Why Skateboarding Matters to Architecture

  • 21 Jun 2012
  • by
  • Architecture News Editorial
Studiometro's Bastard Store, a cinema converted into office space, showroom, and bowl.

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.

The Oslo Opera House by Snohetta. According to Wired, inspired by skateboarders.

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. 

The Ramp House by Archivirus.

Take, for example, The Ramp House, designed for a skateboarder client by Athanasia Psaraki of Archivirus:

“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.”

Casa Pas by Francois Perrin and Gil Lebon Delapointe

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.


Further Reading

Borden, Iain. “Urban Space and Representation.” The 3Cities Project. <http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/3cities/borden.htm>

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Why Skateboarding Matters to Architecture" 21 Jun 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=246526>
  • Alvin Lucier

    Next week we will be having an article on how Architecture needs to engage with people who want to chip the edges off street furniture with a hammer.

    • http://diglittle.tumblr.com JB

      In response to a now hidden comment, skateboarders don’t like chipped edges. Smooth surfaces grind rough ones don’t. That’s why marble attracts skaters in the first place.

      Come on architects. Skateboarding is not going away. Start to accommodate it as an activity that enlivens public space instead of criminalizing it as vandalism.

      Make ledges with cheap renewable edges. In the long run it will be less expensive than replacing skate-stoppers.

  • brb001

    Skaters are nothing but destructive punks and their boards are little more than assault weapons on the environment.

    The point of this article could have been made more elegantly by featuring the less destructive sport of parkour.

  • Joosh

    There’s nothing more satisfying for a designer than to find new ways to interact with spaces and forms. Why limit that satisfaction just to designers? I encourage all you skate-haters to go out and find new ways to use the buildings and street furniture you’re so eager to protect from the “destructive punks”; and if you can manage to be nearly half as creative, I’ll be impressed.

    Who knows, if you open you’re mind enough, you might actually learn something.

  • Stefan Rademan

    Why not just build a catwalk? Most skaters I know are more interested in looking cool than skating…

    • Sami

      Those aren’t skateboarders…

    • DavidG

      Those are (appropriately) called posers.

  • Dylan

    It’s funny how skaters usually prefer to use the streets rather than the city council-designed skatepark, which is not so much a function of rebelliousness as it is of their developed sense of interpreting these spaces based on how they will be used. The connection between human and the environment, in terms of movement in space, is characteristic to sports but becomes extremely manifest through skateboarding I think. Architects/Designers need to take into account these aspects in order to be able to provide more efficient skateparks to avoid or (more realistically) reduce the amount of skaters taking to the streets.

    • http://www.archdaily.com Vanessa Quirk

      Interesting point, Dylan – but to put it in a slightly different way, perhaps “skateparks” should really just be public plazas where skateboarding is encouraged rather than prohibited. That way everyone could enjoy the space, and designers could pro-actively account for the wear & tear (through use of material, design, etc.). What do you think?

      • Dylan

        I think that would be the ideal condition, but we can see, looking back through history, that skateboarding and society don’t mix together well unfortunately. The LOVE park in Philadelphia by architect Edmund Bacon
        was conceived as a public plaza but was perfect for skateboarding. It became a famous skate spot in the 1990′s and where now famous pro-skaters (Rob Dyrdek) became who they are. It was so good that the X-Games were held a few years ago. It is illegal to skate there now, probably because of the very unfortunate anti-social repercussions of the sport, which scared citizens away from the park. It is very unfortunate that skateboarding has this bad name in society and I still think that they are like oil and water to each other. However I would insist that architects try to find ways of combining them; it is truly a beautiful sport.

      • http://blog.bastard.it jep

        I would just point you to the Milano Centrale train station. The architect who designed the square in front of the station made a gem for skaters and actually saved the project itself, unconsciously.

        He didn’t design a ‘skate plaza’ or such on purpose, but somehow, for the materials and forms used, he created one of the best spots around. The ‘plaza’ is now live and full of skaters and curious that gather there from almost everywhere and all the junkies and scumbags that populated the place before had to move away.

        As a skater myself and active in design of skateparks I encourage all you architects out there in getting to know more about skateboarding and all the creativity that stands behind. Don’t just look at that as a sport and go beyond the skateparks or skate-plaza concept… of course we, as skaters, don’t like too much to stay in golden cages full of artificial structures specifically made for us, as we need to live the whole city space (or the most at least).

        It’s called EVOLUTION and Rodney Mullen well explained this in his last TEDx speech titled “How Context Shapes Content”, here on YT:

    • Matheo Javier

      What do you know about skateboarding ? People use cars everyday even tough it pollutes the air and damage the roads. What is good or bad use of an environement needs new boundaries. Stop abusive use of water ”save the whales”. Skateboarding pools & street is part of the sports like consuming numerous tons of chemical to refrigerate hockey arena.

    • Sam

      Regardless of what skatepark there is available in a given city, skateboarders and bmxers will always take to the streets to find new places to skate/ride. There is no better feeling that skating around a city in search of new spots, it’s been part of the sport for years, and will never go away.
      Good designers will accommodate all walks of life, bad designers will simply moan about them.

    • JK

      It almost seems as though a socially conscious architect designing for skateboarders should create a space without considering how a skateboarder should use it… Many great urban spaces are used outside of their intended purposes and without the architect declaring every possible use. For a skateboarder, maybe part of the activity is the act of creating one’s own space by redefining a differently programmed place. The ramp house (and all these pro-skateboarder houses) are such one liners because they spell every surface and ramp out for the skateboarders. If they had just designed an inground pool, maybe the boarders would have repurposed it as ramps and been more active in creating a dynamic design.

      • Nick Francoeur

        As an architecture student and a skateboarder. AGREED. The lesson from all this is that skateboarders are an example of how spaces are often used in ways that are not intended. Designing something specifically for skateboarding is contrary to the very essence of skating. Nice to see someone who understands this.

  • Al

    Interesting article…
    But, shouldn’t an ArchDaily “journalist” *cough* be aware that Foreign Office Architects went out of existence over a year ago?

  • Nick Francoeur

    Its wonderful to see a building or a public space being used in a way which was never intended buy the designer. A successful project does not belong to the architect who designed it. I hear fellow students referring to “my curtain wall”, my columns etc…Public space and the built environment, belongs to the peole who inhabit them,