Beneath the Pavement, The Beach:

Skateboarding, Architecture and the Urban Realm

By Iain Borden - Lecturer in Architectural History
Sub-Dean of the Faculty of the Built Environment
The Bartlett, University College London


I started skating around 1978 in the UK, and learned mostly on a municipal fiberglass halfpipe. I am now a lecturer in architectural history at the University of London, teaching architectural design students on the subject, and, in particular, researching on ways in which different people experience and use buildings and urban space.

I am researching/writing a book on the spatiality of skateboarding, which will be not so much a history of skateboarding as a cultural theory text on the different kinds of space that skateboarders occupy and produce. Following is a short piece I wrote recently, which is a kind of summary of the project.

Strangely Familiar: Narratives of Architecture in the City

Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell (eds.)
(New York and London: Routledge, 1996)

Cities and buildings provide for our every living moment. Within them we dwell, work, take pleasure; cities are our spatial world. But too often we are purely passive users of these everyday spaces and structures, adapting our activities and movements to that which has already been designed. Through direct instructions (keep left, don't walk, no cyclists) or indirect conventions (this is the living room, the bathroom, here is where you sleep) we are informed as to what activities should take place in what spaces. And too often we do exactly what we are told.

But the city and its architecture offer us far more: the potential to do much more with our bodies than walking and driving, and to enjoy urban spaces other than by working and shopping. By using forms of pleasure like play, the festival and the carnival (notwithstanding their own relation to commercialism and capitalist leisure time), we can actively produce our own city experiences.

It has often been remarked that decades of urban technology have unwittingly created a concrete playground of immense potential, and that it sometimes takes the mind of a 12-year-old to realize this potential. This comment refers to the urban practice of skateboarding.

The skateboard passed into mass public consciousness in the summer of 1977; visible on every sidewalk, office plaza, parking lot and suburban road, the skateboard became an unavoidable part of urban life. After a subsequent decline in popularity, skateboarding underwent a renaissance in the mid 1980s and its practitioners are now more committed and more numerous; there are skateboarders in every city right across the globe, creating a sub-culture that offers a complete alternative to conventional city life, replete with its own music,clothes and language. Skaters have a sense of self- and collective identity, and a way of engaging with the urban realm unique within the modern city.

Skateboarding first arose in the 1960s on the sweeping roads of calm suburban sub-divisions. Surfers killed time by replicating ocean moves on smooth tarmac. But in the 1970s skaters quickly developed an urban character, first appropriating deserted swimming pools, drainage channels and schoolyard banks, and then reaching new physical and technical heights in purpose-designed skateparks in cities across America and Europe. Skaters have used these specialist facilities to evolve a set of supremely body-centric spaces, creating spiralling forces of movement that act centrifugally, extending out from the body to the terrain beneath, and then centripetally, pulling body, board and terrain together into one dynamic flow.

But since the 1980s, skateboarding has taken on a more aggressive, and more political identity and space. After the closure of many of the skateparks, skaters were forced into the streets and here they now create on a daily basis a radical subversion of the intended use of the city and its buildings.

Around 1984, skaters began radically extending skateboarding onto the most quotidian and conventional elements of the urban landscape. Using as their basic move the ollie, in which the skater unweights the front of the skateboard to make it pop up into the air, they ride up onto walls of buildings, steps and street furniture. Skaters across the world now skate not just on the sidewalk but over fire hydrants, onto bus benches and planters, across kerbs and down handrails.As Stacey Peralta, a former professional skateboarder, describes it, "for urban skaters, the city is the hardware on their trip."

Skateboarders are antagonistic towards the urban environment. But, beyond simple accusations that skaters cause physical damage to persons and to property, there is a more significant dimension to this seeming aggression; in redefining space for themselves, skateboarders threaten accepted definitions of space, taking over space conceptually as well as physically and so striking at the very heart of what everyone else understands by the city.

Skaters produce an overtly political space, a pleasure ground carved out of the city as a kind of continuous reaffirmation of the notion that beneath the pavement, lies the beach.

Nor is this by any means confined to America. Beside famous skateboarding cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco, just about every developed capitalist city now has its own band of skaters. And skaters also increasingly communicate globally on the Internet, offering interviews, product reviews, video clips, still images, skateable locations and music.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of activity does not go unchallenged. Because skaters test the boundaries of the urban environment, using its elements in ways neither practised nor understood by others, they meet with repression and legislation. Some cities have placed curfews and outright bans on skateboarding.

More usually,skaters encounter experiences similar to those of the homeless, for, like the homeless, skateboarders occupy the space in front of mini-mall stores and office plazas without engaging in the economic activity of the building. As a result, owners and building managers have either treated skaters as trespassers or have cited the marks caused by skateboards as proof of criminal damage. Skaters face fines, bans, and even imprisonment - they are subjected to spatial censorship.

Anti-skateboarding legislation is rarely systematic, and skaters are often too young to pose a real threat, being without the various powers of self-determination held by adults. But the nervousness of the status quo highlights a confrontation between counter-culture and conventional, dominant social practices.

Ultimately, being banned from the public domain becomes simply one more obstacle for skaters to overcome, causing them to campaign that "Skateboarding Is Not A Crime". Alternatively, such repression simply adds to the anarchist tendency within skateboarding, reinforcing the cry of "Skate and Destroy". Either way, skateboarders are part of a long process in the history of cities: a fight by the unempowered and disenfranchised for a distinctive social space of their own.

In doing so, skaters do not accept cities as they are; rather than trying to section off their own little piece of land, skaters want to use all of the city, and in a particularly unconventional and active manner. By using their youth, and in particular by using their own bodily pleasure, skateboarders create their own space, their own cities, their own architecture.