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The spaces of skateboarding

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Embraced worldwide by municipalities and youth fashion brands, skateboarding and its venues have undergone a multi-million pound resurgence, writes Iain Borden

Over the past few weeks, skateboarding has enjoyed considerable media attention, most recently when English Heritage announced its listing of Rom Skatepark in Hornchurch, built in 1978 to designs by Adrian Rolt and G-Force. It is the first European skatepark to be granted heritage status. And in September London skateboarders gained a famous victory when the Southbank Centre signed a Section 106 agreement with Lambeth, securing skateboarding’s future in the undercroft beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Yet in many ways these events are just the tip of the iceberg, for over the past 15 years skateboarding architecture of all manner of sizes, shapes and purpose has been springing up. The spaces of skateboarding are flourishing, and in unexpected ways. The most obvious has been the provision of hundreds of new skateparks following a dramatic rise in the popularity of skateboarding in the late 1990s. Recognising that skateboarding is healthy, affordable and accessible - while also encouraging confidence, independence and creativity - just about every UK local authority has provided at least one new skatepark since 2000.

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One of the first in the new wave was the £100,000 Buszy Skateplaza in Milton Keynes (2005), where architect Richard Ferrington and pro-skater Rob Selley worked with local youth to create a new kind of skateboard architecture. Unlike the spectacular ‘transition’ forms of Rom and other 1970s skateparks, which were based on the swimming pools and spillways favoured by early American skaters, Buszy was inspired by the everyday benches, ledges, steps and handrails preferred by contemporary street-based skateboarders. Scores of other UK skateplazas followed, including the £560,000, 3,200m² facility at Central Forest Park in Stoke-on-Trent (2005) and the £600,000, 2,400m² Prissick Plaza in Middlesbrough (2006).

Today, brand new skateparks by established designers such as Canvas, Freestyle, Gravity, Maverick and Wheelscape still incorporate these skateplaza-style components. However, following a resurgence in transition-style skateboarding, they also usually feature ‘flow-bowl’ elements, the latter extending the rounded 1970s skatepark forms into more varied shapes and combinations. Freestyle’s The Level skatepark in Brighton (2013), for example, offers a dense array of bowls, blocks, pyramids, steps and ledges.

Similar compositions are found in large indoor facilities such as Adrenaline Alley in Corby, Creation in Birmingham, Revolution in Broadstairs and Unit 23 in Dumbarton, where a lunar landscape of skateboardable terrain is constructed from wood - cheaper to build and easier to modify than concrete.

In contrast to the mainly privately financed skateparks of the 1970s, most skateparks are now operated by local councils or charity groups, using skateboarding to encourage youngsters into physical and creative activity. Adults, too, are catered for - Cyclopark in Gravesend and XC in Hemel Hempstead are typical, offering skateboarding alongside BMX, cycling and climbing. Still other ventures have even more ambitious social agendas. Community-oriented projects like Skateistan (Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa), Skatepal (Palestine), 7Hills (Jordan), Bedouins (Tunisia) and All Nations Skate Project (Native American reservations) all use skateboarding to build social capital and to help counter deep-rooted social issues of alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, violence, gender prejudices and access to education.

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Of course, skateboarding is big business, too, and other skate spaces are tailored to commercial considerations. Most obvious are the branded spaces of companies like Vans, the leisure shoe company which leverages a decades-long association with urban-cool skateboarding to maintain a £1.2 billion turnover. Its recently opened House of Vans in London’s Waterloo is both a rolling advertisement and a way for Vans to reinvest in skateboarding, providing a free-to-enter skatepark, gallery and music venue in a prominent London location. Pop-up skateboardable sculptures and art installations can also play a similar role, combining promotion for brands and property developers, creative opportunities for artists, and challenging opportunities for skateboarders all in one package. Shoe company Converse (owned by Nike), for example, has generated projects in places as far afield as Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Los Angeles and Warsaw. Its 10-week initiative in Peckham earlier this year mixed street-style skateboarding with workshops on underground music, film, photography and street art.

High art venues such as Kiasma in Helsinki have also experimented with skateboard-based installations, such as the Aalto wave-like form inserted into the Stephen Holl-designed gallery by Richard Holland and The Side Effects of Urethane collective.

Even city authorities have got in on the act, with places like Louisville (Ohio), the Cayman Islands and Shanghai all making multi-million pound investments in large skateparks in order to boost tourism and travel. Haderslev in south-west Denmark, for example, has just opened its massive £3.6 million, 4,500m² StreetDome, designed by skate pro Rune Glifberg, designer Ebbe Lykke and Danish architecture practice CEBRA. Complete with grass-domed weather-proof arena, as well as provision for kayaking, musical performances, parkour and climbing, this ‘cultural and experiential powerhouse’ acts as a ‘facilitator’ where ‘urban sport, street culture and youthful souls all meet together’.

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If this all seems contrary to the post-punk, countercultural attitude often associated with skateboarding, then fear not - that tradition is also alive and well. Not only do street skateboarders continue to exploit architects’ best efforts - Richard Meier’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) in Barcelona and Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Musica in Oporto are favourites - but there are even rumours that renegade skater-architects have smuggled skateboard-friendly features into their designs, with Snøhetta’s Opera House in Oslo, Foreign Office Architects’ Auditoria Park in Barcelona and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg all being possible contenders. Similarly the undulating concrete surfaces of Landhausplatz in Innsbruck by LAAC Architekten and Stiefel Kramer Architecture, whether purposefully designed for skateboarding or not, are eminently suitable for skaters, BMX-riders and pedestrians alike.

Some skaters are even taking matters into their own hands, literally, and combining the transgressive nature of street skateboarding with their own skatepark construction. Such DIY operations, as skaters call them, range from the infamous Burnside project in Portland, Oregon, where over the past 20 years skaters have fabricated a concrete wonderland on appropriated land beneath a road bridge, to a plethora of much smaller bowls, ramps and ad hoc additions in thousands of locations worldwide.

In this way, skateboarders, too, are becoming designers and builders, creating their own architecture wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.

Iain Borden is professor of architecture and urban culture at the Bartlett

How we saved the iconic home of British skateboarding byJason Caines

Southbank

Skateboarding is an organic, expressive, artistic movement that has allowed skaters to redefine their urban environment since the 1970s. It is also an inherently culturally progressive activity: the skater pushes through a city like London more quickly and sees more of it and in greater detail then a pedestrian ever could. I’ve always felt very lucky to see London from the vantage point of a skateboard and nothing makes me happier then skating at London’s central skate and meet-up spot, the Southbank Centre undercroft.

But in May 2013, the undercroft was under threat of redevelopment into retail units by the Southbank Centre, which owns the land it is built upon. The skate community felt ignored and dismissed by the Southbank Centre, which did not consult us on the plans.

In response, we banded together to start a campaign called Long Live Southbank to save skateboarding at the undercroft and to encourage others to help us. The campaign was waged for 17 months. It was a difficult battle which took us from the campaign table we stationed at the undercroft every day to Lambeth Council planning meetings. The first time a planning application was made we collected 14,000 objections; and more than 31,000 objections - a UK record - when the centre made a second attempt to implement its scheme. We held numerous busy skate jams and events and even hand-delivered a 120-page cultural report to over 150 institutions, including Parliament and the Arts Council.

The campaign culminated successfully on 18 September 2014, when a document of preservation was signed by Long Live Southbank and the Southbank Centre, which ensures the undercroft will be protected for future generations of skateboarders. I felt proud to be a part of a group of passionate, like-minded people who protected a space which has given us so much happiness throughout the years.

Long Live Southbank’s success proves that skate spaces should be acknowledged as culturally significant. The campaign highlighted the positive cultural perception of skateboarding and the benefit of skaters to their cities. The campaign now counts more than 150,000 members, showing that this space means an incredible amount to a lot of people beyond skateboarding. It has also shown how many people object to rampant commercial expansion and how there is an underlying cultural need for free, organic spaces such as that at Southbank, where you can meet and socialise without spending a penny. 

Jason Caines is a writer, film-maker and skateboarder

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