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.