Zen and the Art of Scaffolding

I’ll hold up my hands and admit it: I am not a practical person when it comes to doing jobs around the house.  Any kind of material repair––be it electrical, plumbing, or construction––fills me with an irrational fear.  If I should want to attempt to attribute some kind of psychological cause for this deficiency and, by so doing, subtly shift the blame for it from myself onto someone else, I might point to the fact that I was never introduced to Meccano at a young age.  But I know that this is not the real reason.  I had plenty of opportunities to learn a practical hands-on craft as a child but, the fact is, my nose was always stuck in a book; my mind engaged in a fantasy in preference to a reality.

Nowadays, when something goes wrong with my house––electrical, plumbing, construction––I console myself with the fact that it takes all sorts to make a world; pick up a fat volume of Dickens as I consult the latest reviews on Checkatrade.

However, one profession has made me rethink my previously held view that my cerebral life and the building trade exist in entirely separate, parallel orbits: scaffolding.

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Several years ago, I witnessed towering bamboo scaffolds in Hong Kong, and marvelled at their terrifying beauty and ingenuity, and the bravery of the workmen who scaled their perilous heights but, at the time, I never linked those quasi-organic constructions with the often rusty and unromantic steel tubing, which would periodically attach themselves to old buildings and broken roofs in my neighbourhood like some kind of space-age parasite.  Now I can see that I may have been wrong.

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Scaffolding worldwide is as much an art as it is science.  Whilst most Western scaffolding is modular in design, composed of standard, ledger and transom, the arrangement of these universal pieces is entirely a product of the scaffolder’s mind; no less a piece of artistic imagination than that of a painter deciding how best to employ his palette of burnt ochre, cadmium and white.  More enterprising, scaffolders have to complete their artworks, bearing in mind the restrictions of health and safety, whilst taking into account the surrounding built environment, the requirements of future workmen, and the practical considerations of the job.  Plus, the scaffolder must make all these complicated aesthetic decisions within a very limited time-frame.

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Time is money to the scaffolder.  As is:

“The bloody congestion charge and converting our lorries from diesel engines.”

For all their superficially similar elements, every scaffolding is different; every construction a unique statement by the artist who has made it; made it, too, knowing that it will be dismantled again, and reduced back to its component pieces, only a short time later.

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Scaffolding is one of the most ephemeral of works of art; its artists some of the least recognised.  Appreciate it where you see it and while you can.

© Fergus Longfellow


Fergus Longfellow doesn’t know his spigot from his putlog coupler.

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