This essay is part of a collection of love letters celebrating personal design obsessions.
Some sentences sound too trite to be true, but this one is truthful, I swear: My favorite place is like no other place on earth. The Forbidden Corner in North Yorkshire, England, bills itself as "the strangest place in the world," a promise the offbeat family attraction lives up to as soon as you enter via a giant stone monkey mouth. Built in the 1980s by British millionaire Colin Armstrong, the Forbidden Corner is a folly garden, filled with carved trees, eerie sculptures, "urinating" fountain statues, and elaborate towers with eyes. To top it all off, there’s an underground labyrinth with a revolving floor.
During my childhood near the beautiful but often dull and gray Yorkshire Dales area, visits to the Forbidden Corner offered an exciting escape from the ordinary. I remember the terrifying thrill of walking down one of the site’s many stone tunnels only to find it shrinking with every footstep; at the end I was greeted by a tiny arch that I—and the adults around me—had to try and squeeze through. The Forbidden Corner taught me that things aren’t always as they seem. The park also ignited my lifelong love of follies—structures usually built for no reason other than sheer pleasure.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, follies were popular landscape design features at French and English gardens and estates—particularly those owned by wealthy eccentrics or those with "sir" in front of their names. (Often, there was overlap.) These decorative edifices built across Europe, and eventually in the U.S., were intended to stand purposeless and proud, evoking fake medieval castles, artificial Roman ruins, and fanciful druid’s temples (the latter of which is a quick trip from the Forbidden Corner, and which I didn’t mind getting carsick on winding country roads when I visited for the first time as an adult). In English, the word "folly" itself denotes foolishness and impracticality; in French, "folie" refers to madness. In the past, follies were an aesthetic extravagance. Today, though, I see them as an architectural antidote to the ruthless optimization-driven, increasingly bland aesthetic of the modern world.
To be clear, centuries-old follies still pepper certain public gardens and hilltops, from Central Park’s Belvedere Castle to the "Park of Monsters" in Italy. Occasionally, new ones are erected too—every year, the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail in New Zealand holds a folly-building competition for emerging architects, for example. But constructing follies is no longer a popular pastime among those with excess. For today’s wealthiest homeowners, sleek and featureless minimalism is du jour (see: Kim Kardashian’s monochromatic mansion, for one)—and honestly, I believe we’re all the poorer for it. Where did the whimsy go?
If the wealthiest are still building extravagant—and often weirdly empty—houses, then why can’t they spend money on architecture with personality? I invite today’s tech tycoons to build fake leaning tower landmarks; I dream of the day an Instagram influencer constructs a summerhouse with a giant pineapple on top. Why not put Pantheons and pyramids where they don’t belong? We are seemingly so obsessed with taste that we have forgotten the sheer joy of tastelessness. What’s wrong with a little fakery, when it’s fun?
In his 2020 book, Follies: An Architectural Journey, self-described "unapologetic architecture nerd" Rory Fraser argues that England’s follies are "monuments" to a culture in which "architectural self-expression was not just permitted but celebrated." Today, there are more literal limitations on what can be built—in 2017, local authorities wanted the Forbidden Corner to demolish a 32-foot castle folly that was constructed without planning permission—but there are also the limits we impose on ourselves. No one wants to be seen as frivolous or foolish, but I think that—despite their definition—follies do have a purpose. They are shrines to the imagination; they resist the algorithmic flattening of modern culture.
As a little girl visiting the Forbidden Corner, I wept in fright when I passed through one of the pillar-lined tunnels and emerged into a grotto guarded by a hulking statue of the devil. Eerie red lighting illuminated the demonic figure, and when I tried to escape I found myself in the site’s subterranean stone room with revolving doors. This was Disneyland without the safety belt. I was invigorated. I was being truthful when I said that the Forbidden Corner is like no other place on earth—but I hope, with blueprints and bricks, that sentence becomes less true over time.
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Top photo of the Roman Ruin follies at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna by Imagno/Getty Images
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