Taking Space- The Science of Skateboarding

by • December 3, 2012 • Blog, Skate/BMX, Visual

A conversation over a particularly hungover Sunday roast (big up the team and particularly the chefs) this weekend made me realise just how good life growing up on a BMX was. Frankly, what better ways is there to spend your teenage years then roaming the  streets with a load of goons on stupid little bikes and planks of wood?  You get to explore, meet a whole bunch of incredible people who are  usually twisted in the head enough to be very entertaining, and you even occasionally get to scare yourself half to a heart attack. The article below goes out to all those street rats around Watford and North London that made life very entertaining.

Photos & Text by Max Quinn

TakingSpace1 Taking Space  The Science of Skateboarding

TakingSpace2 Taking Space  The Science of SkateboardingTwo hundred years of technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential, but it was only the minds of eleven year olds that could see it.” -Craig Stecyk

Skateboarding (in which I am also including BMX, it’s less documented but very similair cousin) and the culture surrounding it is, largely, misunderstood. Thought of as simply activities for kids, many see older participants as simply wasting their time, not realising that skateboarding, like it’s forefather, surfing, has become a way of life for many around the world. It provides not only a physical outlet, but also creative inspiration, a job for many, and even a whole new way of thinking.  Is skateboarding a sport? To all those involved it doesn’t really matter, because even if it is, it’s much more then that too. It’s a way of life, an art form and a style that’s about travel, companionship, testing your own limits, having fun and exploring not only the world but also yourself.

What’s more, this movement has been slowly gaining momentum since the sixties when Californian surfers first ripped the handles from their T-Bar scooters in order to dull the boredom created by long periods of flat waves. It’s become a commercial force to be reckoned with, forcing sports companies such as Nike to embrace it in order to prevent diminishing market sales lost to small, skater owned brands that gained popularity as skateboarding began to become a style as well as an activity. On top of that, the influences of skateboarders on art and design are paramount, extending their canvases from the underside of their boards to clothes, adverts, fine art, graffiti and street art and much more.

It’s impact on architecture, both in a positive and negative way, is also vast. Skateboarders see, and interact with, architecture in an incredibly different, and often much more personal, way to the average pedestrian. In the words of Iain Borden, ‘It addresses the physical architecture of the modern city, yet responds not with another object, but with a dynamic presence.

In short, skateboarding adapts the surrounding urban environment and completely subverts it’s original intended use. Much like a photographer may often walk his environment and see not just what’s in front of him, but it’s photographic possibilities, a skateboarder no longer sees a bench or a wall, but instead visualizes tricks, lines and a world of possibility in a way that is hard to comprehend to your average person. In fact, it’s a shared view among skateboarders that even long after they’ve stopped actively participating, these new eyes they’ve developed stay with them, and often influence their lives and creativity. Many artists, musicians and designers attribute their outlook on life, spacial awareness and preferred aesthetic to the way skateboarding encouraged them to view the world.

The object is always open, exposed, accompanied, until it has destroyed itself as closed substance, until it has cashed in all the functional virtues man can derive from the stubborn matter
-The World as Object, Critical Essays by Roland Bartles

The above quote goes some way to describing the way the consumerist culture of our day looks at the objects and architecture around us. Anything that has expired it’s uses is defunct and no longer relevant, but by the mere act of skateboarding and seeking new and inventive ways to interact with architecture and the spaces around them, young people all over the world are reshaping this way of thinking for themselves, and in turn giving a use to objects the rest of society would simply see as useless. They are pushing the ‘functional virtues man can derive from the stubborn matter’ to their absolute limits. In skateboarding, almost no object is worthless, everything can be used if you are not only skillful, but also creative enough. Paul Auster’s words below sum up this attitude in that an object that can no longer fulfill it’s use is not simply a broken object, but something completely new.

Not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function. What happens when a thing no longer performs it’s function- the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else.
-City of Glass, by Paul Auster

Skateboarding, much like the closely related art of Graffiti, is an art of transgression, and attempts to challenge the boundaries of property, but it is interesting to note that architecture and the built environment also engage with skateboarders in a unique way. Ocean Howell, former professional skateboarder and contributor to ‘Slap Magazine’, noted:

I am also treated differently by the design of public space itself. From threatening metal spikes to fortuitously placed cobble stones, an arsenal of design tactics communicate to me, with varying degrees of subtlety, that skateboarding is not a legitimate public use of these spaces”
-The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design and the Public Space

Despite it being a non violent and largely threatening activity, skateboarders, when considered in the public space, are regularly grouped with the ‘unwanted’ of society, people such as the homeless, prostitutes and drug dealers who no architect wants loitering in the fringes of their buildings. This is not without reason, their is no arguing that the trucks and decks of skateboarders, and often the even more brutal pegs of bmxers, damage objects in the public space. However, this is something that skateboarders recognize, but are not particularly troubled by. Whether the less conscious among them realize it or not, skateboarding, again like graffiti, is an act of rebellion towards the way the public spaces of our society are developing.

Public space is no longer designed for pedestrians, but instead for consumers (a term that is increasingly being used in architecture and public planning). Not only do billboards and other advertisements jostle for the attention of our eyes, but benches are designed purposely to discourage loitering and get as many potential customers to the nearby establishments through in as short a time frame as possible, while walkways are constructed to encourage views of shop windows. In modern society there is rarely such a thing as complete public space, and skateboarding as an act actually goes some way towards creating it. Skateboarders understand that public space should be about interacting not with goods and companies, but with people.

Much like the subversive detournement of the Situationist Movement in the late fifties, who believed that one would discover the truth of the city by immersing themselves in the streets without going anywhere or having a particular destination, skateboarders every day are analyzing capitalism simply by going about what they love.

Skateboarders are taking space. They are taking it quickly, and always have been. Ever since the first lip-slide on a curb, the first empty pool was broken into, or even the first skatepark was petitioned for, skateboarders are slowly but surely leaving a distinct mark on our surroundings. Often, they move on and give it back, but many spaces remain hubs of skateboarding history and activity for years to come.The famous ‘South Bank’ space under the National theatre for example, has been completely taken over by skateboarders due to it’s smooth banks and shelter from the elements. All over the world you can find skateboarders lurking in the abandoned shadows, taking over old factories to escape the weather or reshaping the earth of woods when the elements are on their side. My local, council built, skatepark (Watford Skatepark) was initially built after we took over an abandoned plot of land and started to construct ramps ourselves. This led to a realization by the council that this was as necessary as any swimming pool, library or football pitch, and, although it can never fully contain us, it has become a well known hub for counter culture in the area.

This book is about this silent battle and acknowledgment between skateboarders and the architects, designers and councils of our world. It’s about the journeys, friends, experiences and places I’ve encountered in this unknowing war to appropriate, take and steal space from the corporations that rule us. There are also examples of how, mainly bmxers, have created spaces themselves from nature, building their own environment by actually sculpting the earth below them.

Look upon our conquests…..

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