An Interview with Professor Iain Borden on Southbank and Skatepark Design from the 1970s to the Present.


Photo courtesy of Gorm Ashurst

Would you outline your perspective on skateboarding, it seems to mix various academic disciplines?

Skateboarding is both simple and pretty complex to me. On the one hand, and perhaps most importantly, it is something which I have personally been involved with since around 1977, skating on and off right up to the present day. At 52 years old (and counting) I’m probably skating now as much as I have ever done, every weekend and often once or twice in the week too. I’m a fairly old school transition skater (with odd bits of local neigbourhood cruising), so my perspective here relates to the pure enjoyment of carves and grinds, plus the occasional aerial and invert. On this level, it’s simple personal pleasure, enjoying the trajectories and sounds of moving through space.

On the other level, I have been an academic historian-theorist of cities and architecture at University College London since 1989, and I have always been interested less in what architects do/design/think, and more in what ‘ordinary’ people do with buildings and urban spaces once these constructions have been built. So skateboarding here takes me into a world of spatial experiences, bodily practices, cultural meanings, politics, art works and just about every other facet of urban life. It is a fantastic way to comprehend how cities can, should and indeed are being used creatively, and even generating kinds of new activities and benefits to society as a whole. Academically, I guess my work is what is often called interdisciplinary, as it draws on architecture, geography, ethnography, film studies, urban studies etc etc – but really I just try to comprehend what is going on, and whatever academic tools are at my disposal get put to work.

The work on automobile driving is actually very similar – although my book Drive did also end up being more about filmic representations of car driving than has my work on skateboarding. But essentially it is trying to look at similar questions – how do people use and experience urban spaces, and what pleasures and benefits might be gained from these practices?

I agree with your use of the phrase ‘pure enjoyment’, there is a sense that it can be almost meditative.  

Yes, I agree with idea of skateboarding being meditative, but only up to a point. I guess I associate ‘meditative’ with activities like cycling, walking or swimming, where you spend long periods of continuous time doing the same thing, and get lost in your own inner thoughts. With skateboarding, for me at least, this doesn’t happen in quite the same way, but I guess over a session of 1-2 hours or so, I think about practically nothing other than the act of skateboarding itself – you are pushing yourself, but only in reference to skateboarding, if that makes sense.

Do you have a favourite park or spot?   

Not really, there are too many different places to skate, and each has its own joys and charms. I do wish more of the 1970s skateparks were still around though – Rolling Thunder in Brentford, for example, was a totally crazy indoor wonderland, and I would give an awful lot to skate there one more time . . .

Do you have a favourite video or skater?  

Cab, all day long. And probably the “How to draw (the perfect line)” sequence of him in “Ban This.” Smooth, complex, and completely mesmerising.

Would you be able to speak a little bit about the current status of skateboarding at the Southbank?

I am very pleased that skateboarding has stayed at the Undercroft. I know some people got very vexed because Badger (Richard Holland), Søren Enevoldsen and I worked with the Southbank Centre to look at the alternative site underneath Hungerford Bridge, but we always wanted that to be a viable alternative if the Undercroft did indeed get closed down. There is even an outside chance that the Hungerford Bridge project might still get provided as an addition to the Undercroft, but I guess that may well not happen now. Most importantly, though, skateboarding is now firmly established on the Southbank Centre site, and has its future pretty much guaranteed there for many years to come. And it has also been celebrated and welcomed by not only skaters but also politicians, activists, thousands of members of the general public, and – yes – by the Southbank Centre itself as a beneficial presence. This is a a wonderful victory for skateboarding as a whole, and not just at Southbank – it shows that skateboarding is generally being welcomed and appreciated as an urban phenomenon, and is not being side-lined, side-tracked or marginalised.

I do have two small regrets about the Southbank campaign. Firstly, that it turned into such an opposition into the Undercroft vs Hungerford Bridge, where these two spots were being completely contrasted to each other. Actually, I think they shared an awful lot, and both were, of course, ultimately about keeping skateboarding on the Southbank – and so it would have been good to have a somewhat more open debate about this. Secondly, I do sometimes worry about the very long term history of skateboarding at the Southbank, in that the Undercroft has a fantastic history and atmosphere, but could be even richer and welcoming as a place for skaters to skate – additions, improvements, etc would be welcome, and I am sure the user group that meets now with the Southbank Centre will be pushing for these things, either in the Undercroft itself or even perhaps at Hungerford Bridge and/or other nearby spots.

I think that both sites – owing to their location – are performative spaces. So in that way they are similar.  

One of the issues with the Undercroft is how much it turns skateboarding into a spectacle, watched by non-skaters from the other side of the barrier. Some of the skaters there have consequently talked of feeling like a performing seal in a zoo. Not good. I think the Hungerford Bridge site would be even more open to the public, and also integrated with them – Søren’s designs were all about bringing the public into the skate site, making it seem more like a real public space that is good to skate, rather than the pseudo-skate plaza which the Undercroft can sometimes seem like, with a bounding fence and them-and-us separation of skaters and non-skaters.

Are architects now doing more to engage people with spaces?

There are signs of architects doing more – some of the things Søren Enevoldsen and others have done in Copenhagen and elsewhere in Denmark are good. There are hints of things at the Landhausplatz designed by LAAC Architekten and Stiefel Kramer Architecture in Innsbruck, the Phaeno Science Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects in Wolfsburg, Auditoria Park by Foreign Office Architects in Barcelona, and Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta architects. Tony Bracali’s Paine’s Park in Philadelphia also shows how public spaces can be made good for skaters and general public uses at the same time. Janne Saario and Johan Berglund are other architects/designers/skaters who seem to have a similar eye and approach. But does this all add up to a new trend in urban design? Not yet, no. But it does show that if public opinion continues to increasingly support skateboarding, as it seems to be doing, then the design ideas and talent are there, ready and waiting, to seize the opportunity.

Some of the most interesting things here are coming from new areas of skate terrain provision. The whole DIY scene is obviously one of these, but we are also now beginning to see new social providers of skate terrains. To give one example – one project I am involved in presently is the new multi-million pound 5 storey urban sports park being developed in Folkestone by the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, and where Guy Hollaway Architects and Maverick are designing a pretty amazing combination of dramatic architecture, skatepark, skate plaza and social enterprise. If this comes off, and I have no reason to think that it won’t, this could be a game-changer for skatepark provision, where it is placed right at the heart of urban redevelopment.

How do architects deal with the fact that these spaces will be damaged by skateboarding?

Architects are generally speaking a pretty progressive bunch, and I think typically welcome the idea that their buildings might get used and even abused by skateboarders – and they are perfectly capable of designing in hard surfaces and edges that can withstand and encourage skateboarding. However, it is the clients, developers and urban managers who tend to oppose skateboarding, generally being worried about disorder, and how this might affect their business functions. What is interesting about projects like the Folkestone urban sports facility, or say a skatepark like the one in Louisville, Kentucky, is that these facilities are being deliberately added into cities as an essential part of creative and social activity – not something to be contained or marginalised, but celebrated and placed front and centre.

Do you see skating as a transgressive act?

When I wrote my book Skateboarding Space and the City some 15 years ago,  transgression was very much something which I saw as a central part of skateboarding – as something which stepped over certain boundaries (legal, social, political) and stuck two fingers up at normative society. Today, transgression is still here, and it is certainly often an important part of skateboarding. But I also thing skateboarding and the world has moved on, and become a much richer, creative dynamic. So I am now writing a much revised and expanded book, to be called Skateboarding and the City: a Complete History, and in this I am trying to show the creative/collaborative as well as the destructive/oppositional sides to skateboarding in much more depth – from DIY to new transition skating, long boarding/cruising, new skate-related art, photography and film, entrepreneurialism, and also the kinds of projects like Skateistan, and which do so much to build the lives of youth who otherwise would be, quite frankly, lost. Skateboarding has so much potential, so much to give to the world, is really part of the world, and I want to tell these stories too. If I have one wish for skateboarding, it is for skaters to be more tolerant and open to all kinds of, and approaches to, skateboarding. It’s all good, and let’s tell the world about it.


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