A boy in a red snapback cap, skateboard at his feet, is waiting his turn to vault a set of stairs. It is a sunny May afternoon on the banks of the River Thames and the air throbs with the bass of a speaker system nearby. Wheels clatter as they roll across the space’s grey concrete floors. Men and women in orange shirts hand out petitions and canvas for signatures. The Long Live the Southbank campaign is holding a weekend of activities to save this place, where dozens of the young and young-at-heart skate, ride and paint, while families, couples and tourists watch from the side-lines.
He is at the front of the queue now, pushing himself away from the wall. His board slides under his feet and he begins to pick up speed. There is a grace about him as he rolls towards the drop. A breeze pulls at his clothes but he is smiling. The stairs approach. He crouches down towards his board, his knees bent and his body coiled like a spring. Then he explodes upwards, over the stairs, heading down towards the earth below.
But he has miscalculated. The board flies away from his feet while he hangs mid-air. There is an audible intake of breath among the watching crowds, though other skaters look on relaxed. The floor approaches him quickly and he hits it with a painful crack that echoes around the space’s stained walls.
For a brief moment he looks hurt. But then he sits up with a smile spread across his face and starts to laugh and shake his head. He stands up, grabs his board and returns back to where he started, bumping fists with friends at the end of the queue. He is ready to jump again, to face the drop, to land it this time.
Robert, a middle-aged man in a double breasted jacket and boater hat, is stood at the side watching the scene unfold from behind a metal barrier. He is there with his wife and daughter, enjoying the Bank Holiday sun.
“They can’t close this place”, he says.
“Look at what it means to these kids. They just can’t.”
The Southbank Centre is an icon of Brutialist architecture. Its angular grey contours and slabs of roughly finished concrete may resemble a huge car park, but it has become Europe’s largest centre of the arts. It was built in the 1950s for the Festival of Britain and hosts a variety of music, art, dance and performance events in its three main buildings, the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery.
There is, however, another side to this site, a side that has become a tourist attraction in itself. The undercroft, located deep in its bowels, with a view of the river and the spikes of Embankment Bridge, has become the most famous skate spot in the country. It has appeared in countless films and magazine shoots and is visited by skaters and BMX-ers from all over the world.
Skating started at the South Bank in the 1970s. Many consider it the birthplace of the culture in the UK. The spot was empty then, an architectural dead space, visited by the homeless for a place to sleep, but rarely by others. Now, there is life everywhere. On any given day, you can find teenagers rolling through its banks and pillars, laughing, shouting, having fun. Greying veterans ride too, the plank of wood between their feet helping them temporarily hold back the onset of time. The skating community has built a history here. It’s visible in the faded graffiti layered on every surface, in the worn down features and in the lines borne deep into the floors.
But now all this is under threat. The Southbank Centre has unveiled plans to refurbish the Festival Wing, which will see the undercroft turned into retail spaces to help pay for the £120 million project. The centre has identified a space further along the river, under Hungerford Bridge, where a customised site could be built for the community instead. But this is not a popular option.
“This is all we have left”, explained Henry Edwards Wood, a filmmaker from South London and spokesman for the Long Live South Bank campaign. “We come here for its history. We want to be around these pillars. They show us that we are part of something and that we are creating a future.”
Henry grew up on the South Bank. “I became a man here”, he says. “All my housemates, all my close friends, everyone, I met them here. This place is my life." He now films skateboarders for a living and describes the undercroft as the last remaining piece of what was once a skate Mecca.
“SE1 and Waterloo have been synonymous with skating for 40 years, but now all the other spots are gone. If skateboarding is to continue to exist as an art form, the community has to come together to save this place.”
But can’t the same vibe, the same feeling, be re-created at Hungerford Bridge?
He looks out towards the river. “No. Look at this view. It’s perfect.
“At twilight, the light comes into this space, and I promise you, it’s magical.”
Nick Jensen has been skating at the South Bank for the last 17 years. He was 11 years old when he first arrived, a nervous young boy with his brother. They had practiced for weeks before, perfecting a pop shove it so that they wouldn’t look like amateurs in front of the other skaters.
“We were too embarrassed to come here without it, because we heard that this was where all the legit and real dudes skated,” he says. “Once we had the basics we finally allowed ourselves to come.”
That embarrassment turned into awe when he arrived.
“Everyone was really warm, super welcoming. I became addicted. I just skated and skated, soaking up all the other people’s tricks and just observing and learning.”
He spent the summers of his youth here, skating deep into the evenings. He chilled, hung out, made a lot of friends. Now he is 28 and a professional skateboarder. He is tall, lean, athletic; well-spoken with a shock of blond hair. He looks happy and relaxed. The undercroft has in many ways defined his life.
“Without this place, without its energy, I would never have developed to the level I am”, he says. “It’s like somebody who is fascinated by a famous artist being able to go their studio and watch them paint. That’s what kids can do here. It’s the best way to feel, understand, interpret and learn when you can see it right in front of you.”
He recognises the commercial reasons for relocation, but believes passionately that some things in life are more important than money.
“I appreciate the notion of having a new spot down the road. It’s great that they have made that gesture. But, it’s more symbolic to have it here, a place that is secure and free and that hasn’t succumbed to gentrification. It’s much more about that than it is about having a good technically-built skate park.
“We have a history here. The undercroft has its own character. If we move, that will go.”
He pauses to collect his thoughts. A young boy, no more than five years old, zips by on a tiny scooter. An oversized helmet sits on top of his head and his dad follows closely behind.
“Even if you try and mimic it, it won’t be the same”, Nick says.
“It will be artificial. And all this will be lost.”
The skaters have every reason to fear gentrification. The whole world has become a shopping mall, including the South Bank. The invasion of retail has been creeping up on the undercroft for years now. To the left of the site, just metres away, Yo Sushi, Eat, Strada and Wagamama have all set up shop, feeding day-trippers and weekend strollers as they wonder down the river. To the right, visitors eat braised beef rigatoni between sips of Mendoza Malbec under a canopy at the BFI’s The Riverfront restaurant. Opposite, by the Festival Pier, people queue to sample artisan cheeses, meats and wine as part of the Real Food Market. Women sip boutique champagne from thin flutes, while others eat fresh Whitstable rock oysters, smoked to order, straight from the shell.
The whoops and hollers of the hoody-clad skaters may not fit this scene, but they were here first. And they bring life to the area, and a sense of community. Casper Brooker, who has been described as the golden boy of UK skateboarding, has benefited from this communal atmosphere. He is still a teenager but has been skating at South Bank for the last six years.
“It’s done absolutely everything for me,” he says. “All my skating opportunities have come through the people here. I have met most of my friends too. It’s a community. It’s almost like we all have the same mindset.”
And what if it goes?
“It will break a lot of people’s hearts”, he says.
“If I’m older and I walk across here and I see a Starbucks or a book shop I would be really upset. This is where I have grown up. There are hundreds of Starbucks already. Every single person that has walked past this weekend, when they have seen the petition, has said the same thing.
“Why are they taking this away?”
Later, as the day draws to a close and the spectators that have crowded round the fences thin away, a core group of skaters remain. These are the foot soldiers, the men and women that have come together to make some noise about the relocation.
Now they are skating. Sure, their tricks are impressive. The boards, and the men on them, fly effortlessly through the air, twisting, rotating and spinning. But it’s something else that really stands out. It’s their faces, the smiles. It’s the joy.
Nearby, lights flash on and off, catching the attention of those walking by. There are three neon signs that sit to the right of the spot, high above a Wahaca restaurant serving Mexican street food from a collection of rectangle turquoise containers. The lights are still dim in the late afternoon sun, but for the first time today the message is just about visible. It repeats the same phrase three times. Power to the people, power to the people, power to the people.
The petition to save the South Bank now has more than 28,000 signatures. You can sign it here.