Designers Rethink Cityscape — One Scaffold at a Time

In The News by • 08/07

Event: SKETCH120
Location: American Can Factory, Gowanus, Brooklyn, 07.28.07
Speakers/Jury Members: James Biber, FAIA — Partner, Pentagram; Andrew Blum — Contributing Editor, Metropolis, Wired; Lauren Crahan — Partner, Freecell; Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning
Hosts: XO Projects, Inc.
Organizer: Design in 5, Architectural League of New York


Emerging architects sketch at the inaugural Design in 5 event, SKETCH120.

Jonathan Lee

Most every New Yorker walks daily under scaffolds. The unsightly byproduct of a citywide building boom, they are also bottleneck-inducing, shirt-snagging nuisances for pedestrians on crowded streets. And in their current quasi-standardized form, at least in the U.S., they can be seen as irredeemably ugly. As required by law, they have one essential purpose: protecting pedestrians from falling debris during construction or repairs. But for all their squalor, scaffolds are also a liminal condition between private property and public space, and they could potentially serve many other purposes besides trapping projectiles. What if the codes changed and the humble scaffold assumed new forms?

Design in 5, a new group comprising architects, designers, and artists within five years of school graduation, took on the challenge of re-imagining scaffolding in its launch event, a juried charrette. Entrants spent two hours brainstorming the relation between permanent and transient structures, followed by critiques and discussion. Some of the sketches upgraded scaffold pipes with landscaping elements, stands for small businesses, or simple flyers giving historical information and construction timelines about the building within. Others provided access to second-story space for temporary homeless shelters (giving the occupant a retractable ladder for privacy and safety), recreational areas networked among multiple buildings, or out-of-the-way bike storage. One two-level system included fast and slow lanes, with ramps to the upper level for speedier walkers while vendors and other obstacles remain at ground level.

A dilemma raised by Andrew Blum, juror and contributing editor for Metropolis and Wired, involved the role of advertising. Should new designs incorporate ads to generate income or resist the growing encroachment of commerce into every imaginable space? Some felt scaffolds blur the boundary between the private and public realms: building owners are responsible for renting and maintaining them, but they extend private property building into the public right-of-way. More useful purposes for scaffolds — aesthetic upgrades, greening, marginal improvements in urban problems like homelessness, and transportation — thus depend on the financial incentives in the private sector.

The tension between ideal programs and feasible zoning and code changes prompted juror Alexandros Washburn, AIA, chief urban designer at the NYC Department of City Planning, to remind the crowd that regulatory and economic pressures lead owners and developers to maximize their returns on every square millimeter of space within the allowable FAR. Advertising creates incentives to leave temporary structures up indefinitely. That’s what happened in Washburn’s own building, which bore a scaffold for two years because “it was cheaper for the landlord to rent the scaffold than actually fix the façade problem.” Only deliberate policy changes, he believes, can reverse interests that now intrude into public space and give something back by shouldering the costs of more civic-minded scaffolding programs.

One group took an evolutionary angle, calling today’s standardized scaffold the result of centuries of Darwinian processes; in many respects it’s “not broken,” but it might eventually give way to an entirely different system. The model is a 900-year-old mosque in Mali made of mud, requiring recurrent repair in the rainy season and thus incorporating wooden structural elements that serve as scaffolding when needed. Permanent “self-integrated” scaffolds, these designers contended, represent a deeper level of sustainability. The idea of harmonizing permanent and recurrent structures led to James Biber, FAIA, juror and partner at Pentagram, to refer to Venetian practices — buildings under repair are reproduced in decorative prints outside their scaffolds, giving observers at least an image of the concealed structure. Thus viewing upkeep as an organic aspect of a building, not an awkward extraneous element, might improve the cityscape.

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