Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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August 07, 2007
in praise of scaffolding

Who does not hate construction scaffolding around buildings?

At least every city-dweller does, right? New Yorkers in particular seem to love to hate it.

["Except for the people who own the companies that rent the scaffolds, right? Ha! Zzzing-eroonie!! Ha!"
Uh, yeah.]

Examples of scaffolding haters in New York City:




Who could think possibly otherwise? About building scaffolding in any city, anywhere, any time?

I mean, duh.

So I was stunned to find the following words of Charles Baudelaire, in his praise for Charles Meryon's etchings of Paris:

We have rarely seen the natural solemnity of a great capital more poetically depicted. . . .

[including] those prodigies of scaffolding 'round buildings under repair, applying their openwork architecture, of such paradoxical and arachnean beauty, upon architecture's solid body.

The above is Baudelaire in the 8th chapter of his article, "Salon de 1859."

Walter Benjamin was fascinated by the Baudelaire/Meryon relationship. He quotes the above passage twice in the Arcades    Project.

Meryon was part of an apparent    etching     renaissance in mid-nineteenth century France.

Scaffolding, meanwhile, generally seems over the decades to have been something satisfying for lots of etchers to attempt to depict and, I suppose by extension, viewers of etchings to view. E.g.'s: Jessie Traill, John Shirlow (see .pdf here, at p. 16), Fred Coventry (.pdf p. 64), Jules De Bruyker, Kerr Eby.

In contrast, my 21st century eyes have been trained in an age of photography to know that a scaffoldless building facade is more pleasing to behold. An uncluttered building looks "better" in the photos of buildings that I see in magazines, movies, on TV, websites and in PowerPoint presentations. So, I see "real" life, streets and buildings this way now too.

Contemporary achitectural photography has taught me also that the "best" buildings are new ones that are tall, unobstructed, reflective glass or mirrored towers, and set back amidst much open space and sky, to glint in the sun. Color photographs and reproductions of same capture the features of such buildings well. You can be a crappy or at least unskilled photographer and take a photo of such a building that others will consider OK. In the setting of a clean, streamlined building like that, scaffolding looks to me to be very out of place. So does any human activity or presence whatsoever.

But maybe Baudelaire can help me rethink. That way, I at least will have thought out my opinion afresh, even if I decide to continue to believe that construction scaffolding ultimately is heinous.

I mean strictly in aesthetic terms, don't I?

I speak as a jaded wannabe flâneur, don't I?

Do I stop to spare a thought perhaps for those who work on the scaffolding?

Of the approximately 88 workers a year who, according to OSHA, die in the USA each year due to scaffolding accidents, which are on the increase, as safety standards go out the window in keeping with the hellbent pace of construction?

Is that not even more "heinous"?

Perhaps I should put down my snuff box, walking stick, monocle and pale rose gloves, sit in a cafe and wonder about that.]

So I wonder why CB might have considered it so cool for an artist to depict building scaffolding.

One possible clue: Benjamin quotes Gustave Geffroy's book about Meryon, to suggest that his etchings depicted not merely scaffolding but a city in transition:
[Meryon] listened to the language spoken by streets and alleys that, since the earliest days of the city, were being continually torn up and redone; and that is why his evocative poetry . . . radiates eternal melancholy through the vision of immediate appearances.

Enid Starkie, in her great biography of Baudelaire, also wrote about his interest in Meryon. She linked it to the kinds of transitions that Paris was going through:
At the height of his own financial distress, Baudelaire spent much valuable time in trying to find subscribers for a set of etchings by Meryon, against the opinion of his contemporaries, because he believed in his future as an artist. . . .

Baudelaire's first idea had been that [the set] should consist of a dozen etchings depicting the old Paris which was fast disappearing before the new one of Baron Haussmann. . . .

However, Baudelaire found Meryon too difficult to work with. Starkie recounts how Meryon rejected Baudelaire's ideas for a joint work:
Meryon, unable to take in this plan, was possessed by the madman's obsession that, somehow, he was being cheated, and he refused to have anything to do with it. . . .

All this [work, Baudelaire] did for nothing, wasting months of his time in an effort to meet the wishes of a madman, because he had compassion on his condition, and thought highly of him as an artist.

In fact, Meryon was believed by his contemporaries to be one of his age's greatest crazy people (or "grands desesquilibres") , according to James L. Yarnall ("Meryon's Mystical Transformations," Art Bulletin, June 1979).

Meryon believed, according to Yarnall, that people should sleep standing up, only between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., facing east to the rising sun. They should sleep in a coffin-like bed that featured side wings, so that the position of the sleeper's arms would match those of the crucified Jesus. Meryon created an elaborate etching to show what this bed would look like.

He was firmly against "any artificial manner of prolonging the day."

He believed that water in any form was "sinister."

He confided to Baudelaire his discovery that the government of Emperor Napolean III secretly released eagles into the skies over Paris to divine auguries from their movements.

However, Yarnall proposes that Meryon's basic beliefs, as suggested by clues in his artworks, were not necessarily all that nutty for their day. They apparently were woven together from a variety of cabalistic, alchemistic, Rosicrucian, Gnostic, Saint-Simonian, and politically revolutionary ideas that were in the air in Paris at the time.

Nevertheless, per Yarnell, Baudelaire wrote in early 1860 that he believed Meryon to have interpreted cabalism "in an odd fashion that would make a cabalist laugh" -- though this was not necessarily a criticism,coming from Baudelaire.

Here's something else curious that Baudelaire wrote, about his reaction to first meeting Meryon:
After [Meryon] left, I wondered how it was that I whose mind and nervous system have always had what it takes to go mad, never did so.

Seriously, I give thanks to heaven like the pharisee.

The above is noted by Benjamin, and Baudelaire's recent biographer, Claude Pichois.

Baudelaire put it like this in a letter to his mom, dated March 4, 1860, as quoted by Benjamin:
How the devil this man [Meryon] manages to work so calmly over an abyss, I do not know.

Though perhaps Baudelaire had his own abyss to worry about. And when he peered over the edge of it, he seems to have seen, among other things -- scaffolding.

Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding [échafaudages], blocks of stone,
Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.

Huh? How can CB call scaffolding beautiful, then turn around and say it makes him melancholy? How dare he not be more simplistic?

Bear in mind that this is the same writer who, elsewhere in the "Salon de 1859" article, characteristically explained why he hated any artistic depiction of a cherub, "that big, fat, dimple-punctured baby [gros poupard troué de fossettes], who stands for love in the popular imagination," as follows:

For my part, if I were asked to represent love, I think I should paint him in the form of a mad horse, devouring its master, or a devil with dark rings round his eyes from debauchery and sleepless nights, dragging, like a spectre or a galley-slave, clanking chains at his ankles, shaking with one hand a poison phial, with the other brandishing a dagger dripping with the blood of his crime.

One possibly warped interpretation of Baudelaire's love for urban scaffolding is that it has comparative beauty, because even if the enscaffolded edifice that is pulled down was in some way ugly, whatever goes up next assuredly will be uglier. The scaffolding at least shrouds the ugliness for as long as possible. So the laments should truly begin when the scaffolding comes down. Down with it will come a crutch we leaned on to kid ourselves that the devil we know, the loveable ugliness of the past or present, will live on, as tomorrow's worse atrocities rise into full, unobstructed view.

By this rationale, the new buildings should be left unbuilt, but the scaffolding should be left standing.

Something very like this opinion perhaps can be wrested from the words of another fan of scaffolding, G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton visited New York City in 1921. He wrote about his visit in What I Saw in America:

But there is a sense in which New York is always new; in the sense that it is always being renewed. A stranger might well say that the chief industry of the citizens consists in destroying their city. . . .

There is no sight in any country that raises my own spirits so much as a scaffolding, It is a tragedy that they always take the scaffolding away, and leave us nothing but a mere building. If they would only take the building away and leave us a beautiful scaffolding, it would in most cases be a gain to the loveliness of earth.

If I could analyze what it is that lifts the heart about the lightness and clarify of such a white and wooden skeleton, I could explain what it is that is really charming about New York.

Some of the NYC buildings that would have been under construction around the time of Chesterton's visit would have been the Crown, the Cunard and the AMEX.

I ultimately have no idea what exactly Chesterton was talking about.

However, I realize that in an urban panorama of almost constant flux, scaffolding is the one thing that never changes. Moreover, it's merely the visible screen that stands in front of forces that are bigger, deeper, nastier, slipperier, more confusing, in constant motion, and much harder to describe and fight.
(A sense of what some of these forces are today, at least in the city that Chesterton visited in 1921, might be obtained here and here.)
Scaffolding, by contrast, is familiar, close at hand, and always there. It is always loyal. No wonder it's easier to hate and smack around.


A couple years ago, Wyatt Mason    reviewed (.pdf) (in Harper's, May 2005) a then-new biography of e.e. cummings. In the review, Mason went off into a great digression about Ezra Pound's motto, "make it new."

If I understood Mason correctly (which I'd not be surprised not to, as per TiR's universal epistemological policy), he suggested that Pound believed past tradition to be useful mainly because we could draw on it to build scaffolding -- or, that is, conceptual exoskeletons to stabilize ourselves in a modern reality of constant Heraclitean flow:

[T]he "it" of [Pound's] "MAKE IT NEW" was the art of the deep past -- a scholarly knowledge. . . .

Armed with such comprehension in a world rendered increasinbly incomprehensible, the artist was to impose order, in the form of form, on his works. . . .

The "new" part was that, in a growingly formless world, the artist had to trumpet form. What had previously been the hidden skeleton of a work of art was now to be worn on the outside -- a trellis on which a reader, unmoored by new waves of noise, could gain a hold and, with the effort required to save oneself from drowning in ignorance, climb to higher ground.

I don't know why I include this, other than that the review recently reemerged into daylight after an incident that involved a towering stack of backlogged reading material and a minor disaster. Or toppling. Or "scaffolding collapse."