In Defense of Skateboarding

anti-skateboarding infrastructure in downtown Cincinnati

Upon the completion of his addition to the Cranbrook Science Institute, Steven Holl gave a lecture in which he described architecture as “the choreography of people across space.” I had never thought of it that way before but, once he said it, it seemed so obvious. In fact, it not only explained a lot of my interest in architecture, but it connected it to my experiences within graphic design and even helped me better understand my seemingly disparate interests in film, literature, and cartography.

Increasingly, I’m finding that my interest in urban architecture has less to do with form than with use. To be sure, form can control or enable uses, but many uses are at odds with formal intentions. Beuaitiful experiences can be had in ugly places; unfulfilling lives can be lived in beautiful places. I have my own preferences when it comes to form, but I now see that as only one aspect of my assessment of architecture and, in fact, the fetishization of architecture without any regard for human experience troubles me a great deal. Given that, I’m always fascinated when I see people using the built environment to their own ends, which sometimes run counter to intended use. Case in point: the street skater.

I’m surprised that I don’t see more skaters in downtown Cincinnati. I’ve always appreciated their use of downtown infrastructure outside of regular business hours and, since I find myself there in the evenings and on the weekends, I would enjoy their company.

skateboarding in downtown Cincinnati

Skaters use urban infrastructure in surprising, often impressive ways. Theirs is an impromptu performance that occurs during periods of underuse and, on a practical level, their presence downtown is preferrable to the otherwise relative absence of people. The scraffito they leave behind articulates this possibility of alternate uses of what may otherwise seem like fairly bland public spaces.

An extreme example of skaters’ defiance of original design intention is their appropriation of JFK Plaza in Philadelphia, more commonly known as Love Park. The brainchild of Edmund Bacon, skaters turned this seemingly bleak downtown plaza into a major tourist attraction. Bacon even came around to this new use for his civic space, supporting the skaters with this small act of civil disobedience.

skateboarding infrastructure in downtown Cincinnati

It’s exciting to witness skaters traverse a landscape that wasn’t meant to accommodate them, to see that they can create their own sense out of this infrastructure. Skaters create their own social space within one designed for others and for other uses. They should not be relegated to their own skateparks; parks should be designed with their needs in mind, among the myriad needs that are already considered.

For a much more in-depth look at street skateboarding than I can provide, I recommend Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body by Iain Borden.


14 thoughts on “In Defense of Skateboarding

  1. Great post. Somehow I can’t see Steven Holl appreciating skateboarders the way Ed Bacon did.

    Have you been in the Cranbrook building? Holl’s buildings seem to me to discourage all types of use, even the one’s intended. But I’ve only seen them in photos, maybe they are great up close.

  2. I’ve visited this building numerous times, and I think Holl updated the museum experience without disrespecting the original design. In fact, he described his addition as “kissing” Saarinen’s structure. My only quibble is that, after a few years of hosting school groups, some of the interior finishes started to look shabby. Some stood up fine to the wear-and-tear of rowdy children. I don’t know how much of that should be attributed to his studio’s poor choices, and how much is lack of upkeep. If you ever find yourself around Detroit, you should really see the campus in person. I think it’ll also help to make sense of the challenges with which Holl was faced.

  3. One of the things that is great about Borden’s book is how he explains the culture of skateboarding and its influence on how those involved perceive space. This is important for any designer, planner, or politician to understand.

    Too often the public is boiled down to a single type of user. Visual preferences surveys and empirical research into urban places develop a kind of lowest common denominator rather than making an attempt to address the diversity inherent in the urban environment, or as you point out the users of the environment.

    This, IMO, is a remnant of the universalizing tendencies of modernism. It still is common practice today, even in some of the newer urban models.

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Edmund Bacon « Visualingual

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  6. You know…I’m a skater and I kind of like the way things are now…I live near Meridian, Mississippi and there aren’t a lot of skaters. A few…but you never see or hear of any. You just know they exist. This absence of a skate scene has enabled me to skate and progress at my own pace without the limitations or examples of others hindering me. The adventures you can have are truly amazing. Discovering a new spot and riding around the city is an amazing feeling in itself without even performing any tricks. At first I didn’t like skating alone and I wished that more people skated…but now I think it would suck if more people skated. This is my home. My private oasis. The lack of skaters means no one flipping a bitch in the office and putting up skate stoppers or no skating signs or fines or whatever they do. If someone asks me to leave then I leave-there are many more unsupervised spots close by. I actually live about thirty minutes outside the city (Collinville) and when I can’t go to Meridian I improvise at home. I live next door to my grandpa that owns a lot of random stuff from tractors to boats and piles of wood and sheets of tin. I like to go over there and experiment with that. He has a small upside down boat in the grass that is great to do tricks off of and has a nice spring to it on the release and i just set some roofing tin under the landing so I can roll out. He also had a flat trailer that he used for moving tractors. When it’s free I like to experiment with that by doing the same as I said with the boat or put random things to grind on at the end. I have found an old rusted tailgate and some wooden posts and put a tire or something at the end to life it enough to come off and mess around on that. Sure hauling stuff around is hard work but worth it. And a lot of it is really sketchy (increased risk factor) like if I fall wrong I could get cut up on the rusted tin or the rail could move and I fall wrong or something but I find this actually adds to the enjoyment of skating stuff like that. It makes landing something more fulfilling and makes the easier stuff harder. I say this to give you a peek inside the creative process of a skater and how he thinks. If they can’t skate a certain thing they can make due with something else even though the other is probably more appealing (example: Love park). I noticed this kind of fit what you were talking about and thought that possibly open minded non-skaters would actually find this interesting. Sorry it was so long. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

  7. Wow, Nathan. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your perspective. I’m just an appreciative outsider to that phenomenon, and it’s illuminating to read the thoughts of a participant.

  8. It’s kind of funny in a way because people that skate are trying to reason out why they skate haha. I don’t know. That guy doesn’t know. The professionals don’t really know. haha I mean people know why they start like they saw it on tv or a family member had one, but the people that don’t quit don’t exactly know why they still do it. Like in football (or most other sports) people can do it because the brotherhood, the money, their parents, college scholarships, or because they simply enjoy it. So I guess in some aspects skateboarding is like that but with a more unknown reason.

    EA Skate (video game) had an bonus section in the game where a few pros reason out why they skate. They did a good job of finding pros from different back grounds and styles.

    If you’re ever having one of those days where you’re just sitting around on the computer with nothing to do watch those. I think another weird thing is that I can agree with all those but they are all totally different answers.
    Each of those skates has done or is known for something great that they have done and most are in their 30s and 40s. Mark Gonzales was the first person to skate a handrail
    sometime in the early early 90s. Jerry Hsu had an unbelievable video part. Jason Dill is known for his eccentric and goofy behavior. Cole is a legend of skateboarding that is known for doing some of the hardest tricks down some really big stuff. Dennis is known for his fast, aggressive, but smooth style, Mike and PJ were ambassadors of the sport in the 90s, Ali is known for doing weird and different stuff that not too many people (even the really artsy skaters like Mark) would even think about when they looked at something.

    Anyway…now im off topic and rambling.

  9. Wow, I’ll try to check out those videos sometime.

    As for why people skate, I think money might be one factor, and notoriety might be another. It’s not a team sport like football, so you can challenge yourself to accomplish something, and it’s solely on you. I’m just imagining two possible reasons.

    From my perspective, what’s interesting and cool about skateboarding is that it uses the same infrastructure in a new way, like skating a handrail. Also, it’s the use of a downtown business district outside of regular business hours, which is pretty amazing. I know it’s unintentional on the part of the architects and planners, but it’s pretty cool that several groups can use the same resources at different times, expanding the usefulness of a single resource.

    I find it really interesting to examine instances of people taking control over their environment. I’m a designer and, although part of me really appreciates top-down, visionary design plans, another part really delights in the DIY, small-scale interventions that people make to create more usable spaces for themselves.

    I’m thinking about things like moving chairs out onto a sidewalk on a hot night, or putting a street cone in a parking spot to claim it. Skateboarding seems like a similar way of using the built environment in a way that works for the user, not always in the way it was meant to be used.

    Anyway, thanks for your rambling! I feel like I’m learning from your perspective.

  10. I’ll try to say this in a way that actually makes sense.

    It’s like, I just exist as a part of other people’s lives, just passing through unnoticed, but only existing as a part of their world. When I skate I am living for myself. I exist.

  11. I also find it very strange to see people wondering what it is like to be a skater. In highschool, my friends and I always wondered what normal people are like. I remember asking my friend once, “Do you ever wonder what other people DO?”

  12. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You’re right about this fascination. At least, that’s how I feel. Maybe skateboarding is so interesting to me because I’m only an observer. I really love seeing the same spaces that I use in one way used in a way that’s completely alien to me.

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