You Can’t Move History

In A Sense of Place, Buildings by Cayla Delardi

When I think about issues of place and historic preservation, the first thing that comes to mind is the inspiration for my senior thesis: the undercroft at the Southbank Centre in London, the oldest continually used, found (i.e. not purpose-built) skate spot in the world.  In 2013, while spending my second year abroad in London, I witnessed the unfolding of a commercial redevelopment plan which hoped to replace this iconic spot with a series of shops and restaurants, and the swift creation of a grassroots campaign that was intent on preserving its cultural legacy.

Built in 1951, the Southbank Centre, of which the Undercroft is a part, is a large performing arts complex on the south bank of the Thames river in London. It has 3 main buildings: Royal Festival Hall, The Hayward Gallery, and Queen Elizabeth Hall, all of which are meters away from the National Theater, BFI London, the London Eye, and the Houses of Parliament.  Not only does the Centre’s various events attract more than a million visitors annually, but it is also in the middle of a tourist hotspot, an important fact to note when considering why the Southbank Centre would have wanted to commercialize the area.  The Undercroft itself is located underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall, which sits one story above ground level.  Although there has always been an open space under the Hall, it was unappealing and generally avoided by the public until the 1970s when skateboarders adopted it as their own. Since it became a skate spot, it has attracted hundreds of thousands of skateboarders, BMX bikers, street artists, and spectators from around the globe, and serves as a second home for many London skateboarders as well. 

Southbank Centre

In March 2013, a new plan was unveiled for the Southbank Centre’s £120 million Festival Wing project, which, as I mentioned before, intended to replace the iconic skate spot with a series of chain retail shops and restaurants.  By the very next month, a campaign against this redevelopment—called Long Live Southbank—was already in full swing.

SBC Festival Wing Project

One of the campaigners’ main arguments for the preservation of the undercroft (apart from its obvious use value to the skateboarding community and spectators alike) is that the location and architecture of the space could not be separated from its rich history, culture, or community, all of which worked together to add life particularly to the dull, brutalist architecture of the buildings that surrounded it, but also to London in general.  They felt that to remove this unique space and replace it with shops and restaurants would make it almost identical to the shopping center which already existed only meters away, and would represent a further homogenization of a city that is renowned for its arts and culture as well.

The vitality of the undercroft is something that I can attest to from personal experience; every time I visited—both before and during the period of potential closure—there was a constant flow of skateboarders traversing the grounds between every graffiti-covered wall, creating not only ample visual stimulation but auditory as well in the echoes of their wheels and boards hitting the concrete.  There was an equally continual flow of people, from children to senior citizens, stopping at the thin metal railing which separated the skateboarders from the pedestrians to watch in excitement.  It was a vibrant, energetic space unlike any other I’d been to before, which is why I became so invested in the LLSB campaign along with tens of thousands of others.

Inside the Undercroft

In November 2013, after months of relentless correspondence between Long Live Southbank, the city council and the Southbank Centre, a proposition was made in an attempt to appease the campaigners. This came in the form of the Hungerford Bridge skatepark, a £1 million project which would essentially relocate the Undercroft to a space under the Hungerford railway bridge just 120 meters away from its original location. Although it is true that an organically designed, found space is typically more appealing to street skateboarders than a purpose-built skatepark, a notion which has been supported by the case of the Undercroft itself, this particular space was not well-received by activists for a variety of reasons.  For some, it was a flawed design resulting from a lack of regard for the needs and desires of the skateboarders who would be using it.  Criticisms ranged from the space being too flat, to it not including enough big obstacles, to the detrimental impairment of sound due to the trains passing overhead.  Even just comparing images of the two spaces, it is clear to me why these concerns would have been raised.  The new park looked sterile in comparison to the original, dynamic undercroft space.

Hungerford Bridge Skatepark

For other campaigners though, the layout of the space was entirely irrelevant because they believed that the concept of an alternative skate spot was inherently flawed.  They felt that whether it was to be moved 1 meter or 1,000 meters away, the rich history of the Undercroft is irreplaceable and non-transferrable to any other location.

After releasing their formal rejection of the Hungerford Bridge skate space, Long Live Southbank’s fight for preservation without relocation resumed as usual.  They continued petitioning, letter-writing and tabling until September 18th, 2014, when the Section 106 settlement agreement was finally drawn between the two parties, which required them both to withdraw any applications or plans to alter the Undercroft, effectively saving it from redevelopment and securing it as a future home for skateboarders.

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