“While in the Hoxton area, we scooted along to the Arthouse, 168 Pitfield Street, London, N1 for ‘A Surface In Between,’ a group exhibition of ‘skate culture’ (oxymoron, ed.?) that runs until Friday 7 June."
“Not being baggy-trousered ourselves, we left it to more foolhardy souls to catch the truly suicidal half-pipe-cum-ramp combo."
Words: Daryl Mersom | Pics: Courtesy of Rich Holland
Over the last decade skateable architecture has popped up in Malmö, Copenhagen, Oslo, Espoo, and Tallinn, to name just a few places. But as the above laughable review of ‘A Surface In Between’ reminds us, the construction of skateable architecture first gained traction in 00's London. The Side Effects of Urethane consisted of a small group of London skaters, which included Rich Holland and Landscape’s Toby Shuall, amongst others.
Whilst they were building progressive asymmetrical obstacles that were made to resemble 3D computer renderings (especially when placed within the open space of the white cube), contemporary reviewers were stuck using language straight out of the 90's (“baggy-trousered" and “half-pipe-cum-ramp combo"), somewhat missing the significance of the events.
Of course skaters have built obstacles since day one, but what was happening in London in the early 00's brought skateboarding and architecture together within the gallery space, and presented the result as art – not sport – to the mainstream.
»What was happening in London in the early 00's brought skateboarding and architecture together«
The first self-titled TSEOU exhibition took place at the Old Jam Factory near London Bridge and was visited by Bobby Puleo. Since then Rich has worked on numerous projects, including an imitation New York style street in London for Cons, and on a wooden installation in the Swedish forest. He has also worked on gallery installations, for example ‘At First We Take Museums’ at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Finland.
For ‘Moving Units,’ the collective’s third project, TSEOU reached out to the Southbank to create new ledges for the space, though unfortunately, the project had unforeseen long-term impacts.
“Up until that point, there wasn’t really anyone else engaging with the Southbank in a positive manner," Rich Holland told me. “So we engaged with the Southbank in a positive way to make something skateable at the Southbank, and by doing that they defined the area of the Southbank that is skateable."
“That area is what they then used to define the area of what is skated in this latest Hungerford Bridge Southbank development thing. You know the area they were looking at was the area that was initially set up by them in response to us positively trying to make something at the Southbank for skateboarding through ‘Moving Units.’ They then used that against the skateboarders in the longer term Southbank development."
»They then used us positively trying to make something at the Southbank for skateboarding against the skateboarders in the longer term Southbank development« – Rich Holland
“If we hadn’t have engaged with the Southbank and put skateable sculptures at the Southbank, they would have never had an area to define how big the skateable space was in the first place."
Another skateable installation that Rich was involved with, along with Blueprint and Nike SB, ran into trouble when a local groundsman complained about the objects.
“At that time I was the London representative of the UK skateboarding association, and so this guy emailed the London rep of the UK skateboarding association about these objects, and of course that was me, and I was like, ‘oh this has been organized through a company called Bullet, why don’t you speak to Bullet,’ and then I passed on my email at Bullet creative, so he then emailed Bullet creative, me, you know, with my other hat on."
“And I was like, ‘I dunno, it could have been The Side Effects of Urethane, why don’t you email them,’ and of course that was also me, so I had this guy going round and round in circles for about two months, and he never clicked that it was always the same person."
Since The Side Effects of Urethane projects in the 00's Europe has seen a proliferation of skateable architecture. Buildings such as the Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Center subtly incorporate skateable features into their designs, though they are of course not built exclusively for skateboarding.
»Architects surely love the exposure they get from making a good spot – in what other circumstances would their creation get so much attention?«
You may also recognize Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s work in Barcelona. Officials were told that the paving stones were installed to shield the vegetation from the sea. In fact, they form one enormous bank which has featured in numerous videos and photographs (aside: architects surely love the exposure they get from making a good spot – in what other circumstances would their creation get so much attention?).
And then there are the public squares where skateboarding is being encouraged, for instance, Landhausplatz in Innsbruck, Värnhemstorget in Malmö, and Israels Plads in Copenhagen.
Tallinn’s Pelgulinna Kolde Avenue Square
Risto Kozer, who is studying for an MA in Urban Governance at Tallinn University and works at Linnasilm (which translates as ‘urban eye’ in English), told me about his work putting skateable objects at Pelgulinna Kolde Avenue Square in Tallinn.
“In 2015, me and Silver Liiberg (architect/skateboarder) had a co-operation project with Latvian architects from the group MANUAL: Urban Sports & Architecture, who wanted to install skateable small-forms to Tallinn Old Town within Tallinn Architecture Biennale as a satellite project."
“The idea was to promote urban sports in the city in a provocative and proactive way. All the designs and sketches were done, but at the end we didn’t get the permission and approval from The City Government and so the readymade concrete small-forms stood still and waited for their time in Tallinn."
“It was a very long way from the initial idea to the end result, and so I do want to emphasise, all the production, project management and final sketches were made here in Tallinn. During that waiting period in between the Estonian Skateboarding Association was born (Risto Kozer, Silver Liiberg, Antti Sinitsyn) and so we took the project over."
»The square now lives its own positive social urban life. – Better late in the autumn then never« – Risto Kozer
“In 2016 we searched for different asphalted vacant spaces all over the Tallinn city centre, and wasted four months with bureaucracy. The answer and interest from the City Council was zero, until we contacted Northern-Tallinn's Administration. In August they had finished a new vacant public square in Pelgulinn, which was the perfect place to install the small-forms and after three months of tense communication and a public referendum, the administration gave us the green light. Now it's done and the square lives its own positive social urban life. Better late in the autumn then never."
“The contract with Northern-Tallinn's Administration for the installation of small-forms was made for one year, after that they're gonna look over the extension of the contract; so it's still a temporary urban intervention."
Risto is now working on other urban projects, including urban ping pong and experimental architecture and design. His “main mission is to grow and expand Estonia's urban design practices, so that every park and every public square design will include skateboarding."
“Estonia is going to be 100 years old and for that the Estonian Union of Architects organized public square architecture competitions for small towns. Personally for me it is sad to watch how narrow-mindedly our architects think and work. There was no winning design which would have integrated or thought about urban sports or skateboarding – only formal aspects."
»It is sad to watch how narrow-mindedly our architects think and work. – Risto Kozer
“Luckily there are some exceptions in Estonia, like Tartu-based landscape architecture studio Tajuruum, which is creating precedents."
Philipp Schuster’s Skate Villa
Skateable architecture is not limited to just art spaces and public squares, and since the recent DIY boom, skaters have been encouraged and supported to make their own unique spots.
For instance, Philipp Schuster, with the help of Red Bull, created a DIY spot in the living room of a house.
“I got the nonbinding offer to use the ground floor of a house on the hills in Salzburg. After I saw the location in real life I immediately had a DIY skatepark design in mind. Together with Red Bull we worked on a story that would fit to this approach and I thought it would be cool to play with the childhood dream that a lot of people in my generation had: a ramp/skatepark in the living room. So we worked on the idea of a skateable living room."
»I thought it would be cool to play with the childhood dream that a lot of people in my generation had: a ramp/skatepark in the living room« – Philipp Schuster
“I never said that this would be my home and it was obvious that this would be a project with a date of expiry. But media and journalists were so obsessed by the idea that I would have a skatepark in my living room that the rumour that I actually live there persists up until today – very interesting."
“There was another project that happened right after the skate villa. I realized it with a couple of friends in Vienna. It’s not exactly a skatepark in the living room, but a skate bowl in the basement of the house of my friend Johannes."
The future of skateable architecture
We can all see that public space is diminishing in the UK; we do not need statistics to prove this, as we know from our lived experience that it is not perceived to be of value. This makes it seem rather unlikely that the UK will follow the trend in the Nordic countries and begin to incorporate skateable features into the designs of public spaces, as we will struggle to get new public spaces built in the first place.
When I asked Rich why the Nordic countries in particular seem to be so good at incorporating elements of skateable architecture into their public spaces, he offered me this thought.
»What started with The Side Effects of Urethane in 00's London has grown into an international phenomenon, but in 2016 the UK is now lagging behind«
“I’m not sure if it is the fact that they are Nordic, but more the idea that they are more socialist and less capitalist. The UK has monetised the idea of public space, especially in the centres of cities, but the Nordic countries are less like this. Free expression is more accepted in socialist countries."
“Or, is it they are a bit more forward thinking, accepting the concept that the actual act of skateboarding is a positive activity that is physically and mentally good for someone, and is also an expression that gives an extra dynamic to spaces by making them multifunctional?"
What started with The Side Effects of Urethane in 00's London has grown into an international phenomenon, but in 2016 the UK is now lagging behind the rest of Europe. If we want urban public spaces that we can use for multiple purposes without having to buy a coffee, we have to act before it is too late.