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 an issue of “the many versus the few.” The revenue generated by the proposed commercial units in the undercroft will help fund the construction of the Festival Wing and bolster the Southbank’s coffers. Nonetheless, Southbank is keen to prove they value the “few”: the institution intends to replace the undercroft with a new £1m skatepark at the nearby Hungerford Bridge underpass. But, many skateboarders argue that the undercroft, as the birthplace of UK skateboarding, is irreplaceable. Plus, the idea of a planned skatepark is anathema to an activity predicated on the independent and continual physical reinterpretation of found space.
Fundamentally though, “this is not about the skateboarders,” as Kelly told me. In a way, I think she’s right. The redevelopment in fact illuminates a larger, less-publicised issue. This is about the purpose of public spaces. To whom does public space belong? And how should it be used? Genuinely public spaces in Britain are shrinking each year. This, as the journalist Anna Minton has argued in her bookGround Control, is the result of the increasing privatisation of public land. Over the past two decades, huge swathes of the country’s cities have been purchased and redeveloped as privately-owned estates. While many of our historically public spaces continue to masquerade as such, they are now in fact under corporate control (a map produced by the Guardian provides a visual sense of this shift in landownership). Some of these open-air “malls without walls“, such as Liverpool One, operate on a massive scale. And these spaces are becoming ubiquitous, at least in London. There’s Paddington Basin in west London, Cardinal Place in Victoria, the newly-opened Granary Square at King’s Cross. Even the most visible emblem of local democracy is held privately. City Hall and the surrounding pedestrian area on the Thames is owned by More London and run as a “managed estate.”
The problem lies in how these spaces are run. If these spaces are managed appropriately they can be a boon to communities; south London’s Bermondsey Square development, for instance, won an award for “best new public space” in 2011. But, as local government watchdog London Assembly has noted, “problems can arise with privately managed public spaces in which commercial interests prevail over public access.” In order to minimise litigation and maximise revenues, private owners often install surveillance systems and employ security outfits to police open areas. Security teams regulate unwanted activities: the homeless are (often forcibly) removed, Big Issue-sellers are told to move along. In 2012, when the Occupy movement started protesting outside the London Stock Exchange on Paternoster Square (privately owned by Mitsubishi Estate Co), they learned the hard way that political protesters are not welcome. These groups represent ways of thinking that deviate from the desired modus vivendi: consumerism. The measures taken to foster an environment palatable to consumers shuts out those without the resources or inclination to play along.
The undercroft is in danger of succumbing to the model of land management championed by these “private-public” spaces. Owned by the Southbank, the undercroft is technically private. But if public land is defined as space freely accessible by the public, then the undercroft is in the public realm. (In an attempt to have the public nature of the undercroft better recognised, LLSB have successfully petitioned Lambeth Council to register the undercroft as an “Asset of Community Value”). If the Southbank carries out its proposed changes, allowing a multitude of restaurants and cafes to set up shop in an enlarged undercroft, it will commodify the space and contribute to the gentrification of the rapidly-developing South Bank area.
Of course, the Southbank Centre is not some malign corporate giant. To the contrary: it’s a charity, tasked with providing the public with a diverse and affordable arts programme—something that it does with aplomb. It wants to better provide for its audiences, a task made increasingly difficult by the Art Council’s funding cuts. And there are aspects of the Festival Wing redevelopment plan about which I am enthusiastic. Southbank will be adding to the number of spaces open to the public with the creation of “foyer spaces” linking Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery, and the BFI. It also intends to add two more gardens to their roof garden complex. And Southbank stresses that it’s not ushering out the skaters in exchange for a Starbucks. At this stage, the institution cannot say exactly to whom it will be leasing the space, but Kelly tells me they will be independent, local endeavours. (Although an exhibition they recently staged on the redevelopment talked about a mix of “independent businesses” and “established names.”)
But I think that that misses the point. Since the skateboarders arrived 40 years ago, the undercroft has evolved into a place of anarchic freedom, without any ties to consumerism. Once construction commences in early 2015, restaurants and cafes will take the place of a a space which was characterised by both the skaters’ sense of common purpose and the delight of passersby at such displays of bravura. There is nothing inherently wrong with restaurants and cafes. The arrival of these commercial enterprises, though, will prioritise certain behaviours. As is the case with other pseudo-public spaces, you’ll be expected to buy something and then move along, thank you. The spontaneity of the skateboarder will be verboten. As Edwards-Wood said at a lecture at the Architecture Foundation in early September, “[Skateboarding has] never needed any structure, any kind of higher governing body. There are no rules written down.” Because its practitioners engage with urban areas in unexpected and unintended ways, skateboarding represents a freedom from hierarchy and authority—sensibilities that the undercroft’s conversion into commercial floor space will eradicate. “Look at what we made,” LLSB tells Jude Kelly in one of the campaign’s videos. Over generations, these locals built something that was fun, free and engendered a sense of identity and meaning. They built a community, and it is this that the Southbank threatens.