An Ode to Scaffolding

It's occasionally gorgeous, often ubiquitous, and thousands of years old.
The scaffolded Washington Monument on November 11, 2013 (Flickr/Paulo Ordoveza)

The skyline of the nation's capital is in the process, I am sorry to tell you, of becoming considerably less epic. Starting today, the blue-and-black scaffolding that has bolstered the Washington Monument since an earthquake struck it two years ago is being removed, tube by metal tube. The most phallic monument in all the land will once again stand tall and proud and free.

This is sad news. Because the scaffolding that cover(ed) the monument was, actually, kind of awesome. At night, the building's vestigial layer was gorgeous, lighting up the 129-year-old symbol of the American experiment like some kind of be-obelisked disco ball. During the day, its painters'-tape blue added interest and intrigue to a structure that is otherwise smooth and white. It reminded viewers that everything, even that which is smooth and white, is a work in progress. The scaffolded Monument, all in all, was ugly and beautiful, perfect and flawed, product and process. And, really, what could make a better symbol of the country it celebrates?

The Washington Monument's scaffold at night, November 2013 (Flickr/Ron Cogswell)

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.

Scaffolding at the Hagia Sofia, 2006 (Flickr/saragoldsmith)


Bamboo scaffolding, stronger than it looks (Flickr/rainy city)


A builder on scaffolding near the National Gallery in London (Flickr/Garry Knight)


Scaffold in Liverpool, Englad,  2008 (Flickr/Karen_O'D)


Bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong, 2011 (Flickr/David Boté Estrada)


Scaffolding from below, as seen from an apartment building in Trondheim, Norway, in 2007 (Flickr/Eirik Refsdal)


Scaffolding tower erectors in Glasgow (Flickr/Anthony Shemmans)


Scaffolding covering an under-construction Buckingham Palace, 1913 (Wikimedia Commons)


Scaffolding at night, London, 2006 (Flickr/Fabio Venni)


Scaffolding on Worthing Pier in Worthing, England (Flickr/Jonathan Peters)


The facade of Grand Central Station, seen through scaffolding in 2010 (Flickr/Joe Campbell)


Drilling rig scaffolding in Linlithgow, Scotland, 2011 (Flickr/Anthony Shemmans)


The scaffolded Washington Monument on November 11, 2013. Farewell. (Flickr/Paulo Ordoveza)
Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.


Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise


A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.


Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Technology

Just In