Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Skateboard heaven

The end of the holiday season and rain every day, not all the time but consistently dull overcast weather, drizzle and heavy downpours and just the occasional burst of uplifting sunshine. For once I had a three-week break but gardening in the rain wasn't tempting and long cycling trips were out of the question, so drifting down to the South Bank was inevitable sooner or later. Just before new year's eve, I found myself down there for the third time in as many weeks. It's one of the few places in London where you can be indoors without buying a ticket or eating a meal, sit around in comfortable chairs and use the free wifi, look at things and quite likely drop in casually on some kind of unusual entertainment. There are controversial plans for a huge new extension there, and if nothing else it was an opportunity to look at the way the place is now and what might be lost or gained if the changes go ahead.

Apart from the depressing scrum outside the London Dungeon and only a modest queue for the Eye there wasn't much going on. Nothing on in the Clore ballroom and only a small exhibition of old protest posters upstairs at the Hayward. Outside was bit like a tawdry funfair after the crowds have left: bright yellow staircases bolted on to the wet concrete, a few set-piece attractions scattered around and sad dim fairy lights overhead. A few people were pedalling the two bicycle-powered snow domes but it was hard to see any effect to reward their exertions. The Gift Factory, a plywood shed painted to look like brickwork, was being dismantled - the tall factory chimney lying on the ground while the walls were taken down. Looking down from Hungerford foot bridge, muddy water churned past one of the oval concrete piers. On the flat top of the pier, dozens of unwanted skateboards were scatted around like an abandoned art installation, a sort of impromptu skateboard graveyard.

The skateboarders at least were carrying on as usual, casually executing undemanding jumps and studiously ignoring the audience, such as it was. It's perhaps the most authentic attraction on this stretch of Thames riverfront, apart from the river itself of course. Change is threatening the status quo, though. A small group displayed a placard reading SAVE THE SOUTH BANK and they were selling tee shirts with the same message. Save The South Bank From Relocation, Support Skateboarding, if you read the small text. The Southbank Centre has plans to develop the space and that will mean booting the skateboarders out.

Once upon a time, museums and art galleries didn't sell anything except a few postcards. Going back more than a few years, the QEH had a canteen-style cafe on the ground floor and a huge empty lobby: no bookshop, no restaurants, certainly no shops selling DVDs and designer junk. The Hayward was the same, a cafe on the ground floor where the bookshop is now, not a franchise but run by the gallery. I don't know what has changed to the extent that these places are now desperate to make money but that is certainly the case. Whatever the reasons, the Southbank Centre is hell-bent on expanding and they want more shops to help pay for that to become a reality. Nobody is saying, of course, how much of a difference a few lettable units is going to make. The place they have targeted for more shops is that skaters' paradise, the undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The undercroft is a sunken space with concrete walls, floor, ceiling, concrete ramps and steps, and distinctive mushroom-headed concrete columns, reflecting the brutalist aesthetic of the building above. It was not apparently designed for any useful purpose: it's just a left-over space that has been used for skateboarding and BMX riding since the 1970s. There is a sense of subversion about the place, with wall-to-wall graffiti (albeit neatly masked at the edges), no supervision, a complete absence of any kind of officially-provided facilities. It is very different from a purpose-made skate park, with none of the flowing curves you see in those places. That quality, the not-designed accidental suitability, is exactly what the skaters value. I haven't asked them, but their views are recorded at length on the Long Live Southbank and Save the South Bank websites. This place is the South Bank as far as they are concerned.

The protest is not particularly articulate, focusing as it does on the history of the place rather than its future value, and no doubt it will be over-ruled - even now that Boris Johnson has expressed support. The development proposals put income-generating retail space in this prime spot, inevitably, but a new skate park is also proposed to compensate for the loss of the present space. The skaters' campaign is in fact just the most visible part of wider arguments against the redevelopment proposal. The National Theatre has submitted a detailed statement of objection. The Twentieth Century Society thinks the sixties architecture should be preserved as it is: they commisioned an artist to make illustrations showing the huge glass extension dumped on top of the Albert hall, and another showing it resting on top of the Tower of London, to illustrate their point about cultural vandalism. Others think a huge insensitive addition on top of the Hayward is exactly in the spirit of the developer-driven culture of greed and appropriation that is rapidly changing large chunks of London.

On the face of it, moving the skate park is a reasonable proposition. As the official website puts it, if the Southbank Centre were commercial developers that would probably not happen: the skaters would just be told they have had a good run for free, but not any longer. They do recognise the cultural value and they are trying hard to make the change palatable. Unhelpfully, they are also reserving the right to use the new space for their own events, and perhaps going the wrong way about designing a new space.

The published design is not an unashamedly modern, state-of-the-art purpose-made park. Quite the opposite, it's designed to look accidental, like a bit of post-industrial wasteland that's been tastefully adapted as a skate park. The proposal is ultra-careful to get it right, using French architects who have done this sort of thing before, and even the architects themselves claim to be skaters. Some actual skateboarding persons have even been brought in as consultants. But somehow they have missed the point. Iain Borden, the professor of architecture at University College London, and the man in charge of organising the proposals, admits it would be preferable to keep the existing undercroft. It's an impossible brief, he says. We want a place that is great to skateboard in, but that doesn't look explicitly designed for skateboarding. The protesters refuse to discuss this option at all, and I think they are right. Bogus authenticity: no wonder support is thin on the ground.