You may well have heard rumours of what was happening with the Southbank Undercroft, the people behind Long Live Southbank have been working tirelessly, and now it's official - the Southbank Undercroft will be restored to something like its former glory. We spoke to Louis Woodhead and Paul Richards from LLSB to get the story on this latest victory for people power and the skateboard community.
The LLSB project is evidently one rooted in community and passion. How did you first become involved?
Louis: I’ve been skating at Southbank since I was about 14, and although it took a few months from the birth of the campaign to get involved properly, it was very natural. For me it is completely rooted in passion for the spot. There is no way I would be able to put so much time into something like this if I didn’t love the feeling of my wheels on those banks so much
To get an idea of scale, how many people volunteer with LLSB?
Louis: In one respect there is a huge number of people who help out with LLSB in some way or another; photography, illustrations, making products, filmmaking. That aspect is pretty global and every contribution counts in terms of the overall movement. Having said that, the core team who put in serious hours in the meetings and behind laptops and organising everything is relatively small.
What has been the process to securing the expansion of the Southbank Undercroft? How did talks start? How have they been going?
Louis: After September 2014, when the current space was formally saved, we could tell that there was the potential for a far more positive relationship with the Southbank Centre. We spent a lot of time researching the space, writing a series of reports to give us as strong a case as possible. We began having meetings with the Southbank Centre, kept writing reports and proposals about the immediate and wider benefits, until we were all on the same page. And now we are.
"The idea of the project is that any parts that do need redoing will be restored with complete historical accuracy."
We genuinely wanted to change the conflict into collaboration. We now have an agreement whereby, if we raise the necessary funds, we will be able to open a large part of the old space in January 2018. A section of the space will be used to house the Southbank Centre’s Young People’s Centre for the meantime, but we have agreed to a final stage of complete restoration if, after a period of time, an alternate purpose-built permanent home can be secured for their Young People’s programme.
What do you know about the space - what is actually still there and what has been demolished, what condition is it in, when is the last time anyone actually laid eyes on it?
Louis: Even though it hasn’t been skated since 2004, members of Long Live Southbank have actually been inside the space quite a few times since we began speaking to the Southbank Centre. An awful lot of the original paving is still in good condition, although currently it’s basically used as a workshop so it’s all saws, hard hats and medium density fibreboard. The idea of the project is that any parts that do need redoing will be restored with complete historical accuracy.
Paul: The space was open and used as a bar and gallery during the time of the initial LLSB campaign, but if you had of gone in there it would have been unrecognisable. It was a case of unearthing the original features, some are no longer there and others are significantly deteriorated but it was always our ambition to restore it to its original design and materials.
It’s been really encouraging taking people inside the space, those that had skated it originally get really nostalgic, and those that never got the chance because they were too young get hyped about the possibility of skating it. We really had to use our creative imagination to visualise bringing it back to life.
Was expansion always the plan once the spot was saved, or did it come after that?
Louis: I wouldn’t call it expansion. The area we are restoring was skated from 1973 until 2003/4, and its closure then was only ever meant to be temporary. That was documented in newsletters by the Southbank Centre to the local skateboarders. But yes, this restoration has always been an idea, the locals of course were always aware of this space and the fact there is so much more to the Southbank Undercroft than what you can presently skate. After the campaign it was a question of assessing everyones energy and commitment, regrouping and just going for it.
"Sometimes it's hard to see or experience the cultural veins and artistic heart of London behind the bland sea of glass fronted shops and offices."
Paul: I think that was kind of always there. You’d hear people talk about getting the original space back all the time. After saving Southbank it was felt there was only one window of opportunity. Everyone was pretty exhausted after getting the current space secured but we thought why not give it a go, then we knew we had at least tried. The support for our idea was pretty wide. It wasn’t strictly a restoration as we had been looking at things like tangible and intangible heritage in the original campaign. So as we presented the proposals, we even coined a new term to reflect our vision; ‘reclaration’, which has now even been officially recognised by Historic England!
Why do you think it’s important that the Southbank Undercroft is returned to something like its former self?
Louis: I think that Southbank is such an incredible place to skate because it is natural. It is a found environment and that comes with all the quirks and imperfections that make it so fun and interesting to skate. It really is one of the most important spots in the world, and also tremendously important for the local area. There is an awful lot of heritage there, a huge value for the community and most importantly huge potential for the future. So I think this restoration is really important.
Paul: Sometimes it's hard to see or experience the cultural veins and artistic heart of London behind the bland sea of glass fronted shops and offices. Southbank is the juxtaposition of this blandness, both culturally and architecturally, and it is laid bare for all to experience. Southbank Centre is an incredible building, designed by members of an ‘avant-garde neo-futurist architecture group’. It provides a breath of fresh air in the heart of London and sends out a constant vibrant message that there is another way of doing things. When people talk about ‘progress’, we have to think whose progress? I think the numbers of supporters LLSB had made it evident how important Southbank is, wider than anyone probably ever imagined.
Would this simply be a case of opening back up the whole area or is there the possibility of expanding on the space, adding new obstacles perhaps? Will the bank to wall come back?
Louis: So as I mentioned before, the area that could be open, from early 2018, is a large part of this back area you are talking about, including much of the old little banks. A portion of this will still be used by the Southbank Centre for a Schools and Young People’s space. However they have agreed to continue to search for a good way to relocate this space, so that in the medium to long term we may be able to restore the space in its entirety. With regards to the bank to wall, we did originally lobby for its restoration, but this was one of the hardest aspects, partly due to its location slightly away from the rest of the space.
Paul: It was always our intention to restore it back to how it was originally. There are many aspects that have completely gone like the bank to wall. There was always going to be a compromise so we decided to focus on what was there and what was achievable. It’s going to create a whole new set of possibilities just from the restoration of the original design and features.
How long can people expect the work to take?
Louis: The fundraising is the big part. If everyone backs the project as hard as possible, if people get donating, talking about it, encouraging others and so on we could be skating the old space by January 2018. That’s what we are aiming for right now, we just need to raise about £500,000 before that can happen.
Paul: Yeah once the funds have been secured we’ll crack on with the building work straight away, we have created a plan of work that will mean the space will be ready for opening in January 2018.
What can people who are interested do the get involved?
Louis: We are now at a stage of the campaign where it really does come down to us raising the required money to get everything done. A great way of supporting the campaign is through donating or running your own fundraisers. We just had a band email us saying they wanted to put on a gig and donate the profits to us, that sort of thing is really great support. We’re really open to new ideas that can help us raise the total required, you can email us at email@example.com. And if someone is able to dedicate an amount of time regularly and reliably to the campaign, then we’d be really keen to hear from them too.
"Never doubt that if the community unify together you can achieve far more than you would originally think is possible"
Paul: It’s been inspiring to see the skate scene and the wider creative community do so much for Southbank. This restoration would only be achievable if everyone comes together and adds their bit in whichever way they can, and that’s already happening. Of course the key things is spreading the word!
What advice would you give to campaigners in similar situations?
Louis: Firstly, we should mention that there is a whole article published on the Kingpin website, the Long Live Southbank Guide to Saving a Skate Spot, and of course anyone wanting advice is free to email us at the above address for advice that is less one size fits all. But if I had to distill this all into one sentence I would tell them to never doubt that if the community unify together you can achieve far more than you would originally think is possible, so have that belief.
Paul: LLSB has been proactive in helping many other campaigns and it's great to see the successes and hopefully each one will inspire more. I think the main thing for people to be aware of is that behind the scenes of campaigns is an immense amount of work. More than people would imagine. Blood, sweat and tears kind of vibe. Dig deep, stick with it, get as many people to help and support as possible and never give up.
Thanks to both Louis and Paul, and everyone else involved in LLSB, for their time and hard work in securing this victory for the skateboard community. Please do get involved in any way that you can and help restore the Southbank Undercroft.