Long Live Southbank: Skaters Muster To Save Their Undercroft

Walking along the South Bank just underneath Hungerford Bridge, the Undercroft can be heard before it’s seen: the tinny rumble of plastic wheels on an uneven concrete floor, multiplied manifold, the crackles and snaps of failed jumps and broken bones. Then you see it: a ramshackle collage of graffiti in a sea of blocky grey. It’s a weird spectacle, and totally out of place so close to the BFI and the National Theatre. Invariably, on the weekends, it draws a crowd, every person in that crowd armed with a digital camera or at least a camera phone, most of whom will go home, upload the pictures to Facebook, and never think about it again.

Pretty soon the South Bank will undergo a redevelopment; the Southbank Centre wants to expand its Festival Wing. With a couple of exceptions from the more liberal media, the popular reaction to the news has been overwhelmingly positive, essentially: rejoice, Londoners — when the proposed “Festival Way” opens, that Brutalist graffiti’d undercroft will be gone at last and we’re going to be able to enjoy another Yo! Sushi and Paperchase and Parisian-style pavement cafes and uuugggghhhh.

But over the Bank Holiday weekend, Long Live Southbank channelled its ongoing efforts to save the skater’s paradise into a weekend-long festival of counterculture: BMX demonstrations, music, free skateboarding lessons, a miniature film festival, the works — all managed by a crowd of devoted volunteers in bright orange shirts. These volunteers, spectators, would-be skaters and general festival-goers are, collectively, the people who stand to lose something in the redevelopment.

Of course, the skaters of London won’t be shunted out entirely: there’s a purpose-built park not far away from the Undercroft. It seems a viable alternative to those of us who aren’t a part of the subculture, but for the people who will use it there are two essential problems with the new site: 1. it’s known colloquially as “birdshit island”; and 2. it just isn’t the same.

This, again, to outsiders doesn’t seem like much of an argument. From what Dan, one of the volunteers, tells us, there’s a difference between “transition” skating — which is best learned in specially built parks — and “street” skating — for which the last place to train in London is right here in the Undercroft. If someone is asked to move along, they will be told to go to the South Bank. Careers have been built here, not to mention the general sense of community that brought the old crowd from at least as far afield as Sweden in support of the cause. Dan has been skating here for about 12 years, he reckons. It might be 13.

“You didn’t need social media back then,” says Luke, who used to skate here 20-30 years ago and who today brought his tiny son on his even tinier skateboard. When we ask him what makes the Undercroft special to this subculture, he goes quiet for a full two minutes. “This is more raw,” he says, eventually. “You don’t want something that’s too perfect.” He says this with the faraway, amused look of a man who’s sustained more injuries in his immediate surroundings than he cares to remember.

There’s a sense of hopelessness to the proceedings. Yes, the atmosphere is charged with positivity, and yes, everybody’s having fun, but the proposals are just the latest in a long line of encroachments by the city into what might be the last organic gathering place in London. Dan explains that the back of the Undercroft, the relatively pristine white walls, aren’t really the back: twenty years ago, it stretched out underneath the Southbank Centre. But officially speaking the Centre owns the space; it’s just on lease to the skaters. Unofficially, that is.

Long Live Southbank are counting on a piece of legislation to save them: specifically, the Commons Act 2006, which preserves public spaces for the people who use them. If they can attract enough Londoners to their cause, the Undercroft might survive, and we can enjoy this dark, grimy, incongruous, but beautiful space for a little while longer.

If not, well, at least we won’t have to walk so far for a panini.

You can sign up for updates from Long Live Southbank and sign their petition to save the Undercroft here. Otherwise, to celebrate the past of the Undercroft and make suggestions to the Southbank Centre about the future, see here.

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Jamie_Drew

Article by Jamie Drew | 32 Articles | View Profile

  • http://twitter.com/wiilassie Edith S

    Worth pointing out that the Southbank Centre is offering a different space to the skateboarders etc (under Hungerford Bridge, a couple of minutes’ walk away) and there’s a website for anyone interested to make suggestions at http://www.southbankundercroft.com/. It seems pretty clear that those who use the Undercroft don’t want a sanitised ‘designed’ space, and I hope they get what they want from the new location.

    I do think it’s a shame they’re being asked to move at all but the plans as a whole seem overwhelmingly positive (look for photos of the Royal Festival Hall surroundings ten years ago compared with today to see the improvements that can be made).

    • MattFromLondonist

      Excellent comment, thanks. I’ve added that link to the final sentence.

  • http://londonist.com/ Dean Nicholas

    Surprisingly, the SBC’s original architects have spoken in favour of the redevelopment. The son of lead designer Norman Engleback said that his father “was delighted to see what was going on. He’s tremendously excited and very pleased by the gradual transformation that started with the Festival Hall… He thought it was a very refreshing idea to put something lightweight on the building”. Project architect Dennis Crompton said “If the drawings and the resulting buildings are the same it will be fantastic”.

    http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/original-southbank-architects-praise-new-proposals/5054411.article

  • http://www.facebook.com/OllieDibben Oliver Dibben

    Great article. The point that seems to be constantly missed whenever this point is brought up, is that skaters don’t want a new skate park. It’s the history of the place that already exists which has put Southbank on the international skate map. Why would skaters from elsewhere make the trip to the one near Hungerford bridge, if its not THE skate park? This kind of redevelopment plan is so typical of what is happening all over London at the moment. A lack of any kind of overview is resulting in Local Councils and developers destroying so many of the quirky attractions which Tourists LOVE, which attract many people from disparate places across the globe, and give London its reputation as an edgy cool city. Furthermore what are they replaced with? Bland, unimaginative glass monoliths, filled with chain coffee shops and chain shops…