By Tej Adeleye
“It is true that we come alive not once, but many times”, recites artist-in-residence Lemn Sissay during a documentary, part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing Exhibition.
Those words, from an Edwin Morgan poem, were no doubt chosen to leave visitors feeling as optimistic as the Southbank Centre are about their£120 million regeneration project to transform their ageing Brutalist buildings and underused spaces and respond to capacity demands.
But this romantic telling is not the view of all the users of the Southbank. Adjacent to the documentary video is a stand addressing the fact that the plans will see the world famous skateboarding Undercroft area, regarded as the birthplace of the British skateboarding scene, closed and relocated to a new site under the Hungerford railway bridge, which goes over to Embankment.
The response of the skateboarding community has been the Long Live Southbank Campaign, which aims to not only save the space, but also ensure that its heritage will be protected. The group have launched a new legal battle for the iconic space to be awarded “village green” status and have created an online petition which has so far seen almost 40,000 signatures.
Henry Edwards-Woods, 25, a skateboard cinematographer and campaign spokesperson argues: “You cannot just relocate 40 years of heritage and culture”.
He says: “This is meant to be an arts and culture centre, right? Skateboarding is many things; in one aspect it can be called an art. The artistic element only exists in the way that we interpret and manipulate and use spaces that were not designed for that purpose, or for us to express ourselves, to new things. As soon as you build a purpose built skate park for it you lose that element, and it becomes another performance sport.”
The Southbank faces a conundrum: it is a world class arts institution that must survive in an age of austerity, whilst remaining an inclusive cultural champion for art in all its forms.
Fifty per cent of the Southbank Centre’s activities are currently free, but with buildings in need of repair, restricted wheelchair access and inadequate facilities and space for artists, alongside aspirations to expand its existing arts programming, compromises must be made.
Arts Council England has committed £20 million to the redevelopment but the rest will come from ‘a mix of public funding, commercial income, fundraising and making use of our assets’, according to the Southbank PR. The Undercroft is one such asset: parts of it will be given to retail units and restaurants under the plans.
A wearied Mike McCart, Southbank spokesperson for the Undercroft, admits it’s been a challenge to ‘strike a balance between cultural and commercial needs’. “This was not our first choice,” he says. “We are aware of the sensitivity of this proposal and that skateboarders contribute to the vibrancy of the Southbank. It’s been a real dilemma of values versus gaining the maximum value of spatial areas.”
But this reaches into the heart of the issue. Skateboarding is free and this is where its strength lies. An older skater, Sam, 35, who grew up in Southwark, describes the Undercroft as the lifeline that saved him from a life of crime, drugs and alcohol abuse, problems which have claimed too many of the peers he grew up with.
Henry agrees. He says: “Skateboarding teaches you all you need to know about life: etiquette, respect, respecting your elders, not to mention the act of skateboarding itself. The dedication that goes into achieving that, we take that ethos into the outside world and into the rest of our lives.
“A lot of people start skateboarding because they are outsiders,and find really hard to express themselves, ironically that’s why it’s been so hard for us to have a voice in this feud with the Southbank Centre.”
McCart’s biggest frustration though, has been the nature of the Long Live Campaign- he feels that the skaters would do better to focus their campaigning energy on looking towards the future and building a new site. The changes are inevitable; the conditions of the funding mean work will start in autumn 2014 and go on until Spring 2017.
So what will the loss mean? Toby Shuall, who ran a previous campaign to save the Undercroft says: “It’s just another one gone, most of the iconic spots around the world have all gone. I think there is so much heat about the Southbank centre because it is literally one of the very last spots left. “Skateboarders love to exist in spaces like the Undercroft , in the centre of the city, that have been accidently forgotten about or something’s gone wrong and they have become empty.”
But, in keeping with Edwin Morgan’s words, the very nature of skateboarding – colonising abandoned space and constantly having to adapt – means that the loss of the Undercroft won’t be the end of the culture, just an exceptionally sad loss.