In March the Southbank Centre announced plans to redevelop the Royal Festival Hall, including the undercroft, a small scruffy space, covered in graffiti, which has long been used by skateboarders and BMX riders. It’s probably the most famous – and certainly the most well documented – skateboarding spot in Europe. On one of the foundation piers of Hungerford Bridge there’s a skateboard graveyard: boards broken by the undercroft’s brutal geometry are scattered across the concrete.
The justifications for the new Festival Wing are laudable: more space for exhibitions and events, a new poetry library, better access for wheelchair users. None of this will be in the undercroft, however, which will instead be turned into restaurants and shops. ‘This is the space that offers the highest return through the smallest commercial footprint,’ the Southbank Centre says.
The developers have offered to build a replacement skate park under Hungerford Bridge. They’re working with a research team from Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, and plan on ‘celebrating our skateboarding history in the new Heritage and Archive Centre.’
Several groups have organised campaigns against the redevelopment. On Saturday I went down to the undercroft with William Kraemer, a skater involved in Long Live Southbank, which is making a legal challenge to the plans.
‘I first came here in 1998,’ Kraemer told me, ‘because it was the place to skateboard in Europe, not just in London. It’s still the centre of skateboarding in Europe. American skaters, when they come to Europe, come to London just to see this. It’s a kind of pilgrimage.’
Like most of the skaters I talked to, Kraemer is realistic about the plans, and reasonable in his objections to them. ‘Never have I heard of a redeveloper saying: “We’re getting rid of the skate park but we’ll offer you another space.” I mean, that’s unheard of,’ he said. ‘And Southbank Centre are amazing for doing that. But I still stand on saving this space, because it’s not a skate park. It wasn’t designed for skateboarding. It has the history – it’s a found object. It was found and appropriated; it was tolerated and then not tolerated. Having a space built for you isn’t the same.’
More than fifty thousand people have signed a petition to ‘Stop the Relocation of the Southbank Skate Park’, and Long Live Southbank is asking people to object to the planning application with Lambeth Council (before 30 June), or to lodge their objections directly with the South Bank Centre.
Another plan is to register the site as a town green, a place where ‘a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or of any neighbourhood within a locality, have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes on the land for a period of at least 20 years.’ One way or another, Kraemer hasn’t given up hope. ‘There are murmurs from the Museum of London about saving pieces of Southbank, as though it’s the Berlin Wall,’ he said. ‘Talk to me when they’re definitely getting rid of it.’