Skateboarding is more than a street skill – it is also a unique spatial experience of architecture. Now, after years of antagonism, Adam Todhunter finds cities and their planners are beginning to embrace these urban adventurers
All photography by Fred Mortagne
Aside from being asked why someone approaching their thirties is still playing with a toy, the question that skateboarders tire of most – as they are asked to clear out of a street or public square – is, ‘Don’t you know there’s a skatepark down the road?’
The truth is that the skateboarders are likely to be aware of the skatepark, and probably visit it often. But while beneficial for developing skills and providing an undisturbed space, the purpose-built environment is more like a training ground, akin to an indoor climbing wall. What the adventurous climber aspires to is to use their skills to experience the rush of conquering the natural rock face of a remote mountain or to traverse a landscape scarcely ever imagined or dared. And for the street skateboarder, it is no different.
On stepping out of the park and into the architecture of the city, skateboarding changes from an act of skill and performance to one of spatial experience involving the city’s plazas, streets, benches and diverse structural gestures. The activity itself becomes secondary to the process of urban discovery, and the skateboard becomes a tool for unlocking new ways to engage with architecture.
Skateboarding across the icons of modernism
Most skateboarders – of which there are an estimated 11 million worldwide – may be unaware that they have entered a piece of architectural history when they skate through Mies Van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. But they understand the layout of the external upper storey and border of granite ledges more than most. Instead of admiring the cantilevered steel roof plane of the exhibition pavilion, they form relationships with the concrete tiles beneath the wheels, and the dimensions and materiality of the polished granite as the board slides and grinds over the surface.
Just as Berlin has its Neue Nationalgalerie, Barcelona has Richard Meier’s Mediterranean modernist Museum of Contemporary Art. This landscape of linear form extruding from the museum into a granite courtyard, meeting sloping surfaces and stairs, now welcomes almost as many international skateboarders as art fans.
Skateboarders across the world form personal relationships with architecture. One staircase outside London Bridge train station is more iconic to local skateboarders than the Shard, Renzo Piano’s skyscraper that looks down on it – although non-skaters might have a hard time working out which one. This physical experience is engaged with the raw forms of architecture. As skateboarder and architectural assistant Mark Gavigan puts it: ‘A skateboarder sees the city not for the spectacle of its architecture, nor is he or she concerned with participating within the prescribed model that has been laid out by it. Really for a skateboarder the meaning of buildings and the spaces between them is nothing more than the limitless skating opportunities which they provide.’
Skateboarders re-appropriate architecture to unlock the hidden opportunities of, for example, the celebratory concrete of brutalism. The sleek surfaces beloved of the modernists provide perfect surfaces to traverse, and although the weathered flourishes of classicism or Victorian gothic are more resistant to physical interaction, they too are to be desired without contact: to be jumped over, between and down.
Unwelcome in the public realm
So it is that architects’ creations find alternative worth. The London Bridge steps are one of endless ‘spots’ that collectively form the skateboarder’s experience of the UK capital, also comprising the well-known Southbank Undercroft, the lesser-known sloped walls of the Museum of London roundabout, and the marble tiled banks that form the podium of One Eversholt Street by Euston station.
Skateboarders understand the policies that govern these semi-public realms and how other skateboarders and members of the public move through the space. Each develops their own interpretation of spaces like this against their skill levels, style and preference, guided by the marks left by previous users.
Despite the skateboarder’s relationship with underused parts of the city, they often receive a defensive reception from authorities and the public. Our cities increasingly consist of illiberal spaces where purportedly non-productive and harmful activities such as skateboarding are unwelcome. That skateboarding does damage to some surfaces is the end of the story for many members of the public. Among skateboarders, views are more diverse. No-one wants to see architecture crumble but for most skateboarders, activation of a piece of architecture is more important than its pristine preservation.
Yet attempts at negotiation with authorities have a disappointing history. For over 20 years Philadelphia’s skateboarders engaged the city – through protest and negotiation – to legalise skateboarding in Love Park, the central square officially known as John F Kennedy Plaza, but nicknamed for its reproduction of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture. Even after shoe brand DC offered the city $1 million for the maintenance of sites that suffered skateboard-related damage, and the architect of the park, Vincent G Kling, stepped on a board at the age of 92 to support the skateboarders’ right to occupy the park, the city dismissed their pleas. Every stone bench and slab from its central amphitheatre was removed in the 2016 redevelopment, expelling the skateboarders from memory.
In the UK, skateboarder-led spatial activism campaigns such as Long Live Southbank (LLSB) are proving that valued spaces and the public’s right to free community assets can be protected. The proposed redevelopment of the Undercroft of the Southbank Centre – constructed along with the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1967 and known for the involvement of three future members of the Archigram collective – provoked a fight for the right to the space. The brutalist playground inadvertently created a home for generations of skateboarders who have occupied the space for over 40 years.
But in 2019, the space is valued not only by them, as observed by Stuart Maclure, project manager at LLSB. In his view, dancers, musicians and artists of all sorts are ‘using the space together, respecting the culture of co-existence that the Undercroft has’. The campaign has encouraged communities of skateboarders worldwide. ‘LLSB gets messages from all over from people taking pride in their environment and working with, and against, the powers that be to improve these places,’ says Maclure. ‘Whether it’s Dublin, Tel Aviv, Paris, Milton Keynes or Atlanta, local communities have similar stories of being interested in creating better places to live, work and skate.’
We are now in an age when skateboarding is set to be introduced at Tokyo 2020 as an Olympic sport (provisionally listed for the 2024 Games), and skateboarders have held their first academic conference in association with the Bartlett School of Architecture, called Pushing Boarders, which was held in summer 2018. And in some cities there are signs of a future beyond antagonism.
Changing the relationship with city planners
In Malmö, Sweden, even though skateboarders are more populous than in any other city, hostile architecture like ‘skate stoppers’ – design interventions that disrupt the ability of skateboarders to engage with many skatable surfaces in cities such as London – are nowhere in sight. Instead, Malmö has invested in skate-friendly public space, temporary skatable artworks, and more than five skateparks. ‘We want to send the message that Malmö is for skating – by skaters in collaboration with the city,’ says Gustav Edén, Malmö’s appointed ‘skateboard coordinator’.
Edén now works with the city’s parks department, advising on the benefits of skateboarding. The decision to design skateboarding into a space can prevent hostility against undesirable use, explains Edén, and issues like surface damage, noise pollution and spatial conflicts can be designed out.
What remains is the positive social activation of spaces. In one example, the city installed Svampen, a granite ‘mushroom’ mound outside the city’s art centre – an architectural statement that has given the space its identity, and the skateboarders a new canvas.
Just over the border-bridge from Malmö, in Copenhagen, is Bjarke Ingels Group’s community-led Superkilen, a statement-red area within a park. The city could have blindly purchased a half-pipe but have instead commissioned a sweeping concrete amphitheatre and painted tarmac hill. The expressive architectural gestures exist without the need for an explicit purpose, allowing children, families, cyclists and skateboarders to develop their own relationship with the space.
Growing in popularity
These initiatives have generally been hailed as successes, securing the respective cities a place on the global skateboarding map and inspiring skate-friendly architecture initiatives in cities such as Melbourne and Hull. While their progressiveness remains an exception, skateboarders worldwide are beginning to understand their right to protect socio-spatial value in our cities – and many in power now accept that skating is here to stay.
In London and globally, we’re seeing the green shoots of the skate-friendly city and demonstrations of the power that this once-fringe activity has to creatively reinterpret public architecture, benefiting skateboarders and non-skaters alike.