Four Decades Finding Art Amongst Brutalism

Over the 6 years I’ve been skateboarding at Southbank, the space has managed to ingrain itself within me so deeply that I can see its imprint all over my personality, my outlook and my life. It is far more than just any other place to go skateboarding. This is clear. It is the longest continually skated space in the world, with the first wheels touching its brutalist architecture in 1973. Over the past 4 decades it has developed a very particular, a very special sense of community. Whilst London has grown increasingly faceless and consumer minded all around, the Undercroft has become a haven of charisma, somewhere truly underground in the heart of Central London.

In 2013 it was proposed that this space would be infilled with coffee shops and restaurants. Locals, many of whom had been using the space for decades came together and coalesced as the campaign group, Long Live Southbank. The campaign struck a chord with the public, growing a larger membership than the Tory party and becoming widely successful.

Countless members of the public told us their stories: of stopping to watch the skateboarders year after year, of families three generations deep into Southbank’s history, Grandpa having fond memories of a few summers in the 70s or lifelong friendships formed with backs to the Thames, facing the Undercroft.

 

So many people had their personal histories entwined with Southbank’s it was clear: this was a space with a hugely important heritage. The brutalist architecture is of great value to many, but equally important is the intangible heritage of feelings, memories, atmosphere and many more things that one cannot quite put a finger on.

This type of heritage feels more relevant to many in younger generations. At Southbank, we see heritage in the skate tricks that have occurred over the decades, in the graffiti buried under inches of spray paint and in the feeling that we are another generation of friends whose lives revolve around this strange brutalist landscape buried away in Central London.  There is a sense of continuity here which can feel important in a city changing at great speeds, and seemingly outside of our control.

Heritage was a strong theme within Long Live Southbank’s campaign. However it was very much a forward looking, progressive take on the lexicon of heritage. There were two strands. Firstly, this has worked for so long. For 40 years people have found great enjoyment and extraordinary creativity here, building a strong sense of community. This has given real guidance to generation after generation of Southbank locals.  The sense in keeping this rootedness became increasingly recognised.

 

Emmanuele Mayele 2014, photo by Sam Ashley

The second strand was that to have a space and a community that is rooted in its heritage does an awful lot for the creativity and community in the future. When people skate, BMX or paint at Southbank, you take inspiration of how the space has already been used, perhaps by legendary figures such as skater Mark Gonzales who have famously skated the spot, or perhaps by local heroes such as Ben Jobe. 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, both in a creative sphere but also with the everyday issues you face as a teenager. Without spatial continuity, it is a lot harder for really positive communities to continue to thrive.

Thinking about heritage is very important, and talking about it allows thoughts to flow and develop. However young people, and the slightly less young should realise they can have the real influence on decisions regarding their heritage that should come naturally as citizens.

 

To influence decisions regarding your own heritage, having an ownership of your own culture and identity is crucial. There was a firm mentality at Southbank that the community, the history and ‘the scene’ was in our own hands, and rightly so. A great deal of creative effort had been put into the Southbank scene giving a real sense of ownership. The identity was so strong, and the culture so deeply embedded that it felt ludicrous for the spaces future to be in any hands save for its own.

The practicalities of self organisation are also essential for any successful campaign. Whilst the workload and mental burden of organising a campaign on any scale should not be underestimated, no one should see these challenges as insurmountable. With passion, it is quite possible to gather together people with a view to change something. As any movement grows, more and more people with their skills and willingness to take on responsibility will become involved. What is essential is for someone to get things started.

Long Live Southbank was a truly democratic organisation with a bottom up mentality. The centrepiece of the campaign was the table. This was rickety, plastic and skip-found from a local art college, wheeled out every day from a friend’s back garden and packed with donations boxes, t-shirts and membership forms to sign. It was presided over by members of the Undercroft community, all of whom could have a say in every decision made. The gathering of the Undercroft community was highly responsive to the feedback coming from members of the public via the table.

In September 2014 a deal was signed guaranteeing the long term future of the Southbank Undercroft. We hope that this outcome can be seen as a source of hope and motivation for other groups working to let their heritage live on.

 

New layers of Paint at Southbank in 2016, photo and foreground by Darren John.

The area of the Undercroft that was saved was just one third of the space originally skated in 1973. The majority of it was ‘temporarily’ boarded off in 2004 and 2005, to be used as storage space whilst the adjacent Royal Festival Hall was refurbished. Long Live Southbank first created a proposal to restore the Undercroft to its original size in August 2015. We celebrate the potential to move forward with the Southbank Centre in the future.

In many senses the Undercroft community have a unique perspective on heritage, and detachment from heritage. Long Live Southbank has brought together all the generations who have passed through Southbank to gather as many possible perspectives on the heritage, and the future of the space. By utilising the memories of the different generations, a broader understanding of the spaces atmosphere, culture and rhythms has been developed, which has fed into our vision for the spaces future.

The community is exceptional. I have never come across a community so incredibly varied in upbringing, outlook and creative pursuits, yet so tightly knit. However there are a great many lessons and observations that are transferable and perhaps universal.

Free public space is a beautiful thing.

 

In any city, especially one as swamping as London, people need an interesting place to release themselves creatively, to feel free and find a community of people looking for the same release. It is a special thing when a space like this is found, and it should be treasured. A space like Southbank gains its atmosphere from the feelings and the creativity of all its users, and over decades that becomes heritage. It only takes a little imagination then, to dream of the potential creative explosion if the Undercroft was fully restored.

Written by Louis Woodhead

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