London’s South Bank is changing
Paris has the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and London has the South Bank. And both areas are synonymous with culture and bohemianism. I grew up in London and I’ve been a regular visitor to the area since the 1970s. For decades this stretch of the river bank has hosted second hand book stalls and open air performances to catch the culture vultures going to the theatre, cinema, gallery or concert.
Underneath the actual Southbank Centre is a vast, concrete undercroft which became colonised by skateboarders in the 1970s. Its steep inclines and lengthy runways made it an exciting challenge to those defiers of gravity. Later came the graffiti or street artists. The area was vibrant and original.
By the end of 2013 and 40 years later much of that originality is being driven out in the need to attract money to the area. Every spare piece of space is being filled with retail units.
They’ve even squeezed in extra dining rooms using empty shipping containers. And the National Theatre has built a new theatre space on its free open air performance area. The only non commercial, original public space left is the skateboard park in the undercroft. And now that is under threat from redevelopment plans by the Southbank Centre.
Southbank skatepark aka the Undercroft
It was a Guardian article in May which alerted me to the threat to the skateboard park. And I decided to take photographs of it over the summer. I made four visits and during that time I discovered how rapidly the graffiti changes. These two pictures were taken only two weeks apart and you see how the back wall has changed during that time.
The photograph below was taken one month later, in mid September and the light colours create a pensive, thoughtful atmosphere. Last week when I went on photography walk organised by the Long Live Southbank campaign group I discovered that the graffiti changes every few days!
The undercroft and its history
The Southbank undercroft in the 1970s was a large, unused space which gave the area a slightly desolate feel. Back in those days I remember nervously rushing by on my way to see a play thinking the skateboarders looked a little scary. But was that simply my naive perception of skateboarders?
This great 2 minute short film, Rollin Through the Decades by Winstan Whitter showing a history of the area, demostrates how the skatepark has already been reduced into a small, safe area. The Southbank Centre have appreciated how important it is by putting up a railing so that passers by can watch. And they’ve installed lights to make it safe to use the area at night.
I’m full of admiration and wonder for those who are able to defy gravity using a skateboard, a rollerblade or a bmx bike. My sense of balance is poor and I hate falling over, so all I can do is ride a bike. When I watch these athletes they appear to be performing magic, like flying without wings and it looks like freedom. I can also see it takes a lot of skill. The street skaters are the bravest of all because they try to skate on anything they can.
The Southbank Centre believe that a purpose built skateboard under the noisy Hungerford Bridge will satisfy the skateboarding community. And this shows how little they understand why this original area has been exciting for skateboarders to use and visitors to watch. A sanitised new version will remove the last vestige of originality of this area. Last week’s post The Southbank Skatepark, LLSB photography walk gives more detail on the proposed changes and photographs of the undercroft from the skateboarders point of view.
Register your protest and sign the petition
I’m very upset that this unique cultural attraction of this stretch of the South bank could go and continue the drive to turn it into another open air shopping mall. Please support Long Live Southbank‘s campaign to save this space for the skateboarders who turned a desolate waste area into a vibrant, cultural attraction. Sign the petition here. You have until the 3rd of January 2014 to make your objections known.
(Click on any photograph for a better view in gallery mode)