|Thanks, Le Corbusier (... from the skateboarders)
The failure of the Modern Architectural movement to create functional public
spaces directly influenced the growth of skateboarding in Philadelphia and
around the world.
Outdoor spaces in the 19th and early 20th Century were conceived with the
pedestrian in mind. The 1913 plan for Rittenhouse Square by Paul Philippe Cret
created sweeping pathways through large, open areas of lawn. The paths were
dotted with wood and steel benches for sitting, enjoying the beauty of the scenery
and talking with neighbors. The edges of the square were lined with flowering
planting beds. The park was dotted with an irregular pattern of specimen trees
and shrubs. The square has multiple entrances which allow guest to enter the
park on all edges. The center of the square is dominated by a low, long reflecting
pool and fountain. Open green spaces and landscape dominated the design.
The space was meant to serve as a “natural” foil to the surrounding city, and it
accommodated many users and activities.
A major covenant of the post World War II era Modern Architectural movement was
that the method of designing outdoor public spaces could be reinterpreted. The
goal was to create more poweful, monumental public spaces. The intimate, low-
rise density of many urban centers was being replaced by an expansive, high-rise
model. A leading proponent of this was French architect Le Corbusier, who had
the dubious advantage of working with a blank slate of cities and towns destroyed
during World War II. This change in the physical environment directly separated
people from outdoor spaces. Someone with a stoop in South Philadelphia now
had a balcony ten stories above the street. These design moves drew activity
away from the streets and public spaces. This coincided with a nationwide
suburban housing boom that lured business and residents away from urban
centers. These trends have all been widely documented in urban design history
Many historians agree that the outdoor, public spaces that resulted from this
planning era were rarely successful. They suffered from a number of major
faults. First, the designs were massive in scale. They were often formed by
imposing rigid, geometric forms onto the existing landscape. These designs also
established a clear separation between elements the architecture and the
landscape. Planter boxes were carefully placed at the edges of wide,
monotonous, paved plazas. The re-thinking of public space did not end with the
just arrangement of the space. Traditional seating elements like benches
disappeared. What emerged were simple, monolithic granite and concrete slabs
that were imagined as extensions of the architecture. They were not conceived as
something to sit comfortable on. Perhaps most critically, these new types of
outdoor spaces lacked everyday users.
As our cities became places to work and our suburbs became places to live, the
urban spaces of the modern design movement were left without any regular
constituents. These were public spaces that became places of infrequent visits
by city residents and daytime employees. Most often, they became collectors for
unwanted members of society: the homeless, the un-employed, the drug addicted.
BUSINESS DEALS not BOARDS with WHEELS
Skateboarders were the first real constituents of modernist urban design. This
was a kind of retroactive validation for the principles of modern design. The
architects and planners of these spaces had imagined businessmen leisurely
strolling along as they executed deals, not people gliding along the pavement on
boards with wheels. The physical forms of modernist urban planning could now
be tied to an actual physical use. The wide open paved areas, low, simple
benches and pure geometries of space made them easily navigable on a
skateboard. Skateboarding energized many of these poorly conceived and
underutilized spaces with a new activity.
Philadelphia’s LOVE Park- officially known as John F Kennedy Plaza- is the
quintessential example. Volumes have been written about the popularity of LOVE
Park in the skateboarding world. LOVE Park is to skateboarding as Wrigley Field
is to baseball and Lambaugh Field is to football combined into one. It is known
internationally. Without exaggeration, one can find photos of people
skateboarding at LOVE on websites from nearly every country in the world. One
can even skate a virtual model of the park in a best selling video game.
Skateboarding flourished in places like LOVE Park around the country as the
public at large remained isolated from the phenomena. The fact was that the
places that skateboarders inhabited were all spaces that no one else was
interested in using. This- ofcourse- was bound to change.
Cities forgotten by government and business in the 1970’s and 1980’s began to
awaken towards the end of the century. A complex series of factors lead to this re-
emergence.. but the fact is that people began to return to the city. Philadelphia
was at the leading edge of this new interest in urban living. New construction of
single family and multi-family housing in Philadelphia was on a record pace.
While the population growth was not as dramatic, housing prices in neighborhood
around the city made substantial increases in ten year period. This type of growth
was also happening in cities like Boston, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta,
Portland, San Francisco and Seattle.
OUT with SKATEBOARDING
With new residents and business returning to urban centers, the outdoor public
spaces of the modernist era had the opportunity to serve new constituents. In
Philadelphia, some residents and politicians saw a conflict in the rights of
skateboarders and the rights of pedestrians as to use the space in LOVE Park.
Despite the fact that skateboarders and pedestrians had existed in relative
harmony at LOVE Park for over fifteen years, the case would be made that
skateboarding had no place there.
In advancing that argument, much was made of the damage that skateboarding
causes. Some also equated it to vandalism or the intentional destruction of
property. This comparison has problems. To start, the granite benches in LOVE
Park have been skated on for over twenty years and have never been replaced.
Only smooth, hard surfaces are attractive to skateboarders. Durable materials
like granite and marble will not fail as a result of skateboarding. Skateboarding
does not cause “chipping” to occur along site walls. In fact, even small cracks
along an edge make it almost impossible to be skated. As a skateboarder moves
through spaces on their board, certain maneuvers allow them to lift into the air
and slide the underside of the “trucks” (wheel attachment) along objects that are
low in height. This technique (which is called a grind) often leaves wax residue
along the edge of the object. Over time, this residue can leave deposits on the
material which create discoloration and can leave some scratches. This is the
extent of damage that can be caused by a skateboard.
Vandalism is undertaken with malice. It is something that is undertaken
intentionally to exact harm on something. It is interesting to consider the issue of
graffiti in this context. Graffiti is a problem which cities and towns have struggled
with. Graffiti can certainly be mal-intentioned and pure vandalism. However, it is
also seen by many as a reaction by an artist to a lack of an artistic outlet. This is
not a comparison meant to discount the damage it causes. In Philadelphia, an
effort was made by arts organizations to engage graffiti artists and incorporate
them into the larger culture. The Mural Arts Program was launched largely on this
premise and has achieved wide success with their work. A skateboarder does
not intend to do damage… but is looking for an outlet to do what he or she enjoys.
Engagement is a better solution to this problem than further restriction.
I think it should also be considered that throughout history, cities have always
been places which exhibit a certain “wear and tear” as a result of the richness,
intensity and diversity of activities which occur within them. This comes in a
number of varieties: Litter, potholes, spoken obscenities on the street, the
presence of prostitutes or homeless individuals. The best cities recognize that a
little “tarnish” is an inevitable byproduct of growth and prosperity. In the case of
skateboarding, I would argue that a small amount of “tarnish” is worth it in
exchange for recapturing the activity and security it adds to our spaces.
WHAT made LOVE so good to SKATE
The rise to prominence of LOVE Park as a venue for skateboarding was a product
of the failure of the mid-century modernist design movement to create functional,
outdoor public spaces.
The primary factor in this was the form of the physical terrain. LOVE Park is
composed of architectural site features which can be skated by beginning
skateboarders and also by the most advanced professionals.
If you are a non-skateboarder and have ever stepped onto a skateboard you are
aware of the feeling of unstableness you experience as you become accustomed
to the free motion of your weight. For beginning skateboarders, this sensation
takes time to overcome. Once they have developed an understanding of balance
and the related movement of rolling along a surface, the first trick they probably
learn is the "ollie". This involves kicking the back end of the board against the
ground and extending the legs so to raise both the board and the skateboarder off
the ground. This is used when a skateboarder is interested in sliding along any
surface that is raised above the plane of the ground they are rolling along.
The most advanced skateboarders can ollie only about thirty inches above the
ground. Beginners can often only rise about four inches off the ground. LOVE
Park is filled with site walls, stairs and benches that range in height between four
inches and two-feet. These site features are arranged in fairly linear, repetitive
fashion which allows a skater enough space to begin and land a trick. The wide
open spaces of the plaza gave skateboarders room to travel along a single “line”
in and allowed them to hit all the elements of the landscape. There are also
features which appeal to more advanced skaters. The area in front of the fountain
behind the Indiana sculpture was made famous as the LOVE “Gap”. Skaters
would approach from behind the sculpture and ollie into the open fountain for
distance. The tall stairway at the northeast corner of the park is extremely
challenging because of its size and appealed to many pros who visited the park.
The most significant is the location and the context. Skateboarding is about
seeing and being seen. It is a social culture which requires social space. Often,
if you see a group of eight to ten people skateboarding, only two of them will be on
a board at any one time. The others are sitting, talking and hanging out. Even
before the renovations to LOVE Park, there were places for people to sit, trees at
the edges and a water feature. LOVE Park is accessible to local convenience
stores and restaurants. It is easily accessible via public transit. It is a place
which is surrounded with elements of the city that add a fantastic backdrop for
photos. It is a destination spot. There is no skatepark in the world that offers this
kind of a planned, direct integration with a neighborhood.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN
Skateboarding is an activity which contributes to the variety, vitality and security of
outdoor public spaces. Skateboarders are tourists, consumers and participants
in the arts, culture and economy of cities. Skateboarders extend the hours of the
use of public spaces. Many non-skateboarders are attracted to spaces were
people skateboard, just to watch the activity.
A method of design which forces a prescriptive theoretical or social agenda into
the physical environment often leads to spaces that are less than perfect. This is
the kind of thinking that was propagated by the modernist design. Across the
country, many impromptu skateparks have been created unknowingly. As
designers, we need to understand the relationship that skateboarding has to
public outdoor space. We also need to acknowledge the realities of how the
spaces we design will be used.
By Anthony Bracali, AIA
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