Southbank skaters’ victory shows grassroots culture still worth fighting for

Graffiti artists, making the place their own. Image: David Jones on Flickr, reused under creative commons.

A year-and-a-half after the Southbank Centre published its plans for the redeveloped Festival Wing that would have removed the skaters from their habitual haunt in the building’s undercroft, the plans have been scrapped. A joint statement by the centre and the campaign to save the skaters' undercroft, Long Live South Bank, stated that it would be kept open without charge, seemingly indefinitely.

This is quite a reversal of Southbank’s stance, with the centre’s rhetoric throughout the campaign towards the skating community and LLSB shifting from caring sympathisers, to annoyed landlords with nuisance tenants, to aggressive name-calling. The project’s failure can be pinned to three, related issues.

First, there was the overwhelming groundswell of support for the skaters. The Southbank seemed surprised by this. For decades skaters have been treated as anti-social deviants, yet the community thrives as a form of urban practice and creativity with roots going back decades – and the undercroft was a central part of this scene before the Southbank took off as a go-to area for hoards of tourists and visitors (who like to watch them).

Skateboarders use the city in unexpected and different ways, ways in which planners did not intend, and private landowners often don’t like. But their continued presence in cities all over the world demonstrates its appeal and longevity.

The skateboarding subculture is tied into the subconsciousness of cities. So when a key cultural site is threatened by “big business”, it was hardly surprising to see others standing with them, including London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. The undercroft is not just another skate spot – it had been defended for decades, with skaters facing off efforts to marginalise and criminalise them.

The second problem was the Southbank's decision to include an alternative skate park in their plans, a facility it described as “an area for urban arts”. This was a clear and transparent attempt to commercialise skating from the outset, as well as a rather patronising gesture.

Skate parks have long existed as places where skaters can go to practice, socialise and perform in relative safety and comfort. But as spaces designed for that purpose, they remove the element of creative re-appropriation of the city that is part of the culture. Such parks represent a spoon-fed consumerism that goes against the grain.

The proposed skate park was not only extremely corporate in appearance, but represented a complete whitewashing (literally) of the undercroft’s history, and would undoubtedly have been branded, sponsored, overly-policed and micro-managed. It was seen as a transparent attempt not only to remove skaters from prime real estate, but also to impose greater control over them.

Unoriginal thinking

Third and perhaps more importantly is that of the capitalist logic at work behind the Southbank’s plans. While the Festival Wing plans were heralded as dynamic, creative and visionary, really they only recreated cityscapes that have proliferated across the world. Coffee chains, “boutique” retail stores (usually owned by larger corporations), food markets, pop-up events – these are all indicative of the march toward the privatisation of space. Capitalism has become extremely proficient at creatively adapting its aesthetic appeal, while maintaining the end result of further privatisation of land, centralisation of wealth, and homogenisation of cities.

The skaters recognised this early and were able to expose its inherent contradictions. Why would a “culture for all” not include skaters? If Southbank was really committed to broadening the cultural offerings, surely preserving the undercroft was paramount. It already attracts marginalised young people; it already allows them to form diverse communities around a shared common interest; it already promotes social interaction, healthy living, and cultural engagement. The desire to create more saleable retail space is not reason enough to destroy a community that already matches the aspects the Southbank wished to promote.

In an era when our cities are increasingly corporate, private and elitist, Long Live South Bank’s successful defence of the undercroft proves that democratic, grass-roots community activism still works, and it proves that our cities are still worth fighting for. The Conversation

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.