Architecture is fundamentally limited to the conception of the building-as-object: a theoretical and historical fixation that erases the social and political experiences of the city. The following was written through the theories of Ian Borden, author of Skateboarding, Space and the city: Architecture and the Body.
My interest in skateboarding began well before my interest in architecture. It is not architecture history or theory but skateboarding that influences my social, spatial and conceptual understanding of architecture. My appreciation of the city is through the intimate desire to find new possibilities of representing, imagining and experiencing architecture. The followings investigates skateboarding as a legitimate means of architecture criticism and spatial appropriation.
Traditional architecture theory conceptualises the city as an absolute; it is recognised as an object that is not only static but also grounded by regulation. Through the values of skateboarding however, the city is reconceptualised as an amorphous space in constant transition, a space for the flow of ideas, events and activities. French Sociologist Henri Lefebvre argued that ‘in addition to being a means of production and reproduction, space must serve as a tool for thought and action.’
Skateboarding is perhaps an unusual object for study in architecture. However, it is precisely its marginal position that enables skateboarding to function as a critical exterior to the profession. Skateboarding is fundamentally concerned with the perspicacity of experience.
My own perception of architecture recognises space for production and reproduction. Space is neither stable nor fixed, but is constituted by the discourses and practices of social life. Architecture should be understood beyond the construction of built space; and through the practice of skateboarding, architecture can be defined broadly to be the tools, experiences, mappings, compositional processes and social relations that pertain in space.
In Sydney, skateboarding emerged in the late 1980s. Within a few years, it was legislated against. Innately, such laws add to the anarchic character of skateboarding, and form part of its dependence on, as well as struggle against, the modern city. Architects have often worked alongside the city to deter skateboarders from using public or private space. The danger that skateboarders possesses to the city goes beyond physical considerations and legalities; it is about what they symbolise. Skateboarding is the freedom of movement, it does not produce a commodity, and it is an unpredictable and unconventional anti-capitalist value.
The skateboarder requires an object (the skateboard); it involves great effort but produces no commodity in exchange. In contrast, architects exist because they produce a commodity (the building); they inherently support and make money from capitalism.
Marxist theorist and Situationist Guy Debord (1983) describes the capitalist experience of the city as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’. Architecture contributes by creating part of the spectacle. Debord states ‘The spectacle has created a passive society and aims to isolate the individual and reality itself becomes replaced only by images. There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle of society everything is prohibited.'
The Situationists responded to the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ by bodily movements of derive and détournement. The skateboarder actively moves through space using the same Situationist desire lines. Skateboarding is a true form of urban derive that refutes the reduction of activity solely to the spectacle of the image. Skateboarders say almost nothing as codified statements, yet present an extraordinary range of implicit enunciations and meanings.
Skateboarding’s critique of capitalism is through the negative dialectic that denies exchange and through the positive dialectic that restlessly searches for new possibilities of representing, imagining and experiencing the city. Skateboarding is not only a critique upon the product of architecture but also upon the role of the architect. Skateboarding describes the need for architecture to consider social value, to be productive of things, and to encourage activities that are not explicitly commoditised.
The skateboarder undermines the ordered and commercial atmosphere of the city. The value of skateboarding when applied to architecture requires the architect to question the city in its conventional arrangement of floors, walls and stairs – to re-evaluate the importance of spatial experience.
Architecture criticism is traditionally conveyed through writing. However, skateboarding is also a form of architecture criticism entirely different to writing, drawing or theorising. In the participatory movement of the skateboarder’s body across urban space lies the central critique of the city. It also forms a critique on architecture criticism and considers the need for criticism when concerned with experience to extend beyond the realm of writing.
The below image maps the movement of 2 different skateboarders and architects as they were asked to critique an area of the city. The site is Martin Place bounded by Elizabeth and Castlereagh Street. The diagram represents their movement (in plan view) within the site over a 10-minute period. Crosses mark the beginning and end of their critique, time is shown in minutes and the circles represent a physical interaction with a particular object (touching a wall, sitting on a bench etc). The path of the skateboarder is shown solid, while that of the architect is shown dotted.
Each of the maps allow observations about the manner by which the skateboarder and the architect interact with space. In each instance, the architect touches no more than two objects and there is no repetition in their movement. It is possible to trace the direction of their path and, at all times, the architect critiques within the boundaries of the site. In contrast, in each instance, the skateboarder touches more than 30 objects, whether it be a wall, handrail, seat, stair or floor. The movement of the skateboarder is fast and repetitive and it is difficult to trace the direction of their movement due the irregularity of their path, which intersects and overlaps. The skateboarder does not stay within the boundaries of the site and explores within the private properties of the commercial buildings.
The path of the architect shows his or her critiques of the site through passive observation. Conversely, the skateboarder critiques through movement and incites an active reassertion of touch, hearing, adrenalin, rhythms, balance and focus. The overlapping lines and specific areas of density within the skateboarder’s movement show his or her focus on specific and isolated objects. There is no conventional arrangement to the skateboarder’s movement and their disregard for rules is shown through their penetration beyond the site and within private space.
The repetition in the skateboarder’s path and physical interaction with architecture in fact indicates a deep understanding of those particular objects that the architect would not be able to describe accurately. Skateboarder Todd Kelly describes skateboarding as the enhanced understanding of spatial meaning: ‘I don’t just walk through space without learning anything about it, or without having a relationship with it.’ The skateboarder analyses architecture not for historical, symbolic or authorial content, but for how surfaces present themselves.
Architecture theorist and skateboarder Iain Borden advocates skateboarding as a productive means to critique the city. Borden states ‘architects can learn from the protestant work ethic of skateboarding, which suggests architects can produce different things: to explore building not as a product but as the production of emotions, actions, effort and play.’ When the movement of the skateboarder is applied to the application of criticism, it explores the need to understand buildings beyond visual appreciation and writing. Skateboarding reveals the need to represent the joy and experience of space through participation.
Architecture is fundamentally limited to the conception of the building-as-object: a theoretical and historical fixation that erases the social and political experiences of the city. By doing so, it neglects the reproduction and experience of architecture. Lefebvre argues that ‘architecture must produce activities and experiences of social and cultural importance.' Skateboarding uses the left over objects of architecture to produce experience and meaning: ‘Two hundred years of technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential.’
Architecture rarely considers buildings as the facilitators of social and cultural autonomy. Architect Lebbeus Woods (1988) responded by creating moments of ‘freespace’: a space with no commodity or pre-determined use that allows pedestrians to use the space socially and culturally however they choose. The skateboarder applies the ideas of ‘freespace’ throughout the entire city and has therefore developed an unorthodox appreciation and ability to seek out potential social relations.
The below images are extracted from video documentation that records the social reaction of three different skateboarders and architects as they approach a constructed conversation. The top 3 images are that of the architect, the 3 below images are that of the skateboarder. Over a period of 10 minutes, I asked the skateboarders and architects to interact with something they found interesting. Their site was Martin place bounded by George and Pitt Street. The video camera was placed in a hidden location.
The video uncovers the different social and cultural responses of the skateboarders and architects. In each instance, the architect walked past the group of people (of the constructed conversation) without acknowledging any interest in their ‘performance’. They each located various physical objects as their point of interest (such as façade details). At no point did the architect actually attempt to experience the object of interest beyond a visual or aesthetic appreciation. However, each of the skateboarders interacted with the people (of the constructed conversation): ‘This group of people, who I wouldn’t usually associate with, looked like they were having fun. I wanted to say hi, I wanted to be a part of that.’ Skateboarders are often understood as anti-social, yet their participation in the ‘performance’ actively sought to engage in a social activity.
Each of the skateboarders actively participated in the conversations in order to truly experience social values. The architects sought an entirely different agenda. The video explores the possibility for the ideals of skateboarding to flow into the general appreciation of space from which architects can learn. Architects design buildings from a spatial vision, and in order for that space to function, pedestrians are typically controlled though various architectural strategies including program and circulation. Their renders, plans and photography typically show their building without people or disruptions and by doing so, their total vision is withdrawn from social and cultural considerations. Skateboarding is inherently a cultural and social value. Architects are often too concerned with aesthetics and they neglect to find meaning or interest in the activities that actually happen within the space.
Skateboarding began in the beach cities of California, as a surfer’s activity, emulating the surf moves on the hard surfaces of urban subdivisions and concrete. Skateboarding has therefore, always been about appropriating the city. Architects conceptualise their building in totality and typically conceive space with a pre-determined use (seats are for sitting, stairways are for walking). Skateboarding is fundamentally concerned with micro-spaces and rejects any pre-determined use of space: ‘Most people think handrails are for people with mobility problems, I however say they are for ollie nose grinds.’
Borden describes the architect as the creator of hierarchies, “of architecture-as-object, architecture-as-drawing or architecture-as-idea; the skateboarder disregards these hierarchies to create architecture-as-process, continually repeated, yet forever new.” 
While rejecting the current condition of the city skateboarding begins to re-conceptualise the city. Skateboarders appropriate architecture through different techniques. The above image (left) shows a freestyle skateboarder who maps the city through seeking isolated objects (such as handrails, stairs and curbs) and uses them in a manner entirely different to its ideological content. It is about finding fixed and left over points in the city. The above image (right) shows a surf-style skateboarder who maps the line between two points: when the opportunity appears, they take advantage of a particular linear feature: ‘Good paving on Fifth Avenue or a connecting bike lane—that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for.’ Each skateboarder finds a different technique and priority for spatial appropriation and creates a different map through space and time.
Skateboarding creates maps composed from the opportunities offered by the physical and emotional contours of the city and are enacted through new spaces and moments. Architects must understand that pedestrians use the city to create moments that are different to what is intended. Architects should encourage the ability for spatial appropriation, in order to allow social freedom and experience. By understanding appropriation as important to architecture, architects may begin to focus on the experience of space as opposed to the object.
Skateboarders take over and consume space conceptually as well as physically, and thus strike at the heart of what everyone else understands the city to be. The skateboarder dissolves the physicality of the modern city into the imagination of another micro-space. When applied to architecture, architects must question what is conventionally understood as the city and this will help to shape new appreciations of appropriation and spatial meaning.
‘Surely it is the supreme illusion to defer to architects, urbanists or planners as being experts or ultimate authorities in matters with relation to space.' Skateboarders are among the most social and spatially aggressive group to reclaim the city for their own appropriation and as such, deny architects, urbanists and urban planners as ultimate authorities. Ian Borden proposes, that skateboarding actually becomes architecture, not as the object, but as the production and reproduction of space. Without licence, authority or professional obligations, the skateboarder creates personal space with intimate and subjective meaning.
Architecture can be described as the tools, experiences, mappings, compositional processes and social relations that pertain within space. Architecture, following Lefebvre’s (1991b) body-centric formulations, ‘reproduces itself within those who use the space in question, within their lived experience.' It is through this definition of pedestrian, experience and reproduction that the skateboarder has a deeper understanding of space than the architect.
The skateboarder responds to everyday architecture and appropriates new edits, mappings, meanings and actions. The above images show spatial meaning and composition. Skateboarding denies the standardisation and repetition of the city as the serial production of building types, functions and discrete objects; it decentres building-objects in time and space in order to re-compose them in a strung-out yet newly synchronous arrangement. Through the values of the skateboarder, architecture is not seen as the vision of the architect but as the turbulent nexus of reproduction: ‘On the street the urban blight is being reworked to new specifications. The man on the avenue is the architect of the future; Invent your own life.'
Within Borden’s theory, Skateboarding rejects the idea of the architect as the creator and their work as a project. Production is not seen as the production of things but of desires and actions, the purpose of space is for use rather than exchange, richness is social wealth not ownership, place is composed of time and speed, and the city is the interrogator rather than the determinant of the self.
Deconstructive Architect Bernard Tschumi (1991) describes the need for architecture to focus on the events and actions that must be facilitated within space. Tschumi describes his work as ‘anti-form, anti-hierarchy, anti-structure—the opposite of all that architecture stands for and it is precisely for that reason.’ If architects were to consider the activity of reproducing space, architecture might develop in a manner that allows the pedestrian, like the skateboarder, to appropriate space as they desire.
Throughout the course of architecture’s history, social theorists including Debord (1983) and Lefebvre (1991a) have argued the social and cultural application of architecture. Architects often focus on the production of the object as opposed to the production of experience and therefore fail to truly understand the way in which space may be understood and appropriated by the various users of the city.
Skateboarding has a deep appreciation and understanding of architecture, regardless of how unconventional or subversive it may be. Ultimately, skateboarding helps to rethink architecture’s manifold possibilities. Through the movement of the skateboarder across urban space, and in its direct interaction with the city, skateboarding forms its critique on architecture. When skateboarding values are applied to architecture, architects must reconsider conventional conceptions of space, values of experience, notions of control, ideals of freedom and architecture’s contribution to corporate structures.
Additional reading: Check out this post on A Daily Dose of Architecture on Urban Sports and Design.
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