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Southbank skate debate: ‘The undercroft works better culturally than functionally’

As skateboarders lose their battle to win ‘village green’ status for Southbank’s undercroft, Iain Borden, professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at UCL, discusses its future

Why are the skateboarders so attached to the current park?
The Southbank Centre’s undercroft has been skateboarded for more than 35 years and is almost certainly the oldest continuously skateboarded place in the world. Skateboarders were first attracted by the undercroft’s angled banks as a kind of freely accessible skatepark, while, since the early 1990s, it has changed character to accommodate street-style skateboarding, where skaters appropriate elements of buildings and city spaces and focus more on flat-land movements. Throughout, it has been the symbolic home of UK skateboarding, an aura further emphasised by many famous skateboard videos and documentaries.

Does the current location at Southbank function well as a skatepark?
The undercroft works better culturally than functionally. The angled banks aren’t really the kind of thing today’s street-skaters prefer, a lot of the surface is rough or cracked, while the most skateboarded elements – the standalone concrete blocks – were added by skateboarders themselves in the mid-2000s. But this is also part of its charm and attraction – it is far from perfect, and that is the challenge.

Do you think the Southbank Centre is being fair to the skateboarders?
In an ideal world, it would be preferable for skateboarding – and the other urban arts such as BMX and graffiti – to stay at the Southbank, and I have said this many times. But I also understand the financial – and they are purely financial – exigencies facing the Southbank Centre and, to their credit, the offer of a new site, even more publicly visible, only 120m away and with around £1 million of funding is far, far more generous than any other offer to skateboarders, ever, anywhere in the world.

Do you think that removing the skateboarders will be detrimental to the Southbank?
The skatepark won’t be entirely removed, it will be relocated to the Hungerford Bridge site if the plans go ahead.

It will take time to build up new layers of history, but this will happen

Personally, I am not a great supporter of the idea of there being more restaurants in the undercroft space, but there is no reason that the new Hungerford Bridge skate-space cannot replace this with something equally vital and dynamic. It will take time to build up new layers of history, but this will happen.

Are you aware of other building projects that have resulted in skateboarders being ousted?
The history of skateparks around the world is in many ways the history of their demise due to redevelopment and regeneration and nearly all of the original 1970s skateparks have been demolished. In terms of globally famous street spots, like the undercroft, the skateboarders have lost the Embarcadero spot in San Francisco to redevelopment, and they have been banned from Philadelphia’s central ‘Love Park’ square. Even skateboarders at the renowned MACBA site in Barcelona are beginning to have restrictions put on their activities. But perhaps most similar to the undercroft is the ‘Big-O’ – the athlete’s entrance tunnel at Montreal’s 1976 Olympic Stadium, which has been appropriated by skaters for many years – and which has this year been moved a short distance to accommodate a new soccer stadium. Here, though, the skateboarders negotiated with the site owners to work out the move, and have celebrated the change.

You have helped prepare the design brief for the contest for the new skatepark. What could this new home offer that the existing skatepark doesn’t?
In purely functional terms, the Hungerford Bridge site has the potential to be slightly larger (plus 10 per cent) and better to skateboard – the initial design visualisations show this clearly, providing all the ledges, benches, railings and steps which skateboarders would hope to find in a great street skate-spot, but without looking like they have been purposely designed for skateboarding (see Rival Southbank skatepark proposals revealed) . It also has the potential to be more accommodating for skaters of different ages and abilities, and for BMX, graffiti, parkour, etc, as well as for the general public.

The real challenge here will be to allow the site to build up some years of history, some darkness and grittiness, so that it doesn’t appear too sanitised or officially sanctioned. As with the undercroft, this will come from the skaters and other urban artists, and over many years to come.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I used to skate at the Southbank after my year-out placement almost every night during the late 80s and made many good friends. It was cold and damp, and I suffered from aching knee joints from the less than ideal bank transitions. However, the community that built up has lasted to this day, although interestingly, as each generation has grown older, had families or moved away, we still see the symbolism of the south bank as being significant, as opposed to being a skate venue of choice. The fact is, skaters have been spoilt for choice in the last decade since skating has become mainstream - in the media and as skaters have moved into positions of influence. In the 70s and 80s, we were marginalised, with the South Bank and Royal Oak being the only two covered skate venues to shelter from the rain. I see the arguments from both sides, but would a newer, faster park, with better surfaces be a little more appropriate? Or perhaps I am showing all of my 46 years!

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