The Désert de Retz is one of the great folly gardens of the eighteenth century, a carefully designed fancy resembling ruins and referencing a slew of historical eras. Created between 1774 and 1789 by aristocrat François Racine de Monville, its structures and sculptures reflected an array of architectural styles—the ruins of a Gothic church, an Egyptian-style pyramid that served as an ice house, a decaying Roman Temple of Pan, an open-air theatre, a teakwood pavilion—the Maison Chinoise, and a series of rustic altars. Monville’s main residence was the Column House in the center of the garden. This enormous Tuscan column measures 24 meters high and 15 meters wide, and features a spiral staircase connecting five floors and approximately 20 rooms. One side is higher than the other, creating the appearance of a jagged edge and hiding the glass ceiling behind its façade.
Conservation work on the interiors restored them to their original appearance
While follies are intended to look like ruins, Désert de Retz was becoming a true ruin and was in dire need of conservation. In 1990, World Monuments Fund created a master plan to conserve the Column House, which had decayed significantly. The Société Civile de Désert de Retz and architect Olivier Choppin de Janvry were key partners in WMF conservation efforts. Foundations and walls were reinforced to stabilize the structure, and conservation work on the interiors restored them to their original appearance.
According to House & Garden magazine, “The Désert de Retz, created by an eighteenth-century hedonist, is an outdoor encyclopedia of Romantic obsession.” This romantic obsession of ruins comes from what the great German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin calls the “irresistible decay” of architectural remnants from the past and the fascination with how these remnants have stood the test of time. The follies at the Désert de Retz invite the invention of romantic narratives and notions about culture and society from the past.