The Southbank Undercroft, which lies beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall along the River Thames in London, has been the subject of much debate in recent years following a proposed closure and redevelopment in 2013. Long Live Southbank, an organization born out of this threat of expulsion, gave the diverse community who call the space home a voice. After 17 months of campaigning, they were successful in ensuring the Undercroft was legally protected and fully recognized as an asset of community value. Since then, the group of activists has begun another groundbreaking journey.
In partnership with Southbank Centre, Long Live Southbank recently launched a new crowdfunding campaign to restore the legendary Undercroft. The restoration project will cost £790,000 and is set to open in 2018, improving Londoners’ access to free creative spaces in the heart of the City. These types of space are becoming increasingly rare and the restoration effort reflects a desire to celebrate the authentic cultural sites that make London the vibrant landscape it is.
The objective of the restoration works is to reinstate the Undercroft to be as close to the 1960s design as possible and for it to merge seamlessly into the current skate space. Adjacent to the skate space, a new center for schools and young people will be opened to provide creative activities for young people as part of Southbank Centre's year-round program across all art forms. The Undercroft is a primary feature of one of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in the UK and along with leading London practices Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Max Fordham and Arup, the project is at the forefront of the London Architecture circuit.
The skateboarders, BMX riders, and graffiti writers who call the Undercroft home exemplify the concept that Carsten Höller brought to the Hayward Gallery in 2015 with his “Decision” exhibition which, through the installation of two slides leading visitors out of the gallery and back to the ground outside, emphasized the richness of human experience framed by a choice of passage. Just as Höller encouraged participants to explore different journeys through the Hayward Gallery, the architecture of the Undercroft encourages those who go there to explore a range of different options to travel through the space.
The theoretical approach to skateboarding is one of possibility, with an extension of the skate space increasing the range of pathways and potential routes that can be taken through and around the Undercroft. The endless combination of journeys available to skateboarders fills them with a sense of effortless freedom. This experience is seen by the members of the public who walk past the Undercroft daily, and is part of the new crowdfunding strategy launched by Long Live Southbank; the fundraising table is housed directly at the Undercroft and we encourage those who are interested to talk to members of Long Live Southbank and experience the vibrant passion and sense of community first hand.
The theme of movement and transition has been ingrained in the Undercroft since the time of its design in the early 1960s. The project was led by London County Council architect Norman Engleback at the height of the authority’s progressive utopianism; also on his team was Dennis Crompton, who sat down and spoke with Long Live Southbank in 2016, as they were preparing for the restoration project. His insight into the team’s intention for the space casts a light on its legacy and explains why Crompton is pleased with the appropriation of the space by the skateboard community since the 1970s:
What we did was make a landscaped pedestrian place. As architects, we wanted to design public spaces and rather than designing a flat space we landscaped it. We allowed sufficient headroom and we designed paving below it to match the fluctuations of the space above. Where there was a change of level, we just added a ramp to match.
What we really wanted was for no institution to have control over it. It was intended as a pedestrian space. To really understand it you need to look back to the Festival of Britain in 1951—it was a party and provided a place for Londoners to relax and we extended that into the ethos of our project. That continued through to the design of the development. Once you start erecting permanent structures in spaces you diminish public activity, which we didn’t want to do. Part of the nomadic idea was that you should be able to change. Nomads should always move.
This landscape was purely pedestrian. The plants go on the roof. The theory was that you could walk all over the building.
Crompton went on to form the avant-garde architectural group Archigram who, among other projects, produced The Plug-In City, The Walking City, and The Instant City, continuing to focus on a nomadic way of life. Considered radical by many, reinvention was the intention of the Hayward Gallery and Undercroft, with the spaces and terraces able to flex and adapt to displays and shows.
2017 marks a new juncture for reinvention as planning permission has been granted by Lambeth Council to restore sections of the Undercroft that have been sectioned off since 2004. Long Live Southbank has been working relentlessly since the Undercroft was secured to make this reinvention a reality, intending for the space to allow young individuals to engage in free creative expression while building confidence.
The project is an important one that deserves the support of the architectural community. Drawing from Peter Rowe’s Civic Realism, which helps establish a theoretical framework for the restructuring of public space in large cities, skateboarding exemplifies a playfulness in our environment. When discussing the act of play, Rowe explains that it allows participants to “define and formalize relations among elements of public authority and civil society.” The creative expression of skateboarding allows the public to define their own space and engage in civil society in their own way, while experiencing joy and a sense of freedom. Due to consistent use the Undercroft, as a publicly accessible space that is open to all at all times, offers users a sense of collective ownership. In this collective space, the activities of the Undercroft allow for an experience framed by collective reverence of the Undercroft and its history and heritage.
The build, which will not be possible without donations from supporters, has been recognized as a ground-breaking and pioneering heritage project that will serve as an example and inspiration for others. The campaign is a case study in how grassroots organizations can work in collaboration with large institutions to inspire and captivate those interested in the arts. The underlying ethos of Long Live Southbank is that we must remember that cities do not exist to act as engines of wealth. Instead, they should be viewed as systems to improve the well-being of their citizens through coexistence.
Long Live Southbank have coined the term “reclaration”—a synthesis of reclamation and restoration—to describe this landmark project. This addition to the lexicon of the built environment prompted Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, to say that “the Undercroft at the Southbank Centre has become a very significant place for the local and global skateboarding community. 'Reclaration' is an interesting new word which sums up what Long Live Southbank wants to achieve: reclaiming and restoring a space with the cultural vibrancy that skateboarding contributes to the South Bank. We wish them every success in their fundraising campaign.”
The legacy of the Undercroft and the Architects that worked on it is one of looking towards the future and of shifting perceptions. It is important now more than ever to foster a strong sense of community between our citizens. The Southbank Undercroft invites citizens to enjoy a sense of community, as do many other important contemporary Architectural accomplishments. The community, bliss and freedom that the Southbank Undercroft provides to the skateboarders is best seen on a summer evening when friends gather by the river, exchanging stories and chatting about the tricks that have gone down, which now exist only as a smudge of paint and a fond memory.
Stuart Maclure is Project Manager for Long Live Southbank. If you want to donate to the campaign and get exclusive rewards, or want more information, head over to www.llsbdonate.com. Alternatively, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any ideas on fundraiser events or collaborations. All money raised goes towards the cost of materials, contractor fees and campaign running costs which are broken down at www.llsb.com.