Are you a skateboarder yourself?
Yeah, I still skate a lot. Can’t help it. I just got back from a skate trip in China, so much fun.
Did you get any ideas from those Chinese marble plazas?
I have to clear this one up. In 90 percent of the times skaters talk about perfect marble benches etc., the material is actually polished granite. You can polish granite and make it super clean and reflective, and all skaters think it’s marble. Marble is amazing, but it contains chalk and is usually a bit pourose, which makes it vulnerable if grinded. I love it as surface though, it feels a bit “soft” to ride even though it rides perfect. It’s weird.
China’s amazing. The plazas are perfect – almost too perfect. I love to skate them, but for filming they almost become a bit boring and anonymous. They are so perfect that you kind of have to do super hard tricks in order to make the footage relevant. It’s all about the trick difficulty because you can tell that everything is perfect. But it’s definitely also possible to find more rugged street spots in china. My friend Jonas loves to skate what he calls “shit spots” with cracks and cobblestones, so I snapped photos for him to show him that there’s plenty of shit spots to skate there as well.
I didn’t really get that much specific skate-related design inspiration on this trip, and I didn’t expect to. I always snap photos and make mental notes at spots for my work. Small detail like ex. a nice slant on a level distance or how a place has certain drainage holes in the granite that works well with skateboarding or other nerdy stuff. But I’ve travelled with skateboarding for app. 25 years, so I’ve seen a lot of skate spots. So to be honest, I feel like I’ve seen enough spots for inspiration. I’m also a skate nerd so I have always kept up with the latest kind of skating and terrain. So it’s usually there I get new inspiration. I take screen dumps of new variations of skate possibilities. Like when the euro bump and low to high ledges became a thing in the 90’s and how pole jams to wallride and L-shaped ledges became a thing a couple of years ago. I was in Japan last autumn, they definitely has some interesting terrain and material combinations.
However I did get a lot of other architectural inspiration in China though. I hung out a lot in the small alleys of the Hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing. The Hutongs are the traditional low-rise high density housings. The public life there is so interesting. How the local barber shop is the gossip hang out. And after dinner the old guys jump into their sleepwear and grabs their bird cage and go to the local park to meet up with their homies to smoke cigarettes and let the birds hang out and sing to each other. And people of all ages go to the parks every night to do work-out dancing. A guys rides up on his scooter with a sound system, and random people just join the dance. I’d love to see more of this kind of life in our cities. And I hope to do stuff that enhances the possibilities for that to happen. Also in combination with skate able areas. I really believe that skate-related architecture gets way more relevant when mixed with other activities.
Would you talk a little about SNE architects and the work that you do?
I’ve designed skateparks since I was in Architect School back in 2001, just small stuff here and there. I opened up my own practice in 2006 since I got commissioned to do a big skatepark (Fælledparken Skatepark). Since then I’ve worked with various skate-related projects, and has now also expanded our work to a wider spectrum of active urban spaces. We are 3 people working at the office now. We value the combination of a user-friendly design with aesthetic and spatial qualities. If we do skate-related architecture it is essential that the fundamental geometries work for an optimized skate flow. But, as architects, we also require the places/spaces to do more, which we can achieve by combining several functions.
The involvement of various user groups is at the core when we develop projects. We regard all information and knowledge as relevant – both that received from toddlers, day-to-day users, spectators, professional skaters etc. This will not only ensure a sense of ownership, but in combination with the potentials of the place, an architectural and user friendly gem will arise.
What is an ‘active urban space’?
Active urban space is just a phrase I use in terms of a more democratic urban space. In cities you are always told what to do. Everything is organized and targeted towards certain behavioral patterns and you become inactive and zombie-like. I want to create places with a more free/abstract approach to behaviour where a greater variety of people can co-exist. If you see a tree in nature it can be used in so many different ways. Birds eat from it, old people hang out under it in the shadow, kids climb it or hang a swing from it, you can simply enjoy its beauty, you seek shelter during the rain etc. You have to become “active” in your approach the tree. Just like a skater is “active” when he searches the city for new possibilities. That approach can be applied to so many other city dwellers.
In terms of skateboarding, all you basically need for a skatespot to be succesful, is basically a couple of granite benches placed on a somewhat large flatground area with a smooth hard surface placed in an inner city context. If the area is designed so it’s not packed with other people and it’s surrounded with hang out areas or other activities, the synergy starts to happen. Take LOVE park, the old EMB, MACBA, SouthBank, Tompkins Square Park, Opéra de Lyon, Pier 7 etc. – these places are all surrounded by a busy urban life, and both skaters, spectators and all other people benefit from the vibrant life that happens.
We have this plaza in Copenhagen – The Red Square. There’s nothing there but flatground and the occasional movable garbage can. But it’s perfect. You want to be there all day. Skate, hang out, go to the store, drink a beer, watch the local gangsters do their thing, watch a basketball match or a music video shooting, meet a friend that rides by. And you see the local girls bring their water pipe to hang out and watch skaters. I love to see these clashes of people that would never meet otherwise. I think that is what creates acceptance and understanding between cultures.
One of the projects on your site, Bispeengbuen, strikingly resembles a DIY space in Bristol – Cumberland Basin. What was the plan for Bispeengbuen?
I’m stoked to hear that you get a legal DIY spot. Congrats. Yeah we were invited to do a pitch for it. We didn’t win though – even though we should have (laughs). I’ve helped out the winner with her project though. Just legal stuff and how to find the right people to build it. I didn’t use the pillars, but I took inspiration in the beams of the undercroft of the bridge. The project where targeted towards other people than skaters, and it is only a temporary project until they do a permanent project there, plus the where very little money for the project. If you ask me, they should definitely incorporate skateboarding and utilize the potential of the pillars in the future permanent project.
Rabalder Park looks incredible, would you be able to talk about the difficulties of incorporating skating into a drainage system?
Thanks. It was difficult since the main purpose is to bring water from A to B, and store it. Engineers calculated an estimate of the amount of water and the speed of it in certain possible rain situations. These calculations are then translated into volumes and turning ratios etc. So when I designed the bowl I had to make it fit a certain volume, and when designing the canal, it was very hard for me to get permission to make a transition instead of a bank, because the surrounding soil was polluted and therefore very expensive to move. All these restrictions made it a bit more complicated to design.
Are architects in Copenhagen incorporating skateable aspects into their designs for buildings? From an outsider’s perspective it seems like a haven. Israel Plads must be designed for skating?
It’s funny you ask that. Jonathan Mehring just wrote me a month ago asking the same question for his upcoming book. You see interesting landscape architecture pop up with street spots all over the city. That has a little to do with the government being really interested in public health. They have a huge interest in getting the public to do more physical activities. They want to support “unorganized sports in the urban realm” – Skating, parkour, stretching, work out, street basket etc. A lot of different funds support those initiatives with extra money. Ex. “LOA” (Lokale- anlægsfonden) is a fund that supports sports and culture (They are funded by taxes from soccer gambling). The different funds are really interested in learning how to do this right.
On top of that there has also been a much larger focus on landscape architecture for the past 10 years. And with that a lot of interesting projects pop up with unintentional skate spots. The more conventional architects look at successful projects and learn from that, and some weird shit pops up from that.
Israels Plads has this basin that is actually made specifically for skate-scooters. A friend of mine designed it and made sure that local skaters built it right. But I usually end up skating the ledges that are not made for skating.
When you build a spot do you consider the potential for it to be rough and imperfect, and so challenging in a good way?
As a skater I love different surface textures and materials – a granite ledge, a brick surface, a hollow steel sculpture etc. They feel and sound different and adds to the experience. I could picture myself designing a rough or bricked bank or something. But skateboarding is pretty challenging in itself, so I don’t think I’d design a ten stair hand rail with a huge crack in front of it or a handicap ramp made out of soft rough asphalt. That would just be a waste of skate-potential in my eyes. If you want that kind of stuff there’s the streets to explore.
If I do a skate-able spot I’ll usually make it nice to skate. A place to practice for the real streets. Jim Greco actually just made this china bank or something in his indoor skatepark that had a huge crack in the bottom, because he wanted a replica of a real skate spot. I think that’s pretty cool. But again, most skaters are not on the level of that dude. And they don’t have to deliver Hammer-Style video parts.
Do you imagine a certain way of approaching the obstacles you design?
I definitely imagine multiple lines in my design. That’s the only way to design. But yeah, sometimes people surprise me. That’s the best, I love it. To see someone interpret your design in a new way is the best. It’s feedback that I can use for my next designs. Raven Tershy just cleared the hugest gap between two transitions at Fælledparken at this years Copenhagen Open contest. That was mind blowing. I had never in my mind thought that possible.
How much freedom are you allowed in regards to materials?
It depends on the particular project. I mean, money talks, and most times there’s not nearly enough of them to do what I really want to do. But I try to get the best out of each situation. So far I have been a bit conservative with materials and usually stick to concrete because it just works. I don’t want to do ex. a granite surface if I risk that it gets uneven after 3 years. I’ve seen that happen a lot at other skateparks. The intentions are right, but if it isn’t made right it can be catastrophic for the users. So so far I’ve been “better safe than sorry”.
Lately I’ve been a bit more “bold” material-wise because I have more knowledge of the particular construction methods. I love granite and the different textures you can give these surfaces. I’d love to work with thick steel surfaces. Also bricks and wood.
What about glass? I’m thinking of the glass manual pad in Lightbox.
Sure, good idea – glass is super interesting. There’s also translucent concrete and terrazzo concrete with fluorescent plastic particles that makes it glow in the dark.
But money’s always an issue. So these kind of high end solutions are rare.
Who else should we look out for in the world of skate architecture?
I’ve had the pleasure to meet up with Janne Saario from Finland. Super nice guy. He’s also an architect and skater. He’s really thoughtful and has a poetic touch in his works that goes beyond just skate-function. I’d love to do work together with him in the future. There’s also a lot of conventional Landscape Architect companies and artists that could do amazing projects if they combined their work with an architect that knows about skating. Those kind of team works can be super interesting if done right.
What is a ‘poetic touch’?
Yeah, by poetic touch, I mean simple things done well. Celebrate how shadows play on a rough surface. Or maybe incorporate sound into your projects. Like if you skate a smooth surface and then hit a brick surface, and then some slabs, then the architecture becomes sound and rhythm. Small gestures that go beyond mere function.