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.
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.
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.