about 90 x 90 feet. There’s a difference between using a grid to proportion a design and making the grid a prominent feature, as Tschumi and I have done. In both designs we are conscious of being placed in a grid, yet it doesn’t have symbolic or representational reference to architectural styles, to history, not even to the present. It could be the grid for anything—or something that hasn’t yet been discovered. There are other things that can be said about Tschumi’s folies, and that can not. My design has some variation from the grid but perhaps could use more madness. Only in the tower did I remove pillars to open up and challenge its essential structure. I tried some subtractions in the building proper, but they looked like incidental embellishment. There’s a kind of necessity in folies that cannot be explained. An outside spiral staircase, used often in the folies, would be interesting—I can’t represent this.

Rear view. The stairs are open, and the large window area gives increasing view of the Willamette River and the St. Johns Bridge as one ascends.

The relationship of the building proper to the tower shifts as one walks around, from varying degrees of isolation to integration.

Side view, along Philadelphia. Subtle grids for the windows would enhance the design. The narrow windows on the left, also on the front side, match the dimensions of the pillars used throughout, and the space between repeats the square of the base element.

Front corner.

Front, along Lombard, main street. Assume a four-story building on the right, planned for St. Johns’ growth. The center would be the terminus for a line of buildings on the block. The walls to the classrooms on the left wing, visible through the large glass windows, have not been completed in the model.

Those walls could have large pictures of anything—faces of cultural figures, of locals, of the neighborhood’s history, of the bridge, or of these memories—that would be visible from the plaza and street.

Tschumi’s folies have been used for similar.

The overall grid is established quietly on the plaza. The area presents all manner of design opportunities—seating, plants, bulletin boards, signposts.

Our ideas have always had uneasy coexistence with reality, the ideas and reality themselves perpetually uneasy. And there can be a madness to Renaissance order, a sanity to our present madness. Tschumi, perhaps, overstates his case. What both have in common is their reach for something essential, a way of thinking that is being lost. Conclusions will fall short and always have, our language always slips,  which is worth some thought as well. Where we get in trouble is when we let processes determine our lives, unquestioned, not even understood.

On a more practical level, the Tschumi folie is a good model of openness and uncertainty for education, too often locked into the discourses of separate disciplines, their limited, even dubious, languages and hermetic certainties. We need to open up and challenge whatever we think, always, and reach beyond what we think we understand. Procedurally, schools have become machines of order for the sake of order, vast bureaucratic mills, where academic identity is determined by artificial standards of grading, progress by rigid steps. Or they have become a scattered array of electives, without a center, a home, a base.

Background and Previous Designs

Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.

Parc de la Villette plan drawing via ArchDaily

Photographs of folies via Flickr


Leave a Reply