In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of the most interesting places described is Thekla, a city consisting entirely of endless construction—nothing but cranes, pulleys, and scaffolding. If you ask Thekla’s residents why its construction is taking so long, they “continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer, ‘So that its destruction cannot begin.’ And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffolding is removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, ‘Not only the city.'”
In Calvino’s work, scaffolding is a metaphor for progress without substance—interminable development as a way to create meaning as a species. Without it, jobs disappear, the landscape disappears, even meaning itself disappears.
In New York City, scaffolding is as ubiquitous a part of the landscape as the buildings it sheathes, moving across neighborhoods like an urban kudzu. An estimated 280 miles of it stretch across the city at any given moment. In an upcoming exhibit at the Center for Architecture, scaffolding as a typology—with all its vernacular potential and industrial usage—is given a thorough examination.
SelgasCano and helloeverything, Kibera Hamlets School, 2015-2016. Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy helloeverything)
Is it a building? Not entirely, although it emulates buildings and can serve as a shelter. Is it an exoskeleton or an endoskeleton? It can be both, thrown up to restore interiors or panel up facades. As the exhibit explores, scaffolding is a flexible architecture, a nuisance to some , an aesthetic choice to others (for instance, Doug and Mike Starn), temporary or permanent, modular … the list goes on.
In this spirit, the Center for Architecture’s upcoming exhibit Scaffolding will include case studies of the support structure’s functions around the globe. The show’s curator, Greg Barton, created a visual history of its development as a technology, from the wooden beams and bamboo of an earlier era to the steel and aluminum of today. Actual scaffolding designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA will be installed throughout the gallery space and main atrium. OMA also created a system of periscopes and mirrors scattered throughout the installation, allowing viewers to peer into separate parts of the gallery.
Charles Lai and Takehiko Suzuki Architects, “Temporary Bamboo Shelter.” Duwakot, Nepal. (Courtesy Takehiko Suzuki Architects)
“‘Scaffolding’ functions as a noun and verb, object and process,” Barton said in a statement about the show. “It is commonly invoked as a powerful metaphor by many disciplines due to its supportive role and adaptive qualities.”
The show’s opening will kick off a series of public programs through December, examining scaffolding as a framework for social engagement as well as its use in theater and emergency relief.
Scaffolding is on view at the Center for Architecture from October 2, 2017–January 18, 2018. There will be an opening reception Monday, October 2, from 6:00–8:00 p.m. More information can be found here.