• Matthew Gibbs - MArchD graduate Oxford School of

Skaters at the Centre of the World


In the heart of London, underneath a brutalist concrete jungle, lies ‘the Undercroft’. Once it was a huge sprawling space, stretching all the way to Belvedere Road at the back of the Southbank Centre. Slowly over time, the area was squeezed, lights were turned off, the ground cut into. A world class performing arts centre has got tired of kids with skateboards.

Fifty years after the Festival of Britain, the Southbank Centre revealed plans for a huge development providing much needed space for the decaying venue, the Festival Wing. Designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios no one could have predicted the uproar that followed. Countless newspaper articles discussed the issue, and most surprisingly a group of skaters managed to create such a media frenzy that plans have been halted.

What promoted this uproar? The proposal planned to move the Skatepark 120m from its current location anonymity under Hungerford Bridge. Its a skate park, nothing special you might say, but ‘the Undercroft’ is special. People have skated continuously there since 1973. It is part of skateboarding history and a unique spot, it is a place with ‘Identity’.

Many new developments today are very similar in terms of visual appearance. It could be said that there is a homogenisation of the built environment, not just across London but across the globe. Architects bid for work on a global scale and as such some people believe that new developments are wiping away a city’s individual identity. Relph (1) says

“It is clear that rather than being a simple address in a gazetteer or a point on a map, identity is a basic feature of our experience of places which both influences, and is influenced by, these experiences.”

This implies that a space acquires its identity over time, more like the concept of patrimony. Patrimony is the inherited significance of (in this context) a space, rather than heritage, which can be said to be a creation of the present day viewpoint.

One skater described it as follows, (2)

“Relocating the Undercroft to another site, even 120m away as the developers are proposing, would be like moving the famous zebra crossing on Abbey Road. It doesn’t matter how faithfully you reproduce it, it would never be the same. The significance and meaning of the Undercroft — its importance to skaters and ex-skaters alike — is inextricably bound up with its location. You might as well “relocate” Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to Milton Keynes.”

On May 29th 2014 the Southbank Centre released a statement saying that Arts Council England will fund 70% for the £25million of repairs needed to the building. The Centre is seeking alternative funding arrangement for the Festival Wing project. This U-turn shows just how much the space means to so many people, and not just the skaters. To become the most unpopular planning application in UK history, (over 40,000 objections!), is some achievement and shows just how many people have connected with this space.

Relph has grasped an eternal verity

“ . . . identity is a phenomenon that evades simple definition.’ The Undercroft is a place of both patrimony and heritage, a unique space, as emphasised by Ben Powell, a skater talking for the Long Live Southbank Campaign. He said, ‘You can’t replace culture and history with custom built facsimiles of what was there before, it’s not the same thing.”

1: Relph, E,. 1980. On the identity of places In: Carmona, M., Tiesdell, S,. 2007. Urban Design Reader. Oxford: Architectural Press

2: Young, T., 2014. Toby Young: Hands off the South Bank — I skateboarded there. London: Evening Standard. Feb 10. p.10

Images from the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Images from the Soutbank Centre

All other images taken by the author

#architecture #undercroft #london #brutalist #SouthbankCentre #Skatepark

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