Jun 21, 2023
The Architectural Language of Scaffoldings in Cityscapes: Exploring the Impact of These Temporary Structures
As one takes a visual tour through the city, one might spot structures that break the rhythm of finished architectural products. These are buildings encased in grids of metal or wooden sections,
As one takes a visual tour through the city, one might spot structures that break the rhythm of finished architectural products. These are buildings encased in grids of metal or wooden sections, sometimes wrapped in colored nets, that communicate a moment of construction, repair, renovation, or demolition. They are called scaffolding systems, temporary structures built in the city to aid in the erection or maintenance of buildings. However, they have evolved to speak their own architectural language. As city-making is a continuous process, scaffolds serve as beacons, proposing silhouettes of the height, shape, or forms of new buildings. They step into the sidewalks, acting as shade or obstructions to the flow of human and vehicular traffic. In contrast to the permanence of architecture, they exhibit a sense of temporality that helps communicate time, the growth of neighborhoods, and the evolution of a city.
Scaffolding is an essential aspect of construction in cities. Despite the many laws and guidelines that affect their use in various contexts, their simple, inexpensive, and temporary nature makes them an inseparable part of building creation. Through their frequent use in architecture, scaffolds have developed a language of modularity, materiality, structural expression, and interaction with public infrastructure that distinguishes them within the urban landscape. In addition to their visual appearance and primary construction purposes, they can also provide urban functions such as shelter, help with way-finding and inspiration for auxiliary structures. In the article "Removing the Scaffold of Architecture," Christopher Alker highlights how, in a dense city like New York, the sheer number of scaffolds can help people move around despite weather conditions and serve as temporary street shelters.
Historically, scaffoldings date back to the Paleolithic period in the southwest of France, where it was used as a support structure for cave paintings. It was also explored as a permanent facade structure in the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali during the 13th century. Over time, various materials have been used for scaffolds, and they vary within different contexts, which has led to the development of unique aesthetic languages.
A collage of wood and bamboo sticks is more popular in West Africa due to its locality and affordability. Metal circular hollow sections are preferred in Europe for their modularity and structural stability. Meanwhile, the labyrinth of bamboo scaffolds has grown as a cultural art form in China. It is an ancient method of weaving bamboo sticks, which has continued with modern construction practices by soaring to heights suitable for high-rise buildings. Together with scaffolding nets, they are described as "giant, colored, wrapped packages in the middle of a monochromatic setting" by the photographer Steinhauer, who compiled a visual catalog of scaffolds in Hong Kong titled "Cocoons".
As people constantly interact with scaffolding in cities, they also communicate various stories about the growth of those cities. In recent years, London has seen more scaffolding around its historical landmarks and cultural buildings. This speaks to the city's extensive renovation efforts to save cultural buildings from demolition and preserve the city's character.
However, scaffolding can also indicate neglect of a building in need of repair. Sometimes, scaffolding is initially put up as temporary support for maintenance, but it can grow to become a permanent solution and a fixed part of a city's architecture. In these instances, scaffolding can be a massive inconvenience to walkability and obscure the visual aesthetics of the city's fabric. For example, sidewalk sheds are a popular architectural element in New York, born from the need for scaffolding systems to expand into the street due to their size. Since local New York City laws require high-rise facade maintenance every 5 years, sidewalk sheds have become permanent scaffolding structures throughout the city. They obscure the perception of buildings from the street level, creating a new visual language.
Scaffoldings exhibit many architectural traits, and designers have explored how they perform as building elements in their own right. They express modularity, scalability, and structural expression which can be translated into different typologies, such as pavilions, exhibitions, interior spaces, and building extensions, using different materials.
A prominent example is the MVRDV monumental urban staircase in Rotterdam. It was a temporary scaffolding structure, consisting of 180 steps, 29 meters tall, and 57 meters long, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the rebuilding of the city following a disaster. Like many other projects, it recognizes the unique nature of scaffolding and the role it plays in the “continuous process” which is the city. Its aesthetic, elements, materials, patterns, inconveniences, and contributions to the city are all part of its unique character and value.Paul Yakubu