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REVIEW: Freedom of expression

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Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body By Iain Borden. Berg Publishers, 2001. 288pp. £14.99

Iain Borden is an academic - director of architectural history and theory at the Bartlett to be precise - but during the late 1970s he used to hang out in the less academic back streets of Oxford, skateboarding.

Skateboarding, Space and the City has been 10 years in the making, yet it is clear that in researching and writing his book, Borden owes as much to 30 years' of personal passion and experience as he does to any architectural or social theory. Throughout his book, Borden refers to theoretical ideas of space, particularly those of Henri Lefebvre, but such theory is constantly countered by detailed accounts of actual skateboarding experience - much of which comes from skateboarders themselves.

Although the origins of skateboarding lie in the surf beaches of California in the 1950s, it was in the late 1970s that this particularly urban development came to prominence in Britain. As with many apparent 'fads' imported from the US, much excitement was generated by the media, leading to attempts at control by the authorities and commercial exploitation by others.

In one part of his book, Borden plots the rapid building of British skateboard parks, both by local authorities and private companies, and describes in great detail the evolution of design, whether in concrete or wood.About 100 parks were built in the UK after 1976, but only 20 were still operating by the end of the decade.

Their demise as a fad may have been inevitable, but there has nonetheless been a steadily growing, hard-core community of skateboarders in Britain since the mid 1960s.

For boys such as the young Borden (and it has always mostly been boys), skateboarding was not, and still is not, just a fashion.

As the book's title implies, Skateboarding, Space and the City is the history of a complex and constantly-evolving relationship between skateboarding or, specifically, the skateboarder, and architectural space of the city. Borden argues that because of its marginal position - 'constantly repressed and legislated against', but responding 'not through negative destruction but through creativity' - skateboarding acts as a 'critical exterior' to architecture and helps to rethink its possibilities.

The key to this criticality is how the skateboard serves as an extension to the body. Vertical, horizontal and curved surfaces of the built world are no longer static but become propulsive. Not only does skateboarding interact with architecture dynamically; at its best it does so with total expression and exhilaration.

Ultimately, it is the way that skateboarding 'critiques' architecture, to use Borden's expression, that causes skateboard parks to close. Almost by definition skateboarding has to subvert space.

It does so to a degree by its colonisation of space - whether empty swimming pools or city plazas - but also in the details and sheer energy of its technical moves.

It is estimated that today there are about 40 million skateboarders worldwide, all connected by a network of magazines and websites.

Some apparently more enlightened local authorities, for example Milton Keynes, whose public spaces prove particularly attractive to skateboarders, are trying to accommodate them through new policies of urban design. This gesture may or may not be covert oppression but it still misses the point.

Skateboarding cannot be programmed, as it finds its own level and language of engagement with space. It is an important mechanism by which a constituency of young people can make otherwise anonymous space their own.

In the end, skateboarding will probably resist academic theory as its exponents continue to evolve new languages and seek out new, alternative locations.

Andrew Cross is a photographer and exhibition curator

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