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10 Extravagant Examples of Folly Architecture

“Form follows function” is a maxim many modern architects swear by. For the designers of these flashy and usually pointless structures, one part of that equation was left out. 

In architecture, a folly is a decorative building that doesn’t serve much of a practical purpose, even if it’s meant to look like it does. They can be found all over the world, and range from crumbling (fake) ruins to a tropical fruit-themed greenhouse. Here are 10 architectural follies whose style overshadows their substance.

1. THE SWALLOW’S NEST, UKRAINE 

This scaled-down, Neo-Gothic structure jutting out over the Black Sea (pictured above) is hard to miss. When a building was first constructed there in 1895, it took the form of a decidedly more humble wooden cottage. In 1912, that house was demolished and this gaudy structure was erected in its place. Though it resembles a castle, it doesn’t fit the true definition in part because the turrets and battlements are purely ornamental. Despite its precarious position, the Swallow’s Nest survived a powerful earthquake in 1927. Today it’s a popular tourist attraction and the site of an Italian restaurant

2. THE WONDERFUL BARN, IRELAND 

Edge977 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

“Wonderful” is one way to describe this barn in Kildare County, Ireland. A more accurate label might be just plain weird. The corkscrew structure towers 70 feet above the ground, with a staircase along the exterior spiraling to a crow's nest viewing platform at its pinnacle.

The Wonderful Barn was commissioned by Katherine Conolly of the Castletown Estate, widow of a prominent member of the House of Commons, to provide work during the Irish Famine. The building is one of Ireland’s many “famine follies” left over from the period, which include a 140-foot tall obelisk also located on the Castletown property. Several groups are currently working toward restoring the barn and opening it up to the public. 

3. LIJA BELVEDERE TOWER, MALTA

Lija

The Belvedere Tower in Lija was originally erected on the grounds of Malta’s historic Villa Gourgion. It was built to provide a place for guests and residents to come and relax amongst the property’s extravagant gardens and orange groves. The gardens were eventually torn up to make way for new roads, and the only feature that was spared was the Belvedere Tower. It currently sits in the center of the street's roundabout.

4. CASTLE IN HAGLEY PARK, ENGLAND

Paul Brooker via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

This structure on the grounds of Hagley Park in Worcestershire resembles the ruins of a medieval castle that’s been crumbling away for centuries. In reality, it was built to look that way from the beginning. Construction was started on the Castle in Hagley Park in 1747 by Sir George Lyttelton, the man responsible for restoring the property to its present condition. According to the Hagley Historical and Field Society, the castle and the park’s other follies served two purposes: "First, to lead the eye towards a point in the distance and, secondly, to provide a talking point often associated with architectural styles, classical stories, poets, and other topics." Today, the Castle in Hagley Park is used as a private residence.

5. THE DUNMORE PINEAPPLE, SCOTLAND

The Dunmore Pineapple started out as a fairly ordinary piece of architecture. The lower part of the structure was originally built as a Palladian-style greenhouse around 1761, and the eccentric pineapple topper wasn’t added until 1777, following the Earl of Dunmore’s return from Virginia. The fruits were so rare in Europe at the time that they were seen as a symbol of wealth and hospitality. They were also placed on gateposts to signal a sailor’s homecoming, so the folly could have been viewed as an over-the-top announcement of the earl's return. 

In addition to being a place to grow actual pineapples, the Dunmore Pineapple was used as a summerhouse and a platform for viewing the surrounding natural beauty. Anyone interested in getting an intimate look at the building can now rent it out as a holiday home

6. RUSHTON TRIANGULAR LODGE, ENGLAND

v1ctory_1s_m1ne via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The designer of this folly building in Northamptonshire, England had a bit of an obsession with the number three. Sir Thomas Tresham was a devout Catholic at a time when Protestantism was the law of the land, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison when he refused to convert. After he was released in the late 16th century, Tresham began construction on the Triangular Lodge as a testament to his faith. He paid homage to the Holy Trinity in every aspect of the design, with the building’s three floors, three 33-foot sides, three windows on each side of each floor, and inscriptions of three Latin Bible verses—each 33 letters long. 

The building’s ultimate purpose was much less divine than its structure would suggest—it was used as lodging for the gamekeeper who took care of Tresham’s rabbits. Today the house is maintained by English Heritage and it’s open to the public. 

7. LE PALAIS IDEAL, FRANCE

By Otourly via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Though he wasn’t an architect, French postal worker Ferdinand Cheval dreamed of building his own palace. One day in 1879, Cheval stumbled over a striking-looking rock along his usual route, which inspired him to get to work on constructing his vision. His “ideal palace,” made entirely by hand using individual stones he collected, took him 33 years to complete. Today the structure attracts tourists who come from all over to admire the palace’s whimsical details and diverse architectural styles

8. NEEDLE’S EYE, ENGLAND

In a field in Northern England stands a pyramid-shaped archway that doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose. According to legend, the structure was built after the Earl Fitzwilliam drunkenly accepted a bet that he’d be unable to "drive a carriage through the eye of a needle." Once he realized he’d made a foolish mistake, Fitzwilliam is said to have found a way around the challenge by constructing a narrow, 45-foot tall passageway and naming it "The Needle’s Eye." It’s also possible the pyramid was used as a site for target practice or firing squad-style executions, as there are several musket-ball holes marking one side. 

9. WAINHOUSE TOWER, ENGLAND

david_pics via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Wainhouse Tower is believed to be one of the tallest folly buildings ever constructed. The structure was initially intended to be used as a chimney for an industrial building after the Smoke Abatement Act was passed in 1870, but the factory was sold before construction could be completed. The owner of the factory, John Edward Wainhouse, decided to continue building the tower and instead make it into a "general astronomical and physical observatory." After the project was completed, the elaborate structure stood 275 feet tall and had cost a total of £14,000 to build. His neighbor and rival accused Wainhouse of building the tower so he’d have a way to spy on him.

10. KINGFISHER TOWER, U.S.

John Stracke via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Visitors to Lake Otsego in New York may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this Gothic-style castle sticking out along the shore. The tower was commissioned in 1876 by Edward S. Clark, one of the co-founders of the Singer Sewing Machine company. The structure wasn’t built for any particular purpose other than to add decoration to the lake and provide construction jobs. The castle is still owned by the Clark family, and the only way to get an up-close look at the building is by boat.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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