Every June 21st since 2003, Go Skateboarding Day has rallied skateboarders around the globe – in skateparks and public plazas, downtown nooks and parking lots – to grind, ollie, and kickflip it with the best of them.
If I didn’t lose you at “ollie,” you’re probably wondering: what the heck does this have to do with architecture?
Well, I could talk about the architectural challenge that a skate park, as an interactive public space with specific topological requisites and social implications, offers architects. I could show you some cool testaments to the fact, such as the Architecture for Humanity-sponsored projects in Afghanistan and Manhattan, opening today.
But, rather selfishly, I’m more interested in what skateboarding has to offer us beyond skateparks. A skater, unlike your typical pedestrian, experiences space just as intensely and consciously as an architect himself, albeit in a different way. He/she is alive to the possibility of space, not in its totality, as an architect would be, but as a collection of tactile surfaces to be jumped on, grinded, and conquered.
The skater offers a revolutionary perspective for the architect: one that allows you to see buildings beyond what they were intended to be, to see (and design) buildings as “building blocks for the open minded.”
Beyond the “hopes of the blueprint”
From the beginning, architecture and skateboarding have had a troubled relationship. Since the 1970s, when skaters began appropriating public spaces for their own skating purposes, architects have been complicit with city officials in discouraging skateboarding, from placing uprights on benches or sticking unsightly “skate-stoppers” on level surfaces, and demanding their work be experienced as it was intended.
Which is exactly the point (and joy) of skateboarding. As architect and skateboarder Bobby Young put it in “A Skateboarder’s Guide to Architecture or an Architect’s Guide to Skateboarding,”
“An ambler sees a bench and sits on it? Exactly what the architect and designer intended. A skateboarder sees a bench and contemplates. How many different ways can I engage the form of this bench with my wooden board, metal trucks and four rubber wheels?”
Which explains why, even as skateparks began to emerge across the country in the 1980s, skaters continued to seek out the unknown “nooks and crannies of a city.”
So why is this important to architects? As theorist Brandon Joyce has pointed out, the skateboarders’ perspective represents the polar opposite of how architects traditionally conceive of architecture, through a lens of design or history or intent (pre-completion). Skateboarders see a building through a lens of use and transformation (post-completion) that “undermine[s] or negate[s] the hopes of the blueprint.”
Space in Motion
How can this perspective influence one’s design approach? Well, first of all it requires that architecture engage with the human being beyond a conceptual level, to a physical level of tactility and motion.
Some architects, like Alejandro Zaera-Polo, a partner at London’s Foreign Office Architects, considers the skateboarder experience to help him create buildings that become inviting built “topographies.” Dillon Lin, an architect with Zaha Hadid Architects, and not inconsequentially a skater, similarly seeks to “design spaces that are flowing and continuous.” And the new Oslo Opera House, whether or not it was actually inspired by skateboarders, as Wired reports, certainly appears to have been – judging by its scaleable “waves” that slope up from the water’s edge.
But beyond an aesthetic approach, the theoretical approach skateboarding encourages is one of possibility. Think of a dynamic design by Rem Koolhaas, one which is open to a myriad of appropriations and improvisations by the user – a design approach which frankly rejects established uses and accepted intentions.
“I started imagining a space where the straight line would become curved and the flat surface would become a ramp or a bowl. Playing with these forms and with the variable transitions which [they] offer, my main goal was to create a functional open space where aspects of daily life would adopt ‘ the feeling of acceleration’ [...]
The living room becomes a mini ramp and turns into a bowl to create a partition with the bedroom and the bathroom. Basic house elements such as the fireplace and storage units are hidden inside the ramp forms. I also tried to combine the street aesthetics of the skate scene using concrete and the cozy atmosphere of a house using wood. So concrete walls mold into the floor and then concrete turns into wood to create a ramp partition with the kitchen. In that way, the whole space is in actual motion and somebody can flow from one space to the other, skating or walking.”
Psaraki takes the lessons of skateboarding to heart, not just by creating a space that facilitates motion through a continuous, curvaceous design, but by rejecting the traditional characteristics that define a house, and in fact overturning the function of the ramp itself by asking it to serve other functions of storage and partitioning. This is what it means to design with the skateboarder in mind: to take no intended use for granted, and at the same time realize that your design will be used and transformed in ways you never could have imagined.
But, as any skateboarder would tell you, therein lies the joy.
Borden, Iain. “Urban Space and Representation.” The 3Cities Project. <http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/3cities/borden.htm>