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Skin deep

As a temporary prosthesis applied to facades, scaffolding is emblematic of wider processes of transformation

12 de trap ©ossip

12 de trap ©ossip

MVRDV appropriated scaffolding to create a hugh temporary staircase in Rotterdam. Photograph: Ossip van Duivenbode

Ubiquitous and quotidian, the scaffolded facade marks architecture’s most explicitly liminal state, suspended between first taking root on site and its final physical manifestation. In this protracted yet transitory condition a building is an unformed entity, ‘scarce half-made up’, trussed in a lattice of tubes and membranes to contain its detritus, its laborious gestation cordoned against the elements and concealed from public gaze. By definition, scaffolding is temporary, a constructional poultice applied for its efficacy, then swiftly peeled off in a perfunctory striptease, the prosaic prelude to the final big reveal. Yet despite its intrinsic functionality and impermanence, the scaffolded facade contrives a curiously compelling visual and allegorical power, derived from its repetitiveness, its muteness and its metamorphic potential. 

Through the process of modification and repair, existing buildings are also subject to this radical shift in perception. The cores of historic European cities are regularly rendered immaterial and indefinite by nebulous swaddlings, their shrouded totemic landmarks assuming an especially expressive subversiveness. In 1913, Buckingham Palace was extensively covered in heavy scaffolding, its familiar outline transformed into a workaday Edwardian version of Christo’s absurdist wrappings, its presence paradoxically emphasised by its temporary erasure, revealing through concealing. Today, the tottering Parthenon is rarely without scaffolding, its columns and metopes filtered through a parasitical filigree of steel tubing, a permanent prosthesis for protection, grafted on to ensure its perpetuity. And since capitalism abhors a vacuum, under-repair buildings in prime locations are often pressed into service as temporary billboards. In Venice, city of surfaces, the Doge’s Palace has prostituted itself for Coke and Gucci.

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10221425

Its familiar outline still perceptible yet somehow subverted, Buckingham Palace is swaddled in scaffolding in a 1913 refurbishment. Source: Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture Library

Architecture’s picturesquely subverted state provides predictably fertile fodder for the greedy maw of social media. There are over 129,000 Instagram posts on #scaffolding alone. Pursuing a more reflective path, for over a decade, American photographer Peter Steinhauer has been making studies of buildings under construction in Hong Kong. Cocooned in elaborate armatures of scaffolding and nylon mesh, candy-coloured monoliths loom over the shifting cityscape like Brobdingnagian jelly beans. Toothpicks of bamboo, the miraculously strong and lightweight organic version of scaffolding used all over Asia, protrude from under slickly taut skins. Lashed together with nylon straps, the flexibility of bamboo means it can resist Hong Kong’s typhoons where rigid steel tubing would simply collapse. Shooting only on cloudy days, as the soft light of an overcast sky intensifies the jewel-like hues of the facades, Steinhauer captures the restless fluctuations of Hong Kong’s urban milieu. His gaze transmutes utilitarian techniques of construction into tableaux of disturbing beauty and intensity. 

Teal cocoon, hong kong 2011

Teal cocoon, hong kong 2011

The shrouded facade of a skyscraper under construction in Hong Kong. Toothpicks of bamboo scaffolding protrude from under its coloured mesh wrapping. Photograph by Peter Steinhauer

In different formal and material iterations, scaffolding spans the epochs, a reliable yet unsung helpmeet, catalysing architecture and wider human culture. Sockets in the walls at Lascaux suggest that some kind of palaeolithic scaffolding system was rigged up to render animist images on cave ceilings over 17,000 years ago. The original theatre of Dionysus in Athens consisted of benches supported on timber scaffolding, classical antiquity’s version of bleachers. These collapsed in around 500 BC to be replaced by a more permanent replacement, the first stone theatre in Western civilisation.

As a flexible, modular kit-of-parts, scaffolding has been refined over time, from early makeshift rope and timber assemblies to modern steel tubes and clamps. The invention in 1919 of a universal coupling device to replace rope connections was its eureka moment, imposing industry standardisation and allowing for interchangeability of components. Together with formwork, shoring and structures used in arch construction, scaffolding rejoices in the Shakespearean collective noun of ‘falsework’ and its more specific terminology implies an intimate affinity with rude mechanicals. Populated by putlogs, crawling boards, scaffpads, gin wheels, butt ends and pump jacks, the world of scaffolding is puissant and richly onomatopoetic. The short, cantilevered wooden brackets employed to support Michelangelo’s scaffold for painting the Sistine Chapel were known as sorgozzoni; literally ‘blows to the throat’.

02 fixed putlog

02 fixed putlog

17th-century scaffolding rig with wall-mounted putlogs. Source: Deutsche Fotothek

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Gettyimages 525515288

Pope Julius II ascending scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel to confer with Michelangelo Source: Stefano Bianchetti / Getty

Scaffolding is still erected by hand, its parts explicitly designed and weighted for human wrangling. Yet the steel or bamboo members so adeptly coupled or lashed together by acrobatic scaffolders – in Japan called tobishoku or ‘hawk-workers’ – can turn out to have a fatal fragility. Nearly 40 years ago, a huge new cooling tower was under construction at Pleasants Power Station at Willow Island in West Virginia. On 27 April 1978, a large bucket of concrete was being raised up to scaffolding gantries where workers were waiting to pour it into formwork. The crane pulling it up suddenly buckled and fell toward the inside of the cooling tower. Scaffolding came unmoored from the tower’s concrete walls, which then started to collapse. Within 30 seconds, a murderous tangle of concrete, timber formwork and metal scaffolding poles was crashing earthwards. 

Scaffolding is usually anchored on the ground but here a concentric armature of scaffolding four tiers high was fixed to the rim of the tower, moving upwards with each successive concrete pour. Steadily rising by 5 feet each day, by 27 April the tower had reached 170 feet and 51 men were working on the precipitous scaffolding gantries. They all plunged to their deaths. Many were identifiable only by the contents of their pockets. 

Rv2693 2

Rv2693 2

Acrobatic scaffolders working on the facade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Source: Roger-Viollet / Topfoto

The Willow Island disaster is still regarded as the worst construction accident in US history. An official enquiry revealed a lethal conjunction of safety lapses as contractors strove to speed up construction. Notably, concrete in the previous day’s pour was insufficiently hardened to bear the weight of the scaffolding. Despite Willow Island’s contractors being cited for 20 violations, no formal criminal charges were ever brought. Instead, the cases were settled for $85,500, around $1,700 for each worker killed. 

Narratives of architectural history tend to overlook the human cost of construction. Perhaps because the construction phase of a building can be conveniently regarded as a negligible blip in its overall lifespan. Perhaps because building sites are places of physical extremes and existential perils beyond most ‘normal’ experience. Yet through a confluence of messy, risky processes, largely hidden from view, raw matter is viscerally transformed by machines and labouring bodies into the pristine body of architecture, a coarse alchemy that can have dire consequences when it goes wrong.

With ironic timing, the Willow Island disaster occurred in the era of peak High-Tech, when the proto-industrial allure of scaffolding, oil rigs, yachts and factories was being energetically fetishised as a template for all sorts of formal and material preposterousness. This climaxed with the opening of the Pompidou Centre in 1977, a building whose wilful complexity has never been imitated. Pompidou’s engorged lattice of colour-coded members took flight in the licentiously experimental climate of the time, but its draconian maintenance regime proved stratospherically costly. Yet for many years, the panoramic promenade of escalators activating its meta-scaffolded facade was the best ride in Paris, initially free and publicly accessible until officialdom’s sphincter eventually clenched and a paid museum visit became a condition of use.

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Tumblr oevsihahhc1r84j0io1 500

High-Tech’s fetishisation of industrial kits-of-parts reached its climax with the late ’70s Pompidou Centre

Though High-Tech proved a false dawn, the idea of appropriating scaffolding’s kit-of-parts to create flexible, modular architecture still has traction. Current approaches go beyond facadism to explore and interrogate the nature of temporary structures. Scavenging materials from the then in-progress Olympic Park site, Carmody Groarke employed scaffolding tubes, planks and sheeting to construct Studio East, a restaurant on the rooftop of Stratford’s Westfield shopping centre. Conceived as a frothy fête d’été, it spanned the summer of 2011, a brief, quixotic architectural mayfly. Last year, MVRDV attached a 29m-high scaffolding staircase to the frontage of the Groot Handelsgebouw, one of Rotterdam’s most significant postwar buildings. Connected to an observation deck, the superscale bleacher activated rooftops and framed new views of the city. During the 18-month refurbishment of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich’s museum of modern art, Jürgen Mayer H devised the Schaustelle as a repository for key works and exhibitions. Wrapped in a grid of scaffolding that could be traversed by visitors, it resembled a life raft shadowing its temporarily disabled host ship. The agile, accessible nature of its architecture aimed to reconceptualise public discourse and engagement, giving the museum a new critical impetus. 

Removed from the faddishness of pop-ups, such stripped down, epigrammatic architecture deftly distils wider truths about the city and urban life. Unlike High-Tech’s high-maintenance monuments, its priorities are improvisation and, crucially, impermanence. This resonates with the true nature of falsework and its historic relationship with architecture. Which is to momentarily consort with it and then vanish without a trace.  

Schaustelle 3

Schaustelle 3

The architecture of the Schaustelle, a temporary home for the Pinakothek der Moderne by Jürgen Mayer H, explores scaffolding’s proto-industrial language. Source: Rainer Viertlböck / Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich