Southbank Skatepark, London SE1
As a Londoner I remember when skateboarders first started colonising the cavernous undercroft area below the Royal Festival Hall in the 1970s. Skateboarding had just arrived in the UK. As the craze grew my sporty younger brother caught the bug in the late 70s, early 80s. He and his mates regularly hung out there until one of them had their board nicked by older boys. The area for skating was much larger in those days and the community feel that currently exists today had yet to emerge.
In 2013 the area is still populated by skateboarders, bmx bikers and scooters. Street skaters from all over the world come to try it out. And three years ago the Southbank Centre even erected a metal railing so that the public could stop and watch the extraordinary feats of skill and daring displayed by these young sportsmen and women. But now this area is under threat from redevelopment plans by the Southbank Centre.
It was this Guardian photo-gallery Can skaters save their Southbank home? which alerted me to what was going on and I felt quite upset. Was I being sentimental? Is change inevitable? During this summer I took photographs of both the skateboarders and the ever changing graffiti. And you can see the results of that in next week’s blog post.
Long Live Southbank – action group
I found the campaign group LLSB on facebook. This week on December the 2nd they posted that the undercroft had been fenced off for maintenance which they took as a sign that the area was about to be lost. Also rather ominously Southbank Security prevented anyone taking photographs of the fenced off area. Thanks to intense public interest and pressure the fences were removed two days later. So documentary photographer Marc Vallée organised a photography walk around the undercroft this Saturday afternoon. And I went along to find out more.
Southbank Undercroft Photography walk
The walk was fascinating for two reasons. First of all it was great to see the skatepark from the perspective of the skaters. One of the first areas pointed out was the important seven steps which are jumped up after building a momentum of speed from skating down the slope opposite the steps.
It was only when I stood at the bottom of the steps looking up did I realise how steep they are. They are hard to see when you’re standing by the barrier. You can see other views from this perspective in the gallery below.
What was also eye-opening was to learn about how the whole area is being redeveloped. And how it is being geared to draw in only the people who will part with their cash to do so. For example this area in the photo below will be enclosed in a large perspex box and used for some form of concert area and private parties – ie for corporate dos. No longer will the public be able to walk through and enjoy the views. This goes against the desires of the original architects who envisaged these areas as public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
The National Theatre have already raised their objections to this as out-going artistic director Nicholas Hytner commented in The Guardian. And the BFI and the Hayward Gallery are unhappy as they will lose some space. And sculptor Anthony Gormley has also published his objections.
Skateboarding and its future on the Southbank
If the Southbank Centre win planning permission to disband the skateboard park, then the undercroft area is going to be filled in with more retail units. My first thought as a member of the public was why do we need more shops when there are already so many there? And then I realised its not for the benefit of the visitors to the area. Its for business rents that the Southbank Centre will raise from letting the shops. For the visiting public they will add nothing and there will be the loss of a unique cultural display of street art and sportsmanship. And that is what I find so distressing.
The Southbank Centre have plans to re-locate the skatepark and as we walked over to the new site under the Hungerford Bridge we paused to examine this bench.
The metal dividers are not placed for the benefit of the public to create the illusion of individual seats, they are there to stop street skaters using them. These kinds of architectural details are happening all over the world apparently.
Then we arrived at the location for the proposed purpose-built skatepark right under the Hungerford Bridge. And what hits you is the thundering din of the trains as they pass over head. It was hard to think and speak as we stood there contemplating the future of skateboarding. I can’t imagine how anyone would want to spend long there with that noise, even if they add a roof to the park to cut it down.
Also rather worrying is a line in the small print of the planning application which says that the new area can also be used as a performance space. And that hints that any new skatepark could disappear at any time. Mind you, with the noise of the trains, I can’t imagine enjoying any form of entertainment under there.
On the ramp which leads down to the embankment under the bridge, graffiti artist Stik was commissioned by the Southbank Centre to create a piece of public art. And he has portrayed his concerns about what will happen to the people who enjoy skating by showing them segregated at one end of his mural.
At the end of the walk, I no longer felt that my distress at the possible closure of the Southbank skatepark was being sentimental. What do you think? You can object to the planning application via LLSB. But this needs to be done before the 18th December. So please act now!