A clash of the arts was brought to London’s attention earlier this year when the Southbank Centre (SBC) uncovered plans to replace the renowned Undercroft skatepark with retail units to redevelop their festival wing. By increasing shops and food chains, the SBC argue that this should generate 8% of the £120 million funds that will go towards new learning spaces for over 250,000 people.
In protest to the SBC’s plans to gentrify the now iconic Undercroft, the non-profit organization Long Live Southbank (LLSB) was formed to preserve this artistic hub for future generations. I talked to the spokesperson at LLSB, Henry Edward-Woods, who has been skateboarding at the Undercroft for several years, and has witnessed the rapid commercialisation of the area in the past decade.
In 2005, the Undercroft lost approximately two thirds of its space to the opening of food chains such as EAT and Wagamamas. Henry commented that, back then, ‘I didn’t feel like I could be involved, I didn’t know anything, I just watched the bigger boys sort it out.’ When SBC postponed their plans to redevelop the remaining parts of the skate park, Henry’s experience as a skateboard enthusiast and documentary maker aided his protest to preserve this ‘skateboarding oasis.’
…and that’s why Southbank was so amazing…
The history of the Undercroft traces back to its role as the birthplace of the skateboarding scene in the UK. In contrast to its cool youthful image today Henry recalls, ‘When I started skateboarding people would shout abuse at you from every angle, and that’s why Southbank was so amazing. It was a sanctuary for skateboarders, and you would think, “Here are my people, this is my family, this is where I belong.”’
Skateboarders began using the Undercroft in the 1970’s, when the area was considered derelict and dangerous, many years before the SBC had been established. The Undercroft created a platform for skateboarders to interpret an architectural accident, displaying how skateboarding is ‘a human reaction to the modern world, it’s literally a primal thing, being like this is our natural environment and skateboarding is a way to explore that and make sense of it.’
…The beauty about the skatepark is that it has evolved over many decades into what it is today…
However the SBC has tried to compromise this through plans to build a new skatepark almost 100 meters away beneath Hungerford Bridge. Henry however argues that this plan defeats the point because it ‘becomes a form of entrapment, and commercialises the art. The beauty about the skatepark is that it has evolved over many decades into what it is today, and is completely natural. The interpretation of that space by skateboarders stands to represent the skateboarding ethos. Once something is manufactured for skateboarders, it loses that ethos.’
With the support of journalists, celebrities, commentators, MPs, English Heritage, 14,000 individual planning objections, and nearly 60,000 petition signatures, the LLSB can now boast their first victory as of July 4th when the SBC announced that they were put their planning application on hold. Perhaps such support runs deeper than the actual cause, as it also stands testament to the power of the underdog.
…It’s about freedom of expression…
Although this is only the first step, through increasing public awareness LLSB is confident that they will be able to preserve their space and have it labelled a village green space under the Commons Act 2006. ‘The thing is, it’s not actually about skateboarding. It’s about freedom of expression, and human beings fighting not to be homogenised.’