As a non-skateboarder, my long-standing support for the LLSB campaign was not born of athleticism or active participation in the sport. Initially I simply respected the efforts of a community to defend its assets and stake a rightful claim to space. I was further impressed by the strength and collaboration of the community and greatly heartened by the degree of activism among its younger members, a generation often accused of apathy and wilful political disengagement. The more I observed and considered the campaign, the greater range of interpretations and inspirations I was able to draw from it and it demonstrated to me a deeply significant relationship between people, space and power. The variety of responses to the petition and the depth of feeling behind each demonstrates how significant a space can become in the definition and development of culture and community. The variety and force of these opinions lead me to question what our real relationship with space is. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person wondering…
The blight of gentrification engulfing much of London has been responsible for the widespread displacement and disenfranchisement of established communities. Throughout the course of the campaign, many supporters opposed the Southbank Centre’s planning proposal as an objection to the further commercialisation of the riverfront and public spaces in general. These are valid and pressing concerns and they bear out the proof of academic enquiries into the significance of space in urban areas.
Sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre examined the significance of social space, identifying and analysing the complex dynamics that the built urban environment contains. His work examines the construction and reproduction of class and power relations in urban areas both conceptually and materially. This is the tension at the heart of the revolt against gentrification in which we witness the city configured and reconfigured to suit the needs and desires of the designers who prescribe functions and purposes to their designs which suit the desires of dominant classes, institutions at the expense of established communities. Lefebvre identified a third aspect of space, ‘lived space’, which is a definitive factor and that by which people create meaning and purpose in the world around them. The production of meaningful social space, space occupied and valued by communities, can only arise out of the active definition and habitation of the space. It is impossible for a designated space to attain any social significance without the assent and collaboration of the people who use it, hence the people’s interaction with the space is definitive in its significance. The Undercroft is a prime example of how a space, neglected and with no established function or recreational purpose, can be appropriated and redetermined as a communal cultural space. Through the actions and creations of the skateboarders and street artists, the blank canvas of the Undercroft became a location as well as a medium of expression and community.
Lefebvre’s theories elaborated on the political potential of space, saying that ‘in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power’. Assigning or designating space for a community is process of identifying, defining and isolating that group and simultaneously exercising an exogenous authority over their practises. The large part of the Undercroft made inaccessible to skaters and the barrier placed between the Undercroft and the riverside walkway are physical manifestations of this process. These physical barriers express the Southbank Centre’s power and desire to define and constrict a space as well as the community that inhabits it.
The community’s response to these barriers and attempted containment has been characteristically dynamic: making use of it as an obstacle to be jumped over, a limitation and a boundary to be tested. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze said ‘The outside is not a fixed limit but a moving matter’ and this suggestion, that the limitations of space are not definitive but directional, perfectly sums up the interpretive and imaginative impetus behind street skating. Where most people view an access point as a point of invitation, the imaginative impetus of skateboarding finds the point of barrier, of designation and constriction, as an invitation to challenge. Through the challenges of street furniture, obstacles, walls and common-sense defying drops, skateboarders find the inspiration and apparatus of their sport. The skaters’ appropriation of the abandoned space of the Undercroft exemplifies Lefebvre’s notion of an intrinsically adaptive relationship between space and the self.
Post-modernist philosophers Gilles Delueze and Félix Guattari aimed deconstructing the dominant hierarchical, totalising understanding of the world and began creating new appreciations of experience through their philosophy of becoming. In his work Schizoanalytic Cartogrophies Guatarri theorised that an individual operates on four existential planes: the physical body, a participant in the built environment in which he exists, creative potential he contains and a locus, or medium, through which these aspects of self are conducted. A person is at all times participating in and acting upon these planes of existence: a continuous dialogue between the self, the built environment, imaginative potential and relations between these aspects of self. At the convergence of these planes lies what Abraham Maslow described as self-actualisation: the realisation and fulfilment of the potential that a person may hold. Many of the characteristics of self-actualisation can be attributed to endeavour of skateboarding (realism, problem-centring, spontaneity, autonomy, freshness of appreciation and peak experiences) but for the purposes of this article, the most pertinent aspect of the self-actualising process is the interpretive and autonomous dialogue the individual conducts between the environment and the body. The capacity to recognise a skate-able line that is unrecognisable and inaccessible to most people and the ability to bring that into being transcends the delineated planes defined by Guattari.
It is at these points of rupture, these fissures between the aspects of our physical and existential being, that a person is active in creating meaning in the world he inhabits. The Undercroft offers skateboarders an arena through which to explore this fissure by physically and creatively interpreting the concrete environment and bringing into being a new mode of expression and appreciation. It is this activity and the positive potential of human action, positive in creating new and meaningful experiences and spaces, that is central to the endeavour of ‘becoming’. Against the backdrop of our city, in which the opportunities for creative potential is stifled and limited to prescribed spaces, the Undercroft represents an authenticity and wilfulness that inspires thousands of people.
So, to me, the Undercroft as a space acts as an embodiment of what philosophers and sociologists have determined: there exists an adaptive and meaningfully creative relationship between people and the environment they inhabit. Through their environment skateboarders have achieved great acts of expression and fulfil key aspects of the self and in the process they have created and imprinted meaning upon a previously empty and meaningless space.
To its users the Undercroft is more than a collection of obstacles; it is a repository of memories, personal and shared experiences, community and potential. What the Undercroft offers non-skateboarders is not only a nerve jangling sporting spectacle but also an example of how creative potential can and should be realised, inspiring us to see barriers as opportunities and the world around us as a constant stimulus in which we create art and meaning. It is this significance, and the community that has evolved through and around it that makes the Undercroft such a treasured space in the hearts of its users and its supporters.
Words by Sarah Jane Cullinane