As buildings rise, so does a temporary form of architecture – scaffolding. As old as the Egyptian pyramids, scaffolding is a parasitic form of architecture, enveloping a building as it rises or is repaired, only to be summarily despatched when no longer required. Scaffolders themselves are often regarded as the least skilled contractors, working with the most basic Meccano-like building materials often at breakneck speed and with no regard for the finer points of aesthetics. The steel and aluminium scaffolding of today is conventionally seen as a necessary evil – an unlovely excrescence that often gets in the way of pedestrians on their daily rounds. Yet scaffolding can be beautiful – witness the extraordinary delicate bamboo structures that cover high-rises as they go up in Hong Kong and other Asian cities, or the extraordinary wooden scaffolding used to construct the dome of the reading room of British Museum Library back in the 1850s.
In recent years, some architects have reconsidered how scaffolding might be used as a building material in its own right. The exhibition Scaffolding held at New York’s Center for Architecture in late 2017 provided an overview of temporary structures built for new forms of inhabitation and access. Including projects by London architectural collective Assemble and French counterpart EXYST, the exhibition showcased how the flexibility, cheapness and speed of construction of scaffolding might be exploited to build emergency shelters for refugees, temporary houses for squatters and the homeless, art spaces in city squares, and others kinds of ‘open-source’ designs that promote bottom-up participation in building.
Larger-scale uses of scaffolding as a building material can be seen in projects such as MVRDV’s 2016 installation ‘The Stairs’ – a huge scaffolding staircase leading up to the rooftop of an 1950s office block in central Rotterdam; and J Mayer H Architekten’s temporary art gallery in Munich in 2013, a three-storey scaffolding structure covered in plastic sheeting and timber-planked walkways. Attempting to open up the upper layers of the city more fully to inhabitation, both of these projects use the spectacular views gained from open elevated platforms as a way of imbuing scaffolding with more than a strictly utilitarian meaning. Yet, despite their suggestion of radical openness, and their undoubted spectacular constructional aesthetics, these large-scale scaffolding structures don’t provide much in the way of a progressive social agenda; rather they simply add to the general trend of urban architecture where sociability and connectedness are merely just another pretext for consumption – in this case the view of the city from above.
More radical in its intent is the use of scaffolding as a tool of protest. Because of its cheapness, ubiquity and ease of construction, scaffolding has become a commonly-used building material in the variety of protest camps that have proliferated in recent years – from the ‘tripods’ used to mark the Camps for Climate Action at various locations from 2006-2010 and an observation tower built at Grow Heathrow, whether protestors held out from eviction in March 2019. An early example – and still one of the most powerful – was the scaffolding erected by anti-roads protestors who occupied a terrace of 35 houses in Claremont Road in Leytonstone, east London, for eight months in 1994. Campaigning against the extension of the M11 motorway into the city, Claremont Road stood in the path of the new road and was to be demolished. Knowing full well that the houses were doomed, the squatters turned the street into a site of extraordinary creativity – both street and houses were painted with murals, junk sculptures were made in one of the houses, while a gallery, two cafes, information centre, and bicycle workshop provided a social hub for the wider community.
Most spectacular of all was the 100ft-high ‘Dolly’ tower that the protestors constructed from hundreds of pieces of salvaged scaffolding, joined in chaotic ways, and connected to the rooftops of the houses below with tensile netting. The tower became a prominent local landmark and was also the site of the final holdout by one of the protestors, Phil McLeish, who resisted eviction by scaling its heights. A site of carnivalesque festivity, the Dolly tower offered a powerful spectacle of its own, but one imbued with radical political intent – a counter-spectacle to the ones offered to us by neoliberal capitalism. And, according to one activist, the very temporary nature of the structure imbued it with additional power. Borrowing terminology from anarchist Hakim Bey, Claremont Road was termed a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ – a site of anarchist freedom that actively sought to remake the world anew in both its radical embracing of communal life and its decision to joyfully inhabit what is temporary, what is doomed to destruction.
In this reading, the temporary isn’t a weakness; rather, the opposite – it precludes the possibility of failure because the ideas that develop on the temporary site can simply be moved elsewhere – resurrection in perpetuity. In an urban world that is increasingly threatened by multiple forces of destruction, the embracing of the temporary as a strength rather than a weakness may still be an important way in which radical change can be both embraced and enacted. As the Claremont Road protest demonstrates, scaffolding offers opportunities for all of us to create new kinds of architectures that grow out of the old – parasitic architectures of temporary defiance in the face of inevitable destruction.