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?
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.