02 June 2010

Best Pedestrian Route

Scaffolding is often seen as utilitarian, functional structures in the United States. These sidewalk sheds serve to protect pedestrians from construction on a building or site, while workers are hoisting materials up and down. Formally, they consist of sheet steel propped on steel tube frames, with plywood and mesh walls lining their structure [fig. 4]. Lighting is often provided overhead with single lamp fixtures that dot the underside of these sheds.  As a whole, their role does little to compliment or enhance the construction site. On the other hand, these barriers visually signal the arrival of planned change.


fig. 4    Scaffolding structure canopy detail (Photo by author)

   William Mitchell, former dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, observes that scaffolding in Europe and Japan are sensitive to the visual disturbance they impose on the built environment3. Moreover, European and Japanese architects and engineers understand the visual disturbance that these structures create on the urban streetscape. Recent commissions and competitions in the United States have followed their lead and brought to light how scaffolding can be reimagined. In 1998 Michael Graves designed the scaffolding for the Washington Monument renovation on D.C.’s National Mall [fig.5]. Thirty-seven miles of scaffolding surrounded the monument, while fabric draped over it mimicked the masonry of the obelisk. Its presence transformed the monument and mall when it was lit at night. Some admirers of the monument scaffolding even petitioned for it to remain after work was complete. The question remains: how does scaffolding integrate within a construction site in a manner that balances aesthetics with function?

fig. 5    Washington Memorial renovation 1998, Washington, D.C. (Photos by Alex Wong. Courtesy of Getty Images.)

    The Alliance of Downtown New York has been working to enhance the quality of life in Lower Manhattan since 1995. Initiated in 2007, Re:Construction is a public art program that allows artists and designers to use construction sites as blank slates for public art installations. The project reimagines construction barriers with thoughtful, unusual designs. Together with the artist and developers, the Downtown Alliance works to enhance lower Manhattan with creative alternatives to the standard barricades4.


fig. 6 Best Pedestrian Route, New York, NY (Photos courtesy of Shift Boston)

    Among the works installed, GRO Architects addressed sidewalk scaffolding with Best Pedestrian Route (2007)5. By taking visual cues from Jersey barriers and construction signs, angled plywood struts artfully compose a scaffolding structure. The arrayed angles hint at the volatility occurring behind the structure. In addition, arrow-shaped apertures provide views for pedestrians to see the construction progress occurring [fig. 6]. The project succeeds by working with various scales and meanings. Graphic cues borrow elements from standard signage.  The orange color warns of construction, while the arrows allow site illumination to provide sidewalk lighting. The arrow composition claims the pedestrian’s attention, not providing instructive use, but signalling the construction activity behind. The use of bright colors and unique access of light to the walkway provides a stimulating contrast to the standard scaffolding along normal city sidewalks.  Best Pedestrian Route is meant to be modular, allowing for multiple structures to line any given site.

fig. 7 and 8   
Urban Umbrella, New York, NY (Photos courtesy of UrbanSHED International Design Competition)

    Another example of the reimagined scaffold, which has been promised funding and construction by the Alliance, is the UrbanShed design competition. In 2009, the New York Buildings Department and the AIA New York Chapter launched a competition for the design of city scaffold sheds. The winning design Urban Umbrella by University of Pennsylvania architecture student Young-Hwan Choi took structural cues from an umbrella. The metal structure uses curved tubing to hold and support translucent fiberglass panels. The intent is to draw natural light into the shed during the day [fig. 7], while LED strip lighting provides evening illumination [fig. 8]. The proposal succeeds by providing additional natural light to flow underneath the shed structures. The placement of the LED strips playfully corresponds to the vaulted supports beneath the panels. Moreover, the removal of cross bracing allows pedestrians to freely walk between the metal braces and provides for better visibility of the building and store facade.
    Both of these examples offer structural and aesthetic alternatives to the common shed. A building may undergo construction indefinitely, yet these sheds provide an attractive option to the pedestrian and street environment.
    In reality, the options outlined above may be costly to implement. Best Pedestrian Route’s usage of custom-shaped apertures lacks the advantage of easy production. Sourcing custom CNC-milled sheets from a manufacturing vendor adds another layer to the production time. Time could be used more effectively with simple modifications that allow for 4’ x 8’ plywood sheets to be modified onsite.
    The Urban Umbrella maintains it is equivalent in cost to the current scaffolding shed. Its response attempts to beautify the surrounding building. While the scaffolding treatment allows for views of building storefronts, Urban Umbrella does not address scaffolding that walls off construction sites from the activity in progress. Further explorations with that application would strengthen its design intent. Together, Best Pedestrian Route and Urban Umbrella could be synthesized to create a viable option that is aesthetic and functional.

3 Escobar, Gabriel. “Obelisk’s Scaffold Is First of Its Kind.” Available from Washington Post, 30 December, 1998. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/library/monument/monument.htm>.

4 “Downtown Alliance: Re:Construction”. Available from: Downtown Alliance.

5 “Best Pedestrian Route by GRO Architects”. Available from ShiftBoston, 9 August 2009.

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