Scaffolding makes buildings possible

Constructing large buildings and repairing them requires a somewhat simple yet crucial element: scaffolds.

Scaffolds, fundamentally and philosophically, allow for newness—but they are, in every other way, very, very old. The caves of Lascaux, home to paleolithic paintings thought to be the first evidence of humanity’s expansion into artistry, feature sockets in their walls—borings that suggest Earth’s earliest expressionists relied on scaffolding to do their work. There’s evidence of scaffolding—wood, secured with knotted ropes—in ancient Greece. And in ancient Egypt.

In more contemporary times, scaffolds have become ubiquitous. In cities, scaffolds are part of the everyday sightscape, so saturated that they become almost invisible. We duck under them on sidewalks. We hang signs on them, taking advantage of their impermanent platform. We sense their message: that building is happening, that things are changing, that progress is marching on. And we sense that, in their way, they are generous. They are with us, in large part, to help something else come into being.

They may be considered ugly by some but they are indispensable. With them, you can reach great heights without machines. Imagine cherry pickers tall enough to reach the top of the Washington Monument or using helicopters for such work.

While they are necessary parts of our infrastructure, I don’t know that I would go so far as to celebrate their presence on the Washington Monument or other great landmarks. Two quick examples where I have seen scaffolding in action:

1. When I was in grad school at the University of Notre Dame, the school undertook a regilding of the golden dome on the Main Building. This isn’t just a gold color; the school uses gold leaf on the exterior. However, this led to an outcry from seniors that they wouldn’t be able to take graduation pictures in front of the dome because of the scaffolding. If I remember correctly, the school removed the scaffolding for graduation weekend and then started up work again.

2. On a couple of Hollywood studio tours, we saw the interiors of the some of the backlot sets. It might look like a New York City street but once you walked inside, you saw that it was a facade with a bunch of scaffolding inside on the backside of the exterior walls.

In both cases, the scaffolding was a necessary part of the process but it is not the main point. The job of scaffolding is to get out of the way to leave a more impressive structure behind. Perhaps scaffolding at the Washington Monument provides a change of pace but it is meant to be temporary. Like a lot of good infrastructure, you shouldn’t have to consider its necessity if it doing its job.

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