Among the extensive discussion of Feilden Clegg Bradley's scheme to redesign the Southbank Centre in London, one issue which has sometimes been ignored by the architectural media has been the proposal to relocate the skate park in the under-croft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a space beneath the nearby Hungerford bridge.
Unsurprisingly, this decision has sparked a petition which has collected nearly 40,000 signatures to save one of the UK's most famous skating hotspots. We’ve talked about how skaters can teach architects about understanding space before; however, in this instance I would like to examine how skaters as a (sub)cultural entity interact with the city, and how the city can cater to their needs. Though many architects are already in favor of accepting skaters, I hope to explore why the wider community tends to see skating as a problem to be solved, and what this can reveal about the proposal at the Southbank Centre.
Read on to find out more about the peculiar way skaters experience cities
99% Invisible, a design-based radio show hosted by Roman Mars tackled many of these issues in an episode earlier this year. The show uses Philadelphia's JFK Plaza (commonly known as Love Plaza) as a case-in-point to illustrate how skaters adopt a space, appropriate it for their use and then subsequently struggle against the authorities who aim to evict them from it.
Andrew Norton, the guide in this particular episode, describes how skaters creatively use design elements that were not necessarily intended for them: in Love Plaza, concrete benches were perfect for grinding and paving slabs became make-shift ramps.
Thanks to the attention-grabbing nature of skating, the adoption of a space by skaters is usually very obvious, but 99% Invisible makes clear how the authorities use underhanded means in their plans to evict skaters from their favorite spots. Skate stoppers are any addition to the built environment that is designed to stop skaters from using it—the most common form is the small metal attachments to concrete benches which break the continuous edge of the bench. Norton explains how “most people don't know what they're there for”, and in the case of Love Plaza, the skaters were finally evicted in 2002 when part of the paving was replaced with grass and the concrete benches were replaced with kitsch wooden park benches. To a casual observer, these changes might seem like an innocent (albeit ill-advised) aesthetic change, but the real motivation was explicitly to exclude the skating community.
Why do authorities so often go to these lengths to exclude skaters? A recent article by British architect Henry Goss discusses the possibility that the eviction of skaters is to encourage other (socially approved) types of use, and he laments “Why must we choose? Why may we not have both? Should the richness and variety of the human cultural jungle not be represented in the human urban jungle?”
However, I feel that this exclusion is driven by much greater misunderstandings of skating culture. Skaters are often portrayed as vandals, most likely due to the minor damage they can cause to the built environment and their natural affinity with graffiti artists. They seek promising skate spots everywhere, and often find them under bridges and in derelict buildings, meaning they are sometimes unfortunately linked with drug culture and other similarly unsavory activities. In short, they are generally labeled as 'anti-social', when in reality they simply want to be able to practice their sport and are usually willing to compromise to be accepted by the general public; they are no more anti-social than any other group made up largely of teenagers.
Far from being based around anti-social behavior, skating has a rich cultural history which holds deep importance to many who adopt its lifestyle; the primary components of this history are not only the pioneering individuals but also the legendary locations which play host to the culture. Like in basketball, where the glitzy Madison Square Garden and the rugged Rucker Park are revered in equal but opposite ways, these cultural landmarks can be the locations of ground-breaking events or they can simply be a location that has fostered the development of countless individuals. The best locations eventually reach such critical mass that they do both.
The fact that these locations are frequently described in religious terms is no coincidence: the Southbank skate-park may not hold quite the same cultural importance as the real Mecca, but this comparison gives some indication as to how skaters feel about it. The comments added by those signing the petition are littered with references to the Southbank as a “temple” or a “shrine to UK skateboarding”, as well as stories of what are effectively pilgrimages from all over the world to experience the aura of the under-croft.
The most unusual facet of the 'temples' of skateboarding though, is that they frequently begin life as leftover urban spaces; skating is one of only a handful of cultures that forms such strong, quasi-religious attachments to discovered rather than purpose-built spaces. A large part of skating culture is the ethos of creative adaptation: skaters have to adapt their tricks and 'lines' to the space. If the opposite is true, and the space is designed to suit certain tricks and lines, it can sometimes feel like the challenge is missing. This is supported by Andrew Norton's statement on the 99% Invisible show that “part of me thinks these designated places to skateboard kind of miss the point. It's like running a marathon on a treadmill.”
Clearly this is not simply a case of finding an empty space for skaters to inhabit on the southern bank of the Thames. For skating culture, the Queen Elizabeth Hall under-croft would take many years to replace, and success in the new location is by no means guaranteed in the first place.
To their credit, the people behind the new Southbank Centre are not ogres who wish to be rid of the skateboarders entirely. They have offered a space as close as possible, and in a strange way seem to have some understanding of what makes the under-croft special: a statement lauds the fact that the new location is “a found, urban space, not purpose built” (whether an 'officially approved found space' would satisfy the needs of skaters is, as far as I am aware, an issue without precedent). But this does not mean that they are able to satisfy all the needs of the skating community.
To achieve the goal of both redeveloping the Southbank Centre and protecting skaters' rights, the solution cannot be to move the skaters. Rather, the design needs to be adjusted so that the under-croft is no longer “pivotal” to the success of the scheme. After all, is it easier to alter an as-yet-unrealized design, or to manipulate decades of social and cultural history?