The Southbank Centre's famous Undercroft was a global destination for skateboarders, though it was threatened by closure and decay.
On the morning of Saturday, July 20, a wall of temporary construction fencing on the south bank of the River Thames was torn down, unveiling a 4,300-square-foot landscape of virgin concrete flooring. The space slopes in sections, culminating in L-shaped barriers and a white plywood wall, which, by the end of the 20th century, was covered in triumphant graffiti. This is the Undercroft, the open-ended subterranean space of the Brutalist Southbank Centre. It’s also the oldest, and among the most famous, consistently skateboarded space in the world.
The Southbank Centre, which contains three different performance venues, was completed in 1967. Oral histories posit 1973 as the year skateboarders—then-pioneers in a new form of mobility and spatial exploration—first took to the sloped concrete of the Undercroft on clunky boards and with flared trousers. Skids and scuff marks testify to how, in the subsequent decades, this public space and its board-formed concrete were creatively adapted by the fiercely tight-knit skateboarder community. By the 1980s, the Undercroft was the center of the U.K. skateboard scene and was drawing in young people from across the country and further afield; for example, the Smell of Death Jam event in 1988 drew skateboarders and sponsorship from Powell Peralta, the L.A.–based skateboard company.
Despite its popularity with skateboarders—or perhaps because of that popularity—the site was also a battleground for a fight between its users and their upstairs neighbors and landlord, the Southbank Centre. This was well before mainstream acceptance of skateboarding culture, and the Undercroft community was considered a public nuisance. In the 1990s, the center introduced anti-skateboarding measures (drilling into the ground to roughen the surface, for example) and gradually enclosed part of the space in the mid-aughts. Eventually, in 2013, when national cuts to arts funding forced cultural institutions to squeeze more income from their real estate, the entire space was threatened with closure and relocation.
“A planning application was submitted that would have seen the whole space infilled with cafés, shops, and restaurants,” explains Stuart Maclure of Long Live Southbank, the nonprofit organization formed in order to unify the skateboarder community and counter the top-down proposals. After 17 months of campaigning and fundraising, the space was eventually saved with the unlikely support of then–Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
In the years since, the skateboarder community and Long Live Southbank have worked in collaboration with the Southbank Centre and London-based architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios), not just to maintain the space but to expand it to its original size.
“The project of the space was focused on the heritage of this ’70s skate era,” FCBStudios associate Chris Allen tells Metropolis. “We were looking at photos of the skaters, incredible tricks and things performed there for the first time.” Indeed, the unplanned nature of the Undercroft means it’s a particularly difficult place to skateboard, something which has contributed to its notoriety and broad resonance. Thus, the reopened section of the Undercroft doesn’t look much like a skatepark: there are no halfpipes or obvious rails, and to introduce these would be to undermine the adopted nature of what has evolved there. Instead, barriers that appear like traffic blockades and 45-degree slopes populate the new space.
While Long Live Southbank had to entirely crowdfund the roughly $1.37-million project, the restoration was also made possible with the help of broad public support. “The whole idea of [the] enclosure of public space was a real big issue [in 2013] and this struck a chord with so many people,” explains Allen. “They may not have personally related to skateboarding, or in some cases perhaps saw skating as a nuisance. But they saw … a space being closed to young people to do creative things as an issue they could get behind.”
For Maclure, at stake is keeping a space for young people to spend time safely and freely. “Amidst a huge cut in spending for young people, youth centers being destroyed, and a massive increase in violent crime, we are strong believers in the fact that there’s a massive reduction in space for young people in cities,” he says. “[Even if] no one could come down to the opening, as long as we know there are 40 years of potential friendships, passions, and other things we can’t predict ahead—that’s the important thing.”