Hailed as the birth place of British skating—the undercroft is under threat from a new Southbank Centre development, but do they have the right to exert ownership over this most public of spaces?by Charlie McCann / November 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
I’m not a skateboarder. I tried once when I was young. It wasn’t a pretty sight. So why, then, do I care about the uncertain fate of the undercroft, that place in the underbelly of London’s Southbank Centre where skateboarders and BMXers strut their stuff? If the Southbank has its way, the undercroft will be filled with restaurants, cafes, and a performance space as part of its ambitious £120m “Festival Wing” redevelopment. Sounds good, right?
Well, no. Ever since the Southbank Centre made its plans public earlier this year it has faced a barrage of criticism for its planned conversion of the undercroft. To skateboarders, the space is legendary. The site was disused until the 1970s when it was colonised by members of London’s nascent skater scene, enticed by the undercroft’s eminently skate-able banks and edges. What was once a neglected bit of brutalist refuse is now a Mecca of British skateboarding. Generations of skateboarder enthusiasts, young and old, British and foreign, have flocked there, with some even turning a hobby into a profession. Graffitti artists have also made their mark there, turning the dour grey of the concrete walls into a visual riot of colour and expression.
It was unsurprising, then, that this community was upset by the news that the Festival Wing development required the destruction of this hallowed space. In protest, around two dozen skaters set up Long Live Southbank (LLSB) to campaign for the undercroft’s preservation. Since April, 70,000 people have joined LLSB. In that same period, over 64,000 people have signed a petitionasking Lambeth Council to prevent the skaters’ relocation. As a result of such efforts the Southbank Centre has delayed its plans by “a few months,” according to their press department, so that they could talk to the redevelopment’s critics.
Skaters vs arts administrators, street culture vs high culture—it’s the sort of David-and-Goliath story that stirs the media into a panting frenzy. It’s not immediately clear, though, why the general public should care. After all, the Southbank argues that the proposed development will better enable the Centre to provide world-class exhibitions and cultural events (half of which are free) to its ever-expanding audiences. When I spoke to artistic director Jude Kelly, she characterised this as…