Eccentricity and excess mark a centuries-old tradition.
Richard Shapiro’s folly began, as many great things do, with the smallest of ambitions. Though the modern art collector and antiques dealer already had seven fireplaces in his 1920s Holmby Hills villa, he wanted an outdoor hearth. A place, he recalls, where, “I could sit in front of a roaring fire during a rainstorm or on a cold winter night.”
Shapiro’s design for an alfresco fireplace soon soared into architecture on helium, a Greco-Roman portico based on the precise mathematical principles of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. “I thought it might be hokey,” the 63-year-old aesthete admits, “but then I accepted that what I was really doing was a folly.”
At first he considered housing his outdoor fireplace in a modern structure, “four posts and a cover that would stand in juxtaposition to the Mediterranean architecture of the house,” he says. It would echo the way he placed minimalist sculptures and 20th century artworks amid the classical columns and ornate moldings inside his home.
It was a leap of the imagination to Neoclassicism. Having toured much of northern Italy, hopping from picturesque villas to village flea markets while buying antiques for his gallery on Melrose Avenue, Shapiro had become “smitten by history,” he says. “I want to touch the ages.”
Shapiro determined that he “would follow to the letter” the formula of Palladio’s Villa Chiericati, a building in Vincenza with a facade that Shapiro had visited and liked. Palladio, he says, is “one of those guys who is both ancient and modern. There’s spareness and efficiency in his designs. He took the basic proportions of the Greeks and Romans and updated it, making it grander and taller.”
A self-taught designer and architectural scholar, Shapiro drew up the plans for his engineer and contractors. “Once you lock into Palladio’s proportions, it’s very simple,” he says. “If the diameter of the column is X, their height has to be Y. If the height is Y, the building has to be Z wide.”
When it was complete, he would make it look even more authentic by ever so gently destroying it. “I liked the idea of deceiving myself,” Shapiro says, “to look out the window and see an ancient ruin.” Situated at the end of the algae-green pool that Shapiro loves to see covered in leaves, Shapiro’s Palladian portico exemplifies the architectural exuberance and excess of the folly.
From the bottom of its distressed concrete steps to the ornamental half-moon that sits at the peak of its triangular pediment, Shapiro’s Palladian folly stands more than 21 feet tall.The four Ionic columns were made from redwood by Joe Madden of Madden Millworks in San Pedro. They were fitted with resin capitals and fiberglass bases slathered in lime and plaster, then painted by a Hollywood scenic designer to achieve Shapiro’s primary aesthetic goal.
“Decrepitude,” he proclaims. “I think filthier is better. If you study European construction, it’s not nearly as fussy and refined. Here, if someone gets a little flaking paint on their house, it’s a panic situation.” To prove his point, Shapiro has been known to pour coffee and tea on paving stones and cement to give them a more aged patina. He is thrilled that the plaster in the portico has hairline cracks and vines are creeping across the walls. “I think it is a bit of a sore thumb, but that is softened by the foliage around it,” he says. “If I had it to do over I would destroy it even more.”
Behind the portico’s impressive facade, which could keep company with Washington, D.C., landmarks (complete with reflecting pool), the room has 13-foot ceilings and measures 19 feet across. Walls curve to meet a 19th century stone reproduction of a Renaissance hearth purchased in Antwerp, Belgium.
Folly is defined as a nonsensical creation or activity,” Shapiro says. “I not only qualify, I take that as a compliment.” Shapiro’s folly is in the grand tradition of European eccentricity.
This article by David A. Keeps appeared in the LA Times in June 2005