Suggested Preparatory Reading for Skateboarding/Architecture:

Skateboarding Vs Architecture

Interview excerpt with Iain Borden, writer of ‘Skateboarding, Space & The City : Architecture and the Body’

(First published Aug 2003 )

How has skateboarding shaped your appreciation of architecture?

Skateboarding lets you experience buildings not as a set of objects, designed by architects, but as a set of spatial experiences. By this I mean that moving around on a skateboard makes you consider buildings and landscapes as a set of opportunities to skate you are constantly sizing up banks, ledges, curves, curbs and so on for their ability to be skated upon. So there is this initial process of interrogation looking at architecture differently, working out whether it can be skated or not. And then there is the actual engagement with the architecture, using the skateboard and your body in relation to the physicality of the building and here one appreciates architecture differently again, this time as a direct sensual engagement, less to do with the mind and more to do the living body that we all possess.

How does sk8boarding critique architecture & capitalism?

Skateboarding is a critique of the Protestant work ethic, the idea that we should always be working to produce something: a product or a service to sell. Skateboarders (non-pros), at least while skateboarding, don’t generally do this, and so skateboarding suggests we can produce different things: expend energy not as work, but as the production of emotions, actions, effort and play. Skateboarding is also a partial critique of commodity consumption, i.e. when not working we should be consuming things. Again, skateboarders use urban space and buildings without buying anything, treating the city as a free wealth for all to enjoy.

Can u describe ‘rhythmanalysis’ simply, and how skating fits into this?

Rhythmanalysis is the term used by Henri Lefebvre to describe space associated with actions of the body the space produced by walking, or by moving, or by breathing, or by the cycles of reproduction and regeneration. Space as lived over time, by people with physical bodies. For skateboarding this might mean such things as the speedy space of moving over the pavement, or the rhythmic space of a skater on a half-pipe, or the weekly or seasonal patterns by which skaters return to particular spaces over the course of days, weeks or even years.

How has your research affected the way you skate?

If anything, I guess it has made me want to enjoy my skating as a bodily experience and as a kind of play and fun for me, that means enjoying simple things like carves and grinds rather than worrying about new tricks, and feeling the concrete move underneath me. I tend to be more of an old school skater than a streetskater .

Transcribed Section of Skateboarding / Architecture:

So, [oddly enough?] when I was telling people I was going to do a lecture on architecture and skateboarding, the typical response was, “together?” Like, people didn’t necessarily think they had anything to do with one another, but I actually think that, I’ve tried to convince people throughout my life, most of them would-be architects that, along themselves, skateboarders are truly the other great clan of architectural fetishists. I think this is something that very few people understand in a very direct way except for skateboarders themselves that, you know there are some differences – architects tend to look up, skateboarders tend to look eye level or even fixate on the kind of ground-level tactile sort of central things and, likewise, architects tend to comprehend architecture as a totality whereas skateboards, on the other hand, – they are the centralists – they fixate on smaller parts and little microspaces that compose architecture, but despite that differences I think that both of these loves are equally powerful, almost sexual in nature for the love of space and form, and so I’m going to go a few of more theoretical aspects of this.

One example is from my days at University of Virginia. I hung out with a lot of architecture students at time, and one day I find out they have a project, and this project was to design a plaza that would be conducive to skateboarding. Most of the students, like pretty much all of them that I talked to came up with huge designs for ramps, like giant vert ramps and banks and stuff like that, and they thought that this was what was conducive to skateboarding, and I tried to explain to them that they totally missed the point. They didn’t understand the truly transformative nature of skateboarding, that if an architect were to design a plaza that was perfectly conducive to skateboarding, he would have designed an executive plaza, just as he normally would with benches and banks, actually indistinguishable from any other executive plaza. As much as I tried to talk to them about that they couldn’t understand it, that architectural appreciation for the skateboarders is something that comes completely after the completion, aside from the blueprints and the original intents and expressions of that blueprint.

So…you guys getting all this? Good.

So, what I’m trying to say is, I think there are various forms of architectural appreciation. Most people think of architectural appreciation as something that happens in the hypothetical…by putting yourself in the place of an architect. In other words, to say, you know, “I’m going to walk through the city, how would I have designed this building? how would I have completed it? What are the intents? What are the expressions?” But that’s only one half of the world of architectural appreciation and that the half that we’re missing is the idea of use of architecture, misuse of architecture, and transformation of architecture. And I think that skateboarding is probably the most poetic model we have of this transformational use and misuse. Actually, I dare anyone to come up with a better example of someone who…

[from audience] “Graffiti”

Ok, you know, that’s, that’s a good one, um…


I mean, graffiti is transformative. I think that what’s nice about skateboarding is that it doesn’t even alter the form whatsoever at all. I think that’s what’s most interesting.

[from audience] “that’s not true!”

Well, not to a great degree. There are many forms of skateboarding that don’t. For example, skateboarding on stairs. Nothing changes, but nevertheless, just by the actions of the skateboard, they reimagine the actual forms themselves. And so this is what we’re going to talk about – how skateboarders reimagine their environment by basically rewriting and reinterpreting the environment by action, so, over certain typologies like benches and handrails and things like that.

When I started trying to explain skateboarding and things like that to architects, my first reference point was the architect Bernard Tschumi who, I guess maybe architects for the most part may be familiar with. He’s the former dean of the architecture school at Columbia. The graduate school.

I’m going to put my video away so I can put my powerpoint stuff up

There he is, that’s Bernard Tschumi. Wait, hold on, my shit’s all fucked up. What the hell?

[laughter], Brandon trying to get stuff working

Ok, boom. There’s Bernard Tschumi, and he was one of the first to push the idea that the meaning of structure, the meaning of architecture is that it’s not so much determined by the intents and expressions of the architect as it is by the events and the actions that happen within that architecture. And, basically, that form and concrete cannot dictate its own use, like, for example, say like a cathedral. A cathedral is not a religious piece of architecture because of anything intrinsic in its form. It’s religious because that’s where we carry out worship and abolutions and things like that. That is what anoints it with the meaning as a church, as a house of God. So, Tschumi saw that there was this possibility of, especially clever actions that could override the programs that the architect or society as a whole imagined for these pieces of architecture. And undermined and negated and basically overrid I guess all the intentions that were there in the blueprint. Because for Tschumi, he saw that all the programs, he saw these as being politically determine, that these were crystallizations of power structures, matters of state and stuff like that. So, what he tried to do was create forms of architecture that basically questioned these kinds of presumptions and a priori meaning within the structures, including within the canon of architecture itself. So, for him, he considered himself a deconstructionist architect. You know, he got together with Derrida and stuff and tried to create architecture that were self questioning structures.

I think I have a picture here… this is the parte la viete that I’m going to talk about a little bit later, this is actually the most pronounced example of this.

And so what he was trying to do with this…He was trying to bring post-structuralism to the structure of architecture, if that makes sense. He thought that by examining these a priori meanings in architecture he could actually bring under the critical scrutiny the larger structures that determined them like the power and the state and stuff. So you could question religious presumptions merely by questioning the a priori meanings in the cathedral itself.

This is, um, I’m not exactly sure where this is in Paris, but this is the parte de la viete. And, although he was considered a Derridian and a post-structuralist, I think it was more that Derrida and Tschumi were coming out of the same ethos, which is kind of French, Marxism, post-Marxism, most notably by – here’s a guy, you guys’ll recognize this guy… um,These are some posters, for example, from Tschumi. He also created these advertisements. “The most architectural thing about this building is the state of decay in which it is.” Then he says down here, “Architecture only survives where it negates the form that society expects of it, where it negates itself by transgressing the limits that history has set for it.” He’s got another poster. “To really appreciate architecture you may even need to commit a murder. Architecture is defined by the action it witnesses as much as the enclosure of its walls. Murder in the street differs from murder in the cathedral in the same way as love in the street differs from the street of love.” So this is supposed to be a play-off of, like, the situationist kind of sloganeering and stuff like that.

But also, a little more seriously, this is Andre Lefebvre, he was a famous French Marxist thinker who was eventually kicked out of the French Communist party. His ideas were a little too freaky. But he along with some of the situationists that came up with a lot of the vocabulary that Tschumi and Derrida kind of adopted, like the concept of detournement which is kind of like, diversion, taking these prescribed programs and, by small actions or gestures or what have you, completely changing the original intention, or having it completely capsize, so to speak. Also, the honorary Arthur Russell wrote a famous book called The Production Of Space in which he kind of showed how, quite contrary from being this inert stretch of shapes and forms, it was actually filmed to the brim with intentions that had been layed down by, well for him since he was a Marxist he thought it was because of capitalists sort of forms of production. But the argument can be extended that whatever power and forms that be – that they were responsible for the programs that went into the architecture that surrounded us.

So, I think I have some situationist stuff…This is some situationist architectural thinking here – a situationist map of Paris, trying to map the psychogeography. Are you guys familiar with this kind of stuff? So they would roam around and figure out ways to override the political purposes implicit in the landscape, some of them more useful than others. Especially in this time, in Paris,…

[talks a bit about the situationists, baron haussman…]

So, nevertheless, what they wanted to do, the situationists and Andre Lefebvre and a few other people I’ll talk about later, they tried to create this new Babylon, in other words by trying to basically make Paris a crazy place again. And this is some of their intentions…this is another example of detournement – they would take comics and, just by changing the lines, rearrange the original intention and expression of the comic.

And this is Marxist stuff, like, “the very development of classist society towards a spectacular organization of non-life demands the revolutionary to become visibly what was already before essentially.” Um, trying to figure that out but [laughter], that’s what it says. My point being that this is the ethos that Tschumi was streaming out of. He saw the situationists creating temporary cities during ’68 and all these things and he was actually most inspired by the situationists just hanging out, basically goofing off. He thought this was real architectural appreciation and reappropriation of space, because they would hang out at places at school and they didn’t go to school and have jobs, they just hung out and he thought this was architecture at its finist. And so Tschumi absorbed these lessons and, as an architect he tried to bring this in and incorporate this [act?] into architecture itself so basically he tried to think of ways that one could create what he called ‘event cities’, basically reimaginings of the city by certain other indreamt of programs. So he came up with certain non-sequitors like pole-vaulting in a cathedral or, I don’t know it doesn’t make sense, but a football player skating through a battle. These were things for him that seemed…you know he was just trying to grasp for anything, like “what could this sort of action look like?”

And I’m reading this thinking, “you know, this is skateboarding. everything Tschumi dreamt of was being bred in a very sort of unreflexive sort of way through skateboarding, a very democratic way through skateboarding. So I think it’s interested that he didn’t immediately claim this. Or more architects, I’m surprised this wasn’t immediately grasped upon. And when I talk about skating here I’m specifically talking about street skating, because even though ramp skating and skating in parks is great and fun, it has a completely different logic and doesn’t really apply to what I’m saying here. So street skating to me was the most contagious and sort of successful form of detournement in/of architecture. I thought this was perfect, this reinterpretation of the environment.

So, take for example the executive plaza I was talking about before. You have a bench that’s supposed to be used for…what is a bench used for? It’s for statis, it’s for rest, and a skateboarder comes along and uses it for this kind of poetic motion and movement or something – completely negating the purpose of the bench – to sit still. It’s incorporating this kind of very swift movement, usually. Or you have…I love the idea of stairs, the whole idea of stairs is to make a continuum between two heights, and what does a skateboarder do – completely negates it by falling down them and doing tricks down them and not touching a one. So it’s a complete negation of what’s supposed to be the intent of the stairs.

And this is Eric Hansen on a hand rail. What is a handrail? What is the architectural program of a handrail? It’s too ensure safety. You know, you’re walking down the stairs and this skateboarder is doing the most dangerous thing you possib…look at this! He’s doing a nose dive down a handrail! So, not only ignoring the program but actually finding its extreme opposite. I mean there could be nothing more dangerous than this! I think when street skating reached the pinnacle of it’s genius is that, after skateboarding started to get popular, the plazas and stuff started employing what are called skate stoppers or some sort of skate stopping method or they put bolts down and so stuff like this. Now the very height of street skating genius is when street skaters figured out ways to skate on skate stoppers. They started using the skate stoppers themselves as obsticals, so I don’t think you could reach a greater height of the poetry of street skating.

It’s also funny, too, because I’m sure that Ian Bourdin, who is an architect that I’m gonna speak about here in a second, I guess he was a skateboarder for a while and actually a famous video, a manifesto of street skating – it was called ‘Public Domain’. There was a brief part in there by a professor, and I think I saw it first when I was 11 or 12, I’m not sure, but the professor is basically saying everything I’m saying here, and when I was younger I think I would just fast forward through it, you know like ‘what is this guy talking about?’ but I must have seen it 100 times and all the ideas that I was coming up with when I was 18 really came from Public Domain. Well…it’s taking a second to load so I’ll come back to that

Anyway, I really imagine that skateboarding was – I consider it the most successful form of action determining the meaning and also the most successful illicit form of architecture over, I guess like a protest of authoritative structures. But, a lot of times, with the stuff Tshumi was coming up with you kind of had to squint. They were a little more theoretical, whereas I thought skateboarding – it wasn’t just successful because it manages to override structure. You weren’t doing it to override structure. You were doing it for the desire that it was producing. That was what made it so successful. So you had this form of architectural appreciation that allowed a young man of 12 or 13 to experience the sublime of a parking lot of a Best Buy. So I think that people really need to take a second to think about this. People look at Best Buy and suburban sprawl and stuff like that and they think ‘ugh, this is terrible’. But there is this activity that has figured out a way to create a sublime in that environment. It’s a different form of architectural appreciation because normally when you think of architectural appreciation you think of great works. You use the word architecture honorifically to say it’s a work by an international style, you know, [he name drops someone] or it’s this famous cathedral but for skateboarders, they don’t ask “is this a great form of architecture”. It lies in the transformation so kind of dreaming makes it so. It’s also something that allows you to appreciate architecture that is the other 99% of the world – the Wawas, the backs of parking lots and the backs of stores – this kind of unseen half. So you a shitty burned out shell of a gas station and it becomes a thing of true beauty.

Also, skateboarders aren’t completely ahistorical, I mean, you just have new forms of monuments. In other words, I am deeply familiar, deeply experientially familiar with high schools in California that I’ve never been to, like Huntington Beach High School. I knows that thin inside and out and I’ve never even set foot there, you know? So there is still some typography involved in architecture. But, nevertheless, anything in an urban environment, if it can be ridden, if it’s smooth enough and not rocks or grass or gravel, basically becomes a skateboard field.

So, one of the things I want to drive at is that I’m not specifically talking about skateboarding. There are other activities out there that could do the same thing as skateboarding. I think that the actual specifics of skateboarding, you know the four weels, a deck, are pretty contingent, pretty arbitrary. But we should look at skateboarding a see that, ‘ok this is extremely successful. What is it about that that makes it so successful? What allows skateboarding to produce desire in these kinds of environments?’ One thing that I was thinking about in that regard is that, in a lot of ways, skateboarding has invented its own language. Like, it has it’s own language of actions, you know all these things like, ollies, backsides, so it’s figured out a way to redescribe its environment and so it seems to me maybe to find a way to poeticize an environment like skateboarding does you actually need a language to poeticize it, and I think that’s one thing that maybe we should bear in mind a little bit as I keep on talking.

So, skateboarders even redescribe the actual objects in the architectural environment. So, for example, every typology kind of elicits a certain vocabulary of action. You can only do certain things on handrails, certain things on benches. So I think, whatever we take from skateboarding, this is something that you have to develop a language first. It could be a language of a game, I think this is one of the central things.

Ok…let me see if this is…ok, it’s up. I’m about to drop some knowledge on you guys. This is Dr. Eugene [Mangard?]

26 minutes in.

So, anyway, I was getting excited about some of these architectural ideas a few years back and I wanted to write some articles about it for maybe Transworld or something like that. I actually wrote them and said ‘I have these ideas on architecture and skateboarding and what do think?’ And I kind of explained to them my angle of approach and they said ‘oh this is great, however we already had someone write an article. It’s this guy Iain Borden. He is the dean of the architecture school at Bartlett’. Sure enough, I looked up Iain Borden and read some of his stuff and, yep, said basically everything I would have said [laughter], like, to a tee and I think I realized that a lot of what I’m saying is pretty much applied to to skateboarders. All skateboarders on some level kind of understand this intuitively. It’s kind of phenomenal. So, I’m going to read a few things from Iain Borden, just to show you what I mean.

This from this book ‘Skateboarding and Architecture’: “Architecture, falling (following?) here Lefebvre’s body-centric formulations, reproduces itself within those who use the space in question within their lived experience. This occurs in skateboarding through architecture being encountered in relation to height, tactility, transition, slipperiness, roughness, damage to skin, damage to a body from a fall, angle of verticality, sequencing drops, kinks and shape, profiles, materials, lengths and so on. And only a very small part of the architecture is used. The building [something?] becomes only an extracted edit of its total existence.”

There’s a great essay online, it’s actually linked off the PIFAS website called ‘The Performative Critique Of The City’, talking about skateboarding being a performative critique. It says, “One effectiveness is that, a different kind of canon of city architecture is drawn up, substituting everyday architecture for great monuments and buildings by famous architects. The city for skateboarders is not buildings, but a set of ledges, windowsills, walls, roofs, railings, porches, steps, salt bins, fire hydrants, bus benches, water tanks, newspaper stands, pavements, planters, curbs, handrails, barriers, fences, banks, skips, posts, tables and so on. To us these things are more. The New York for skaters, for example, is not the New York of the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park and the Chrysler Building, but of the Bear Stearns building 46th and 47th, bubble banks, southside of 747 3rd ave, harlem banks, or the Washington Square park, Bell Plaza banks. Washington, by the same process becomes architecturally known to skaters as Pulaski Park, National Geographic Building, the Federal Welfare Archives…[continues with Tokyo]”

So, he basically beat me to the punch, and he says it pretty well if I may say so, but he also takes it a little bit further and the idea of skateboarding being a performative critique of the city and he actually shows, pretty well, how it’s more of an ideological clash. And he goes through the idea of public space and that these people are not indifferent to how the programs are applied to architecture. They embody very strong beliefs.

I have a few other videos here I would like to show you. (First there are these commercials Nike made for the X games kind of making fun of this ideological class.)

So, when you’re 13 you don’t really think that there would be [what?] involved in the way that architecture is used. But once you actually violate them, you really feel the brunt of this ideological force. And so even people who saw these video thought “oh, this is ridiculous. It’s got to be an exaggeration”

Here’s a video called “Skateboarding is not a crime” (Kids with cameras recording themselves getting kicked out of places)

So there is a deep fundamental misunderstanding between these two people

[continues to discuss video]

A few more Iain Borden quotes…

“Skateboarding here resists the standardization and repetition of the city as a serial production of building types, functions and discrete objects; it decentres building-objects in time and space in order to recompose them as a strung-out yet newly synchronous arrangement. Thus while many conceive of cities as comprehensive urban plans, monuments or grand projects, skateboarding suggests that cities can be thought of as a series of micro-spaces. Consequently, architecture is seen to lie beyond the province of the architect and is thrown instead into the turbulent nexus of reproduction. Skateboarding is, then, at one level an aesthetic rather than ethical practice, using the “formants” at its disposal to create an alternative reality. Skateboarders analyze architecture not for historical, symbolic or authorial content but for how surfaces present themselves as skateable surfaces. This is what Thrasher skateboard magazine calls ‘skater’s eye’”

And skater’s eye is interesting because, a lot of the time when architects think about this kind of experiential approach to architecture they [what?] phenominological. Skateboarders are, in a lot of ways, more phenomenological. In other words, they apply what is called epicare, the bracketing of presumptions. Normally when you walk around you have historical presumptions built in the form but skateboarders are the ones who can kind of block those out. Or maybe they’re replacing them with new presumptions, but, nevertheless, it’s kind of more phenomenological in a kind of more strict sense.

[goes on to talk about The Practice Of Everyday Life]

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