Why the time may have come for the skateboarding community in London to look at the alternative Southbank proposals with an open mind.
Some months ago I wrote an article about the current situation at London’s iconic waterfront skatespot, Southbank. It would prove prescient, since a matter of days later, plans were unveiled for the renovation of the entire undercroft space beneath the Hayward Gallery.
Architectural practice Feilden Bradley Clegg’s blueprint for the area foreshadows the end of the famous skatespot and has met with an understandable outcry. There have been earnest, honourable calls from skateboarders of all generations to save the spot, culminating in a three-day event there this coming weekend.
Personally, I took a different approach and set about looking at the brass tacks of the situation. Only cold hard cash can save the spot, and finding a backer with deep enough pockets is no small ask. In the intervening period, having looked at the entirety of the issue in the prevailing economic climate, I feel I have to break faith and say that we should now be realistic and look at the alternatives with an open mind.
It is an article of faith in skating that despite our differences we all get into line in battles against the outside world, but it strikes me that there are a lot of aspects to the argument that aren’t being fully heard in the clamour to save the existing spot in its present condition.
So I am going to tell you why I think the time has come to say the unsayable: perhaps the energy spent trying to save the present space would be better marshalled into making the best of the opportunity the re-development offers. I know that is heresy and there will be people who say I am siding with the enemy, but let’s look at the facts, unclouded by emotion.
Along the way I may touch on a few home truths which are sacred cows in the UK skate scene, which always gets people a bit shirty. I am not a Londoner, not a Southbank face, but as a magazine editor [founder of Kingpin Magazine - Ed.], I skated there more and hooked up more of the locals with boards, work and the occasional holiday than any other editor in Britain (yes, including you mate). Moreover, as one of the very few actively involved in attempting to find a financial benefactor for the Save project, I hope I have enough credentials to be heard out.
So here is why, after thinking about it long and hard, I think the alternative should be explored and debated – as well as my six-point plan for how the Southbank Centre and skateboarding in London could both pull an ace off the bottom of the deck and – in the spirit of Rastamouse – make a bad thing good.
1) The decision has already been taken. From what I have been given to understand, off the record and from multiple sources, the entire revamp is dependent on the rental value of that space to justify the investment money. While I am glad to see young people organising for what they love, to see enthusiasm defeated when the idea is already born dead just disillusions young people and their belief in participatory politics. It’s easy for people to man the cyber-barricades and put e-petitions on social media, but so far I have heard nobody explain how exactly Southbank is to be saved.
2) Southbank is currently in its most limited incarnation since the bars went up in the 1990s. The small banks are cordoned off, most of the blocks dropped by Badger Holland and his Side Effects Of Urethane cohorts in 2004 have been removed, the ledges are tired, and the floor at the foot of the stairs is beat. If the original spot could be retained and refurbished then ace, but in my opinion building a replica of its heyday could be preferable to retaining it as is.
3) The idea that it is an historic ‘found space’ which can’t be replicated without losing ‘authenticity’ is debatable. Most skaters only skate the ledges there which are only nine years old and were prefabricated and placed there by the TSEOU skaters. Look at Janne Saario’s Micropolis project in Helsinki for an example of what could be done. I don’t hear anybody moaning about the authenticity factor there. Pre-judging the outcome of any park build is a skateboarding pastime. It never rains to suit everyone. Get the TSEOU boys back in on the Hungerford Bridge site and give them free rein. Shit worked last time.
4) The British skate media is secretly tired of Southbank’s status as the UK’s EMB. In the vernacular of the jaded, Southbank is ‘rinsed’. Not that it should matter, but it does, because it is they who decree, both in public and private, what constitutes la mode. In the wider UK skate circles Southbank has historically been perceived as a distillation of everything that made the ‘London scene’ more pretentious and posey than say Hull or Manchester. The perception of overexposure means that, occasional tokenism notwithstanding, it rarely merits coverage or an article of its own, because (say it quietly) it is actually considered passé by the tastemakers. Few shoot or film here for anything other than throwaway phonecam edits or a news page snap. This situation has been in no small part brought about by the culture of ABDs. Already Been Done is the kiss of death in terms of spot reportage. As Neil Chester said in Sidewalk magazine: “If it weren’t for ABD’s we’d still be looking at backside flips down the Southbank 7.” Therein lies the problem: Southbank is tired, and everybody knows it. That’s why Mile End is busier now. So why not bring Badger Holland and the TSEOU people who revamped it back in 2004 to build a brand new bespoke space with all to play for?
5) Let’s look down at our feet before talking about corporations choking off the lifeblood of skateboarding. There are only two likely candidates remaining who could conceivably cough up the money to save the current space, and one of them even at this late date has received no formal proposition. Has the other, and if not shouldn’t that be a priority with so many well-heeled defenders?
6) Nobody in authority really cares that much about ‘legitimacy’ or historical resonance of contemporary sub-cultures. That is because we don’t vote, basically. Compared to the barbs left by spluttering Tristrams on the reader comments in the Guardian architecture blog, skateboarders who don’t want to use the less visible site at Hungerford Bridge and never used the Whites Grounds park under London Bridge a mile or so downriver are of no real consequence to architects or planners, and some see the ‘Save’ campaign as spoiled posers having a hissy fit. The Southbank Centre have been pretty magnanimous in their offer of the Hungerford Bridge site. In most other city centres a developer would have long since used neon jackets and skatestoppers to kill off an enterprise which they don’t actually need and are under no obligation to support. Hospitals and libraries are closing every day; convincing the outside world that it’s not up for negotiation – doesn’t seem to me enough to cut it today, I’m afraid.
These points should receive an airing at this weekend’s jamboree.
In return, I might suggest the Southbank centre consider adopting this six point plan to deliver a best-case outcome under the prevailing circumstances:
1) Bring in Richard ‘Badger’ Holland as the design consultant for the new space. His energy renewed Southbank once and I have no doubt could again.
2) Form a permanent steering committee composed of Winstan Whitter, Jacob Sawyer, Lev Tanju and Henry Edwards Wood. Do not hold any ‘user input’ groups beyond these people, those are always speculative, hypothetical clusterfucks. These people know the past and future of skating collectively, trust them to deliver if the skaters can do likewise. If they want to consult with the BMX fraternity then let them do so under their own auspices, but skating made Southbank what it is.
3) Get rid of the graffiti once and for all. It was a rad dad mistake and should be acknowledged as such. Think of the lawsuits arising from ventilation issues under a bridge.
4) Move the small banks slab by slab and rebuild them at the new site. Not inspired by, not a homage, the actual banks. Continuity, see? This was what Converse got right with the Kennington Fix To Ride – keep the essence intact. If you can keep the big banks great, but nobody seems to use them much apart from the dude with the pineapple on his head who over-eggs the front rocks on the low bar.
5) Bring in a non-UK skatepark builder. This has been a boom industry in the UK and every concrete park builder has their own friends and enemies. Each plays up their ‘core credentials’ for these sort of builds and not all deliver. Anyone seen Stockwell lately? The only way to dodge that factionalism is to bring in someone like USA’s Dreamland who absolutely cannot be fucked with, at all.
6) Put something dangerous in there. Like a Gonz gap or some such.
So while I am heartened to see the mobilisation this weekend, I would also hope that beyond the platitudes of saving Southbank someone seriously posits the question of how, exactly, and if not, then what?
The time to rally around may well be now. Not to fight an honourable but futile rearguard action against the inevitable, but to make the best of a Hobson’s choice. Because the clock is indeed ticking, not just on the fate of Southbank but on the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of the proposed new development space too.
This has been given scant regard thus far in open debate because it steps away from the ‘just say no’ mantra. If we don’t want some dickhead developer sidling in there wittering on about how they know the kids and Barcelona street plazas, then we must galvanise for the future as well as acknowledging the past.