Four Follies

12 Months of Solitude (April 2020)

Deep within the forest of our Dorset property is a lake that is a perfectly preserved piece of wilderness. Around this lake I have envisioned a series of follies that are dedicated to my four parents. I have decided to name these objects (part earth work, part sculpture, part monument and part art installation) “follies”, which link them to the long tradition in garden design, of architectural elements acting as beacons in the distance and which provide moments of repose in an otherwise naturally appearing landscape. In this case our property is an untouched wilderness that I do not intend to disturb except for the walking paths, and these small interventions which will create nodes on the trails that wind around the lake. When they are seen across the water, the follies will visually interact with one another, and in doing so will reveal the special relationships that each of my parents had with each other.

In April of last year during the lockdown I was able to focus my energy on the design of these follies. It did not concern me that I had not yet created a route through the forest to reach them. During the darkest moments of the global pandemic, my heart was pushing me to stop contemplating their design, which I had been ruminating about for years, and to finally put the designs to paper.

Before I begin to describe these follies, which are dedicated to my “parents”, I first need to provide some context as to why there are four of them. While many of my friends may already know this story, I have been blessed with a very unusual family. From an early age I knew that I was growing up in special place as I often had a hard time distinguishing my parents from the other adults who were living in our home.

My father, Carl and his brother Noel were identical twins. These young men left Newfoundland in the late 1950’s and soon met my mother Shirley and her sister Bertha who had also left “the rock” around the same time in search of a better life in Toronto. My Uncle Noel and Aunt Bertha would marry first, and my mom and dad shortly thereafter. Together, the four of them shared a house in the city. Both couples would each have two children, and as the family grew too large for the shared accommodation, we eventually moved into identical homes located 30m apart in Richmond Hill. As soon as they arrived in their new homes, the two women set about furnishing their spaces identically.

Even from an early age I had always been interested in plants, and as soon as I could, I began to transform the empty lots into luscious gardens with identical landscaping. At nine years old I had already become somewhat critical and opinionated of my parent’s mirrored life but I also loved extending that sense of symmetry across the two lots, which are only separated by two homes.

Both men drove similar cars and started their jobs at Bell Canada with identical resumes, retiring on the same day, 37 years later. Together our family shared a cottage, a dog, and generally lived a mirrored life.

While this life of symmetry requires a novel/film to fully describe it, this unique upbringing has affected my perception of the world after the passing of my father in 2014. Naturally, my entire family is out of balance as we attempt to find a new normal without him.

Much of the impulse to create the four follies comes from a sense that I have always considered the secluded lake on our property to be a sacred site, and a place of reflection and repose. I have been visiting the lake for over two decades and have, since my father’s death, understood the large piece of the Canadian shield that protrudes through the forest floor, like a gigantic blue whale, to be his resting place. Creating a space which will eventually bring all my parents together in one location symbolically, is my way of ensuring the special symmetry that has defined my family, will always remain.

Since I was unable to visit the site during the lockdown, it was the specific places on the property that had been seared into my memory, in the many times that I have visited them, that were resonating with me. I was able to recall these places on the shoreline around the lake and began to imagine how they would be transformed by the follies to heighten the experience walking around the lake.

Gatekeeper Bridge – Shirley’s Folly

Following the trail from the oval clearing, up 35m of elevation past numerous waterfalls, you will reach the waterside, sculptural installation on the shores of the upper lake. Gatekeeper Bridge will cross the small river flowing from the lake, creating a threshold to the journey along its shores.

The folly to my mother, who has always been the matriarch of our “half ” of the symmetrical family and its most astute politician, navigating the complex dynamic of this mirrored family in its day-to-day activities, will provide access to the lakeside trails while also informing the hiker of the journey ahead.

A small gatepost will mark the threshold onto the bridge. Within this vertical marker, which will be seen from far below as you ascend the path to the lake, there will be a cabinet holding maps as well as description of the four follies and the paths that link them.

A circular clearing with a firepit, enclosed by log benches will create a welcoming place adjacent to the lake to rest and plan the journey ahead. From this vantage point the folly to my father Carl, will be seen in the distance, across the water.

Whaleback Rock – Carl’s Folly

Moving from the Gatekeeper Bridge along the shoreline trail, Whaleback Rock comes in and out of view as the trail leads past several spots where my partner Kyle and I have created lookouts. I felt that it was important that the hiker was continually reminded of their destination as they walked toward it, around the lake.

As the path descends into a darkened valley, with a dense canopy of hemlock and cedar trees obscuring the sky above, the view beyond is of a illuminated large horizontal mass that can be seen through the darkened vertical tree trunks in the foreground. You have reached Whaleback Rock.

This natural sculpture is a 30m long ridge of bedrock. The area that we have stripped bare of vegetation, replicates the dimensions of an adult blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on our planet. The form revealed evokes the whale’s back, its grey hulk (these whales are a blue/grey and not the blue the name would suggest), arches gracefully from the surrounding landscape and appears to be diving into the dark blue waters of the lake.

Kyle and I began the construction of this folly, in the fall of 2020 but the bulk of the drawings created, which have enabled me to envision this piece, were produced during April of that year.

Once the lockdowns subsided and we were allowed to travel beyond our homes, Kyle and I were able to head north to clear small vegetation and debris that had accumulated on this piece of bedrock, revealing its evocative form. While this piece is a work in progress I was pleasantly surprised by the naturally occurring horizontal cut in the rockface that resembles the whales mouth, and a rounded blotch of lichen positioned in the area where its eyes would be (refer to image above).

The whale is an analogy I used for my father as its hulking mass remains below the surface as was his personality, which would remain a mystery to me during our lifetime together, hidden beneath the dark waters of his insecurity. The solidity of this chunk of the Canadian shield, represents the stabilizing presence my dad had on our complicated family dynamic, which I have only recently begun to fully understand, and appreciate.

When sitting atop the ridge of Whaleback Rock you will enjoy an unobstructed view of my Uncle Noel’s folly. When seen from this vantage point it will have a similar shape and appear as a grey mass extending into the water on the other side of the lake.   

Whaleback Shelter – Noel’s Folly

The folly to my Uncle Noel, who I consider to be my “second father”, will be in the form of an overturned boat resting on the western shoreline of the lake. The path leading to it from Whaleback Rock affords many moments to view the piece as you walk around the lake. The towering white pines adjacent to this folly can be seen on this walk even when the object itself may be obscured by the wispy trees of Tamarack Island, which stand between it and the lakeside trail.

I have designed the two follies for Noel and Carl with a similar form and coloration and while they may appear as identical shapes when seen across the expanse of the lake, they are revealed to be quite different, upon closer inspection.

The way the two sites are experienced is directly tied to the distinct natural conditions that surround them. The folly to my Uncle Noel is located in a small bay, protected by the paisley shaped Tamarack Island which has a dozen, twisted tamarack trees that turn yellow every fall before they drop their needles. The surrounding vegetation consists of waterside plants such as sweet gale and Labrador tea and in the most waterlogged areas the locally rare, coniferous, pitcher plant (an example can be seen in the photo below as the red plant growing on the floating log in the lower right).

It is distinct from the vegetation found adjacent to Whaleback Rock where the thinnest layer of humus covers the huge rock as it arches out of the forest floor.

The materiality of the objects is also analogous to the distinct personalities of my two fathers. While Carl’s folly is a solid mass, revealed by stripping its rocky surface bare, Noel’s will be a wood skeleton, wrapped in birch bark. Where Carl’s folly is impenetrable, and unmoving, Noel’s is vulnerable and ever susceptible to the elements as they continually wear at its protective hull.

Where Carl’s is monumental and through it’s creation, with the removal of much of the vegetation atop it, opened to the sky above, Noels sits gingerly within the waterside vegetation. Placed precariously on the shoreline, the structure does not engage the land but appears to float above the shoreline vegetation. The intimate space, sheltered under the ribbed, arched form, which will also feel as though you are within the stomach of a whale, accommodates a small campfire and an intimate place for sketching, and enjoying the outdoors.

The metaphor of the overturned boat I utilized for Whaleback Shelter is also important symbolically as it represents their connection to fishing in Newfoundland while also addressing their hope for an upcoming journey. But the boat, resting on the shoreline of the lake could also evoke the melancholy one feels for a journey that has yet to occur or one that may never happen again.

Gatekeeper Tower – Bertha’s Folly

Behind the folly to Noel, and peering over its metaphorical shoulder, will be the folly to my Aunt Bertha, the family matriarch. The Gatekeeper Tower will be located high up on a rocky ridge, surrounded by towering white pines and obscured by these trees to those walking from Whaleback Rock to the Whaleback Shelter. It is only after reaching Whaleback Shelter will the imposing presence of this looming object become apparent.

Climbing the granite hillside, hikers will reach the observatory tower which is the same form and material palette as the Gatekeeper Bridge, but five times larger. Within the enclosure, a stair will lead to the elevated observation platform, ten meters above.  It is here, atop the Gatekeeper Tower, that hikers will experience the full extent of the lake and observe the other follies, including the Gatekeeper Bridge, which will now be observed across the water, adjacent to the beaver dam where you will arrive at the beginning of this journey.

The visual connection between the two follies is important since they are similar forms, created of the same materials but will be constructed at dramatically different scales. When observing the Gatekeeper Bridge from atop the Gatekeeper Tower, the similar object in the distance appears even further away, almost lost amongst the surrounding glade of white pines. This reverses the original perception of this relationship when the Gatekeeper Tower appears to be sized identically when seen from the Gatekeeper Bridge when first entering into the journey.

The Gatekeeper Tower and Bridges will be camouflaged, their vertical forms clad in rough barn boards, stained to resemble the rhythm of the vertical trucks of the trees around them. Their vertical silhouettes will appear and disappear as you move around the lake.

When climbing down from the observation deck of the Gatekeeper Tower and following the trail leading back to the Gatekeeper Bridge, the journey around the lake will have come full circle.

While I was completing the design of the four follies, the route to reach them, hidden deep within the surround forest, had yet to be finalized. My next task would be to create paths that would connect the oval clearing, which is where you start any journey into this landscape, to this journey around the lake which links the four follies. I will address the creation of the illustrations for these paths in my next post.

Note: All images are Copywrite of Howard Rideout Architect Inc.

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