You Can’t Move History Workshop Talk

Yesterday, the 24th November, saw the finale of the ‘You Can’t Move History’ project, with a film screening, workshops and talks at the House of Vans, Waterloo.

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Organised by a team of academics and arts collective BrazenBunch aiming to investigate and broaden understanding of young people and heritage, the day brought together a wide range of policymakers from prominent institutions, to discuss the issue in the context of the Long Live Southbank campaign.

Published here is Long Live Southbank campaigner Louis Woodhead’s talk on the importance of space, heritage and restoring Southbank.

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I think for me Southbank has had a far greater impact on my life, and my personality, than any other place. It’s got such a feeling to it, such an atmosphere, just a little haven of charisma, somewhere truly underground in the middle of central London.

There’s this poster that was made by Long Live Southbank back in 2013, before I was part of the campaign. It is a panorama of Southbank. Written over the top are the words skate spot, community, gallery, landmark, museum, classroom, playground, icon, home.

That goes someway to showing how much Southbank can do for someone. For most users, it starts as somewhere to go and skate, or ride BMX, or paint. But then it becomes somewhere to find friends, or have those really memorable mind broadening conversations, or be amongst and think about brutalism. It is somewhere to go when you have nowhere else to go. Southbank’s connection with the homeless is deeply rooted, and I know of more than one skater who have arrived in London with nowhere else to sleep except for Southbank. It is deeply ingrained into my identity, and I can see Southbank’s influence in every element of my life, the way I speak to people, the way I approach work, the music that I listen to. It is a gallery, constantly morphing, growing, adapting. I hate the phrase ‘university of life’, but, as a place with such a rich mixture of human beings right, in the midst of some truly incredible architecture right in the heart of London, there are few places where you can learn more about our city. Every day you witness all these crazy dynamics between commuters, theatre goers, skaters from all over the world, local kids, the homeless, and just see it all come together by the riverside. My mate calls it the watering hole, it attracts all the different species. Its diversity is what makes it so interesting.

All sorts happens at Southbank. The brutalist shapes and the atmosphere is a big draw for photographers and videographers. There are inches and inches thick of paint on the walls, built up by countless graffiti writers who come down, or street artists, with their cans, their rollers, their wheatpaste. You get all sorts of wheels, skateboards, rollerblades, unicycles, wheelchairs, fixies, remote controlled cars, BMXers. There are dancers, people filming music videos, gymnasts. There’s a healthy scene of BMXers.

Southbank has given me some of my best friends. The campaign to save it has given me the opportunity to throw myself into something I’m truly passionate about, to write for publications, and to share my view with others. Southbank has inspired me to spend more time making art. It has taught me about belonging, architecture, addiction, homelessness, maturity, politics, journalism, migration. It inspired me to go travelling. But primarily for me, it’s a place to go and skate, to do something I love, to find new ways to move around the architecture and just enjoy the feeling of rolling around with a skateboard under my feet.

I still get a tingle of excitement every time I skate over Waterloo Bridge.

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This is my experience of Southbank over just a few years. Now imagine individual after individual with their own experiences, and feelings about the place, from generation on generation, stretching back to 1973. Think about how many people have got a deep connection with the space, and the people they shared it with.

Think about all the layers of paint on the walls, all the tricks that have been landed, all the photos shot and the footage filmed. There’s not much to put in a museum, but you can see quite clearly that that is heritage.

And it is a very special place to skate. It was not designed with skateboarding in mind, the architects merely wanted to make a space open for interpretation. This makes it far more exciting and attractive for skateboarding than skating a council built Skate Park. The attraction is in the repurposing of architecture, in the fact that skaters made it was it is. There is also a great attraction in the spaces history. There is a real awareness of the tricks that have been landed in the past, in the ways it has been skated before. You can see physical marks at the bottom of the stairs and the tops of the banks. When someone opens up a new line, skates it in a new way, it is all the more exciting for the amount it has been skated before.

Locals at Southbank have a great familiarity with the architecture. We know where the cracks are instinctively, where the drain covers are, where there is a slightly raised paving slab. From love comes familiarity and from familiarity comes love.

Should such feelings be considered when discussing big development schemes? Is this mere sentimentality?

Many of the 150,000 people who signed up in support were spectators, who enjoyed spending time by the river, watching people skate, ride and paint walls. If a space touches that many people, that is surely strong evidence that it is a successful space. There is genuine culture that is meaningful to and influences a huge number of people. This should weigh very strongly in development decisions. When it does not, it raises big questions as to who is this city really being built for.

Most of the 150,000 signature were collected on the table. For me, this was one of the most positive aspects of the campaign. Every day we let ourselves into the backyard of this pizza place on Lower Marsh, got a box of membership slips, donation boxes and t shirts from our mate Joey’s house, and wheeled them over through waterloo station on this really rattley trolley.

Then we just sat and Southbank all day, talking to the public, answering their questions and telling them, as I just have to you, about what the space meant to us and how we were being treated. I think there is something really important about direct human contact in these debates. On the table, the debates were framed by those most directly affected by the proposed closure of the Undercroft.

When someone comes down, sees the space, and the everyday creativity for themselves, and can chat to a local head, who is there all the time, about the space and the situation, and exactly why they need signatures, I think that develops a far better understanding of the situation than almost any other method of communication.

Of course it requires a lot of commitment from a community to have a table up for 8 hours everyday, for more than a year. But it does mean you can have the debate in the most relevant space, with the most relevant people. You have somewhere where anyone can come and talk about the issue, and there were people who came back, time and time again, to talk about what was going on, and hear any developments.

However with the mainstream media, debates were framed in a very different way. It was a very poor vehicle with which to explore the issue. As much as we tried, it was impossible to talk well about the space that we loved in snappy soundbites. Debates on the issue were reduced to glib statements and point scoring. Everything was dumbed down and, as we adjusted for the media, we probably became more and more entrenched in our positions. Everyone became more guarded. A positive solution became harder to reach. Heavily spun half-facts were spread. People came to the table with ears full of misinformation.

After Boris Johnson’s statement in support of preserving the Undercroft, we got a call from the Evening Standard for comment. We emailed over something cautiously positive, well aware that we still had no long term guarantee for the space.  They replied asking for something a bit more ‘skater slang.’

Given the seriousness of the issue, I wasn’t really down to volunteer myself as the joke of the evening, for the sake of an easy pull quote. Nah. Not really. We decided to go fishing and emailed a quote attributed to Tommy Wright III, the well-known Tennessee gangster rapper. They bit, which was kind of nice and kind of worrying. I think that illustrates the level of fact checking, the level of seriousness you can expect from much of the mainstream media.

So, whilst the media can be a useful tool for a campaigner, I really would urge caution when it becomes the primary chamber for debating an issue. Above all, decisions should never, ever be based on media coverage.

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But what should actually be discussed, what should actually matter, with decisions like these? Money? Property Rights? Tradition? Public opinion? Emotional attachment? Creativity? What is best for the city? Or the area? Or the most disadvantaged kids? Or the most promising kids? Or the people who’ve been around?

This debate, really, is about what we value as a society. Who do we want to cater for? What heritage do we want to prioritise? What future opportunities do we want to prioritise? And are we more concerned with heritage or the future?

I would argue that, when Long Live Southbank focussed on heritage, it was a very forward looking heritage argument. There were two strands. Firstly, this has worked for so long. For 40 years people have enjoyed themselves here, people have been extraordinarily creative, built a great sense of community. Why stop it now?

The second strand was that to have a space and a community that is rooted in its heritage does an awful lot for creativity and community in the future. When people skate, ride BMX or paint at Southbank, you take inspiration of how the space has already been used. Then you build on this, or work to find completely new tricks, or spots to paint. Where there is an existing community of people who have been coming down for 10, 20, 30 years, that can give an awful lot of guidance and help to younger generations. Without that continuity, it is a lot harder for really positive communities to continue to thrive.

I believe that heritage cannot be used as an argument in itself. ‘This space has great heritage’ shouldn’t be sufficient to win an argument. However heritage can often be a very forward looking thing.

Public opinion was also central to the debate and rightly so. People should be able to have a say in their cities development, and their opinions should be listened to. Many people feel that London is changing too fast, completely out of their control. The rate of development is incredibly high. New high rises are going up all the time, and places which locals hold dear are often trampled over. Just last week the Bussey Building in Peckham, which is a community rooted hub for theatre, spoken word and music, as well as being a hugely popular club came under threat from developers.

The issue of the Undercroft shows how much people care about these sorts of issues. 150,000 people signed a preservation statement. That is more than the conservative Party have members. However, on a great number of planning issues, there is not enough consultation of public opinion. Rarely are people asked what they value about their area, or how they want it to look and feel like. If opinions are to be expressed it is usually in a last ditch attempt to stop something, with a rather dull planning permission objection form, or such like.

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But perhaps more important than the way in which debates are framed, is that debates occur at all. Had it not been for the courage of a handful of individuals to get the Long Live Southbank campaign off the ground, the debate may well have been non-existent. After 3 years spent drawing up plans without consultation, the destruction of Southbank as part of the Festival Wing plan was presented with no invitation to change it. It took hard work to even create the possibility of debate. Now I do think that the Southbank Centre have changed over the past 3 years.

However culturally valuable sites are ruined all the time. Around the same time that Southbank was kicking off, a few miles down the road in Burgess Park, Southwark Council were bulldozing a little DIY skate park. Over the previous year, skaters had chipped in for sand and cement, taught themselves how to mix concrete properly and made something quite unique to skate. It was popular with local kids. It was a truly organic development, and, as part of a boom in DIY skate park building, was already of heritage value. But there was no debate when it was bulldozed, just a couple weeks warning on a laminated notice.

Where people have started repurposing a space creatively, whether that involves gardening or street art or skateboarding, there is usually the potential for it to flourish with minimal interference. There is great rhetoric in councils and institutions about schemes coming ‘from the bottom up’, but this isn’t always applied.

But perhaps things are moving in the right direction. We’re trying to work a more positive model for planning with the Southbank Centre. Since 2004 and 2005, two thirds of the Undercroft has been boarded off. At the time, it was stated that this was only for a couple of years, whilst the space was used for storage.

We are now talking to the Southbank Centre about restoring this space, for all the free creative activities that already go on at Southbank.

There is a lot to discuss. Much of the space has been radically changed over the past year, so we need to think about funding for the restoration for starters. If anyone here has any suggestions about any of this then please give me a shout. We need to think about how the space will be, how it will feel, how to ensure that Southbank’s atmosphere is retained.

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But it is something truly exciting. I feel like a lot of lessons have been learnt over the past 2 years, both by ourselves and the Southbank Centre, so the discussions we are now having are of a far more positive nature. There remains a lot of work to be done, however we’ve got this idea, opening up this much needed free creative space, a genuine space that already has decades of heritage. It would be a massive attraction to creatives across the world. All the positive effects that Southbank has on people’s lives would be multiplied with the increase in space. There would be more creative ways of using the space, more obstacles to explore, more people using the space, more locals given something positive to do, more friendships made, more inspiration for careers, more projects springing out of the place, more space if people don’t want to practice without spectators, more space for female skaters, more international visitors, more local kids inspired to travel, more progression in all the creative activities that go on there.

On one level, we share a lot of our hopes for the space with the Southbank Centre. This restoration is not going to happen tomorrow, but it feels like we’re making good progress. There’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, which is what happens when things are done the right way, when institutions are open minded, when communities take pride in their space and work to change it for the better.

Again, it is clear that heritage can and should be a very positive, forward looking thing.