Saving the Southbank Centre Skatepark
By Eoin O’Donnell Photography Jenna Foxton
Beneath Europe’s largest centre for the arts sits a graffiti strewn enclave that’s an unlikely London landmark – the Southbank Skate Park.
Despite being globally renowned in the skateboarding community, the skate park went largely unnoticed by the general public until news of its closure hit national newspaper headlines earlier this month. The media coverage seemed to evidence some kind of broader appeal. So, too, did the public outcry and near 40,000 petition signatures that followed.
Simply put, a popular place of free (in every sense) expression faces closure in order to make way for retail units as part of a £120m planned redevelopment of the centre. In a climate where closures feel common, daily and all too often found in sentences with ‘cuts’, it’s probably unsurprising that reports of the skate park’s demise should strike a public chord.
With ubiquitous metropolitan stalwarts such as EAT and Prèt-A-Manger unconfirmed/reported/interested in the future retail opportunities on offer, the planned closure feels emblematic of the seemingly citywide drive of commercialisation and gentrification.
‘this place is an accident of architecture that happens to leave a lot of space for skateboarders ‘
Southbank skater and opponent of the proposals, William Kraemer, says ‘this place is an accident of architecture that happens to leave a lot of space for skateboarders and I’m sure it brings more revenue to everything along here. If it was just more [shop] chains people would be less likely to come to this part of the Southbank because there’d just be more interesting places to go.’
The Southbank Centre itself is a victim of reduced public spending. The proposed retail units compromising the skate park’s future are needed to fund the overall multi-million pound plan to expand the Centre’s arts remit for a 21st century audience.
However, this proposed investment in the arts is one that denies the reality that there is already an outlet for expression in the Southbank’s structure, for those interpreting its structural minimalism as a prime place for skating, and the graffiti artists utilising the walls as an al fresco gallery.
Kraemer says ‘Skateboarding is all about looking for new, random interactions with the environment. This space was found in the 70s and it’s no longer new but it’s always changing, people are finding new things to do with it and it still goes in the magazines if someone’s done a new trick here. It’s just really special and it’s got a lot of people’s childhoods in it – including mine.’
Aside from any wider resonance, the media interest, it might be argued, also goes to show how rapidly the ‘alternative’ is becoming the mainstream. Further evidence for that argument can be seen in the fact that BMX is now an Olympic sport, and that Banksy artworks have recently made the transition from six-figure to million-pound evaluations.
Aside from any wider resonance, the media interest, it might be argued, also goes to show how rapidly the ‘alternative’ is becoming the mainstream.
Over and above those directly using the space, there is another group for whom the demise of the Southbank Centre would be a tragedy. The spectators (the centre itself attracts three million visitors annually) who variously stop/watch/glance/chance or appreciate the show are also at risk of losing a spot willed with distinct atmosphere and entertainment. Very often what’s on display is rough, novice and nothing, with skaters simply fucking around and some (quite literally) cutting their teeth, while the city files and meets and mills up the Thames’ southern hip. But other times it’s bona fide excitement – the type London likes charging pretty pennies for – and when that happens, a demographic as random as only the capital can produce tends to crowd around and stay.
‘This is one of the oldest, or the oldest skate park of this nature and it’s become a feature of the community here,’ said Christina Dixon, who is helping run the group. ‘We’re mobilising the grass roots activism and there are others doing the legal challenge. So we’re doing work in the community to get support – like getting all these [petition] names to back our campaign.’
‘We’re mobilising the grass roots activism and there are others doing the legal challenge.’
The group’s online register has, to date, over 40,272 supporters petitioning Lambeth Council, the Southbank Centre, Mayor Boris Johnson and the Arts Council of England to stop the skate park’s relocation. A three-day event, organised by another affiliate group, Long Live Southbank, took place over the bank holiday weekend, showcasing four decades of skating and artistic tradition at the undercroft.
Aside from the much-loved functional role of the Centre (home to, among others, the Hayward Gallery and next-door to the British Film Institute), the area around the skate park is a long-established meeting point for city-folk and tourists alike. Wide open and with space to sit, it’s a place to hang out, to watch the city low by its embankments, to chance the pop-up book markets or grab some vendor grub.
But days like that may be done. The Southbank Centre’s artistic director, Jude Kelly, has described the site as ‘tired and undernourished.’ Southbank representatives have said they still want skateboarding to remain, earmarking an area under nearby Hungerford Bridge that could be purpose built and left to the skaters themselves to design.
It’s fair to say that those who use the skate park are united in their opposition to that move. Billy Baxter, who has skated at the Southbank for 15 years and grew up in the area, said: ‘Moving over there would take away everything this place stands for. It’d be like going in to your local pub and finding it’s been turned in to a shitty wine bar.’
‘Moving over there would take away everything this place stands for. It’d be like going in to your local pub and finding it’s been turned in to a shitty wine bar.’
The space the skaters occupy is part of a disused subway to Waterloo Station (long sealed up) that was known for petty crime and issues with homelessness. Baxter describes it as the ‘one spot you can come to [skate] that’s undercover and stays dry, in London most other spots aren’t like that.’
The skate park has gone a long way in restoring the type of congregation and social community the broad space architecture originally envisioned. With that, there’s some irony that it’s the skaters themselves who now find that they have become the problem. Their creative use of the centre’s underused underbelly only serves to highlight the Southbank’s Brutalist limitations and wider economic potential. The skaters may ultimately find themselves the victims of their own success, as those with capital seek to monetise the masses and, at the same time, move the boarders out.
Billy Baxter spoke of the wider support they were receiving in preventing that from happening saying ‘some of these guys went to a meeting the other day with the Southbank Centre and apparently this women came all the way up from Cornwall, nothing to do with skateboarding, just on behalf of the community she’s from and she basically just said: “You can’t take away culture from somewhere and try and recreate it somewhere else just for your own corporate reasons.”‘
Skaters and spectators alike are hoping the current rush to destroy mid-century modern building doesn’t befall their skate-park with a similar haste. However, that looks unlikely for now. The Southbank proposals are still at an early stage, full funding is yet to be shored up, and with added litigation and law firms now involved, the redevelopment and ultimate fate of the skate park seems destined to drag.