Skateboarding & the City – Interview with Philip Nobel

In preparation and to form part of my research agenda for the skateboarding and architecture essay I asked architecture writer, critic, and publicist Ian Volner to Interview Philip Nobel. Philip is an architecture writer and fixture in New York design circles. About a year ago Philip gave up New York for skateboarding. I wanted to talk about the appeal between architecture and skateboarding and how skateboarding relates to writing and architecture. Here’s what Ian found out:

IV: Why skateboarding, why you, why now?

PN: My girlfriend left me and my car died. I found myself living in this wonderful neighborhood [in Red Hook, Brooklyn] a million miles from anywhere useful. I had always wanted to skateboard as a kid, but was too much of a pussy. I bought my first skateboard by accident: I walked into this skate and surf shop on Long Island in 2007 and I had my first encounter with a long board. I fell in love – So I bought it.

IV: Why did you become so taken with the long board, rather than the conventional skateboard?

PN: Mostly what I needed was a way to get around the city. Skateboarders inhabit specific spaces—spaces that afford them opportunities to do specific things. So skateboarding happens within very fixed points in the city. In contrast to that, a long boarder is interested in the line between the two points: when the opportunity appears to take advantage of a particular linear feature—good paving on Fifth Avenue, no buses, a connecting bike lane—that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. Of course, when skateboarders are good, there’s no urban impediment that can stop them, and they have a crazy beautiful way of moving through the city: they’ve assembled a repertoire of maneuvers that lets them get through urban space effortlessly. But most of the time it’s basically a bunch of guys hanging out behind a 7-11 working on the individual moves. Long boarding is more about the passage.

IV: How did long boarding change your experience of the city?

PN: Starting out on a the board, there’s a period of muscular adaptation where your front leg has to be stronger than it is when walking. Until then, every crack in the road is deadly. You become aware of the surface of the city in this incredibly intimate, fear-driven way. There was this plotting of safe routes until I got more confident. With the long board you start probing the city for linear opportunity, and your personal map is always growing: you start out with just a couple little lines through the city, and then they ramify, turning into a waffle, then a web.

IV: Does the social status of a long boarder in the city differ from that of a skateboarder?

PN: When you’re a skateboarder, you’re kind of a pirate, because you’re going around the city looking for another way to inhabit built form—but as you inhabit it you also fuck it up, scratch it, tag it. Long boarding, meanwhile, is just beginning to have a social presence—characters on TV shows, a paparazzi picture of Matthew McConaughey on a long board—it is just beginning to exist in the public imagination, so there’s no referent for the law or the cultural structure besides the classic figure of the urban skate-punk. Long boarders get ticketed under laws made for skateboarders. I’ve had this conversation with the police where they say, Hey, this place is posted ‘No skating’, and I say, Thanks, okay, but maybe you should open your mind to the possibility that this isn’t the same thing as what you’re looking for.

IV: Does this issue lead to any antagonism out there in the street between the long boarder and the skateborder?

PN: There used to be a sort of war between long and short boarders, but now that’s really changing. I was sitting on the Brooklyn Heights promenade the other day. Two kids were clattering along on the cobblestones on their skateboards; they saw my board and they’re like, Oh, cool, long board! So I said to one of the kids, you wanna try it? The kid was pretty good, he got on and just went flying down the promenade, over the same surface he was clattering over before. I could tell he was having fun. Then he’s doing all these really tight turns, smoothly even over the rough cobblestones. He comes back and says, It’s so smooth! Actually, that board, the board of mine he was on, had been specifically designed by a Brooklyn board-maker to win an outlaw race in the city.

IV: Outlaw race? That sounds pretty subversive for your meditative, passage-focused long boarder.

PN: Yeah! It’s called The Broadway Bomb. Kids gather at 116th St. and Broadway and go all the way down to Lower Manhattan. Takes about half an hour. The tagline is, “You Could Die.” There’s a backlash among the “I-travel-on-my-skateboard” skaters who pipe up and say, Hey, this crazy thing you do, this race of death, is screwing up the deal for the rest of us. It’s becoming a big issue.

IV: How is the city changing for the long boarder?

PN: The biggest thing is that now that there are bike paths everywhere. The New York City Department of Transportation is one of the most enlightened things ever, but the loose gravelly stuff they use in the new path margins are dangerous for long boarders. The routes are plainly designed for bikes. Still, you have your own light!

Also heavily referenced throughout the essay was a book titled ‘Godzilla vs. Skateboarders’. The book is based on an exhibition which investigates the culture and practice of skateboarding as a means of critique architecture, social spaces and the values constituted by those spaces. My friend Daniel Williams helped with the graphics for the essay submission (see below). Daniel is an illustrator, animator and cartoonist.

Thank you Daniel, Ian and Philip for helping my with my essay. I hope you enjoy reading.

Please feel free to leave your comments about the interview in section below. Id love to know your thoughts on the topic!


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