|(Posted 5/19/2001) |
Performative Critique of the American City: the Urban Practice of
Surely it is the supreme illusion to
defer to architects, urbanists or planners as being experts or ultimate
authorities in matters relating to space. (1)
Lefebvre’s attitude toward space has
come to be widely held across different disciplines and discourses.
Architects and planners may be the functionaries and ideologists of urban
space, but their schema and drawings, their buildings and planned spaces,
do not themselves constitute urban space. Rather, urban space is a
continual reproduction, involving not just material objects and practices,
not just codified texts and representations, but also imaginations and
experiences of space.
What I want to do in this paper is to
explore a particular kind of urban space production, one which utilises
the objects and spaces of the city, but which does itself produce any
objectival thing. In particular, I want to focus on the compositional and
representational mode of skateboarding, to consider how it represents
the city without maps, and how it speaks something of the city,
without recourse to theory or texts.
From Surf to Streets
Skateboarding began in the beach cities
of California, first in the late 1950s through to the early 1970s as a
surfer’s activity, emulating the surf moves on the hard surfaces of
urban subdivisions and rolling tarmac.
By the mid 1970s skaters had located a
variety of what I call found terrains, on which they further extended
their surf-related moves. These ranged from schoolyard banks, such as
those at Kenter School in the Brentwood area of LA, to drainage ditches,
such as Stoker Hill, to concrete pipes found out in the desert. Most
importantly of all, skaters discovered that once drained of water, the
round, keyhole or kidney shaped swimming pools favoured in many of the
more moneyed LA residences offered a curved transition from floor to wall.
Skaters carved up the walls, explored the limits of the tile and coping,
and even the space beyond the wall with "aerial" moves in which
In the late 1970s, such moves became even
more dramatic in the new skateparks – purpose-built, commercial
facilities built all over the US, UK and other countries worldwide. Such
skateparks typically offered a range of elements, including dramatically
exaggerated pools, replete with tiles and coping – some of the most
famous include the skatepark at Marina del Rey (Los Angeles) and
"Pipeline) (Uplands, Los Angeles) in the USA and "The Rom"
(Romford) and "Solid Surf" (Harrow) in the UK.
But from the early 1980s onward,
skateboarding has increasingly gone back to the streets, not to so much to
the suburban drives of California but to the inner city cores of other
cities worldwide. The urban practice of skateboarding has become a global
phenomenon, with I estimate around 20-40 million dedicated practitioners
dispersed through just about every modern city worldwide. The centre of it
all remains, however, the USA, with new centres like Philadelphia,
Chicago, New York and San Francisco joining Los Angeles as major
concentrations of skate activity. Here, in the modernist city, skaters
ride on to the walls, benches, ledges, railings, fire hydrants and other
paraphernalia of the urban street.
There is also a social and cultural
dimension to this, for skateboarding in fact represents a totalising urban
subculture, complete with its own graphic design, language, music,
magazines, junk food and codes of behaviour. It postulates certain
attitudes towards matters of gender relations, race, sexuality and
masculinity. Above all, this is a subculture which rejects work, the
family and normative American values. As one American skater put it,
Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, weed,
beer, pills, needles, alcohol etc., etc., are all typical hobbies of all
the typical people in all the typical states in the typical country of
the United States of Amerika [. . .] Why be a clone? Why be typical? (2)
This is a totalising subculture, in which
partial allegiance is to miss the point and which ultimately presents the
skater with a single binary choice: skate or be stupid.
Skateboarding thus brings together a
concern to live out an idealised present, trying to live outside of
society while being simultaneously within its very heart(3).
But for skateboarders to produce themselves in this way, their activity
must take place in the streets of the city. Its representational mode is
not that of writing, drawing or theorising, but of performing – of
speaking their meanings and critiques of the city through their urban
actions. Here in the movement of the body across urban space, and in its
direct interaction with the modern architecture of the city, lies the
central critique of skateboarding – a rejection both of the values and
of the spatio-temporal modes of living in the contemporary capitalist
The skater’s engagement with the city
is, in particular, a run across its terrains, with momentary settlings and
encounters with all manner of diverse objects and spaces: ledges, walls,
hydrants, rails, steps, benches, planters, bins, kerbs, banks and so on.
In the words of Stacy Peralta,
[ S ]katers can exist on the essentials
of what is out there. Any terrain. For urban skaters the city is the
hardware on their trip (4).
In this sense, skaters see the city as a
set of objects. Yet cities are not things, but the apparent form of the
urbanisation process (5),
and are in fact filled with ideas, culture and memories, with flows of
money, information and ideologies, and are dynamically constitutive of the
continual reproduction of the urban. To see the city as a
collection of objects is then to fail to see its real character. And this
is exactly the failure one could say of skateboarding, which does little
or nothing to analyse the processes which form the urban; instead,
the phenomenal procedures of skateboarding rely entirely on the objectival
nature of the city, treating its surfaces – horizontal, vertical,
diagonal, curved – as the physical ground on which to operate.
Yet within this failure lies a profound
critique of the city qua object-thing. Capitalism has replaced the
city as oeuvre – the unintentional and collective work of art,
richly significant yet embedded in everyday life (6)
– with "repetitive spaces," "repetitive gestures"
and standardised things of all kinds to be exchanged and
reproduced, differentiated only by money (7).
Skateboarding, however, at once accepts and denies this presentation of
cities as collections of repetitive things. On the one hand, skateboarders
accept it, by focusing purely on the phenomenal characteristics of
architecture, on its compositions of planes, surfaces and textures as
accessible to the skateboarder.
Look around. Look at a world full of
skate shapes [. . .] shapes left there by architects for you to skate (8).
Here the city and its architecture is
undoubtedly a thing. On the other hand, it is also through this very focus
on the phenomenal that a change is made. When skateboarders ride along a
wall, over a fire hydrant or up a building, they are entirely indifferent
to its function or ideological content. They are therefore no longer even
concerned with its presence as a building, as a composition of
spaces and materials logically disposed to create a coherent urban entity.
By focusing only on certain elements (ledges, walls, banks, rails) of the
building, skateboarders deny architecture’s existence as a discrete
three-dimensional indivisible thing, knowable only as a totality, and
treat it instead as a set of floating, detached, physical elements
isolated from each other; where architects’ considerations of building
imply a quantification of the body subordinate to space and design, the
skater’s performative body has, "the ability to deal with a given
set of pre-determined circumstances and to extract what you want and to
discard the rest."(10)
Skateboarding reproduces architecture in its own measure, re-editing it as
series of surfaces, textures and micro-objects.
Buildings are building blocks for the
open minded (11).
Architecture (following here Lefebvre’s
body-centric formulations) "reproduces itself within those who use
the space in question, within their lived experience."(12)
This occurs in skateboarding through architecture being encountered in
relation to height, tactility, transition, slipperiness, roughness, damage
to skin on touching, damage to body from a fall, angle and verticality,
sequencing, drops (stairs and ramps), kinks and shape (hand-rails),
profiles (edges), materials, lengths and so on. And only a very small part
of the architecture is used – the "building" for a skater only
an extracted edit of its total existence.
For example, a particular English school
in Ipswich is known by skaters not as a building or function, but for its
[ T ]ravel to Ipswich and ask to check
out the school with the handrails, they’ll know which one and it’s
Also in Ipswich, Suffolk College was
known primarily for its roof, stairs and ledges, a specific church was
known for the wooden benches outside, another school for some steps, and
an entire us air base for a single, yellow fire hydrant (14).
Similarly, on the other side of the
Atlantic, the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, (1985, architect John
Portman), and offering the usual Portman features of vast glass
elevations, spectacular atrium, rocket ship elevators and internal glitz (15),
was reconceived by skaters as "modern day skate architecture"
and identified for its "tight transitions," "black
walls," street-level walkway and for its planters (16).
Similarly, New York’s Museum of Natural History became "100 yards
of Italian marble, marble benches curbed for frontside and backside rails,
six steps, and statues of famous dudes with marble bases [. . .] basically
an awesome skate arena."(17)
What ties these elements together is
neither compositional, structural, servicing or functional logic, but the
entirely separate logic composed from the skateboarder’s moving rapidly
from one building or urban element to another. Such "strategies
select what in design-architectural terms are a discontinuous series of
walls, surfaces, steps and boundaries, but which in skateboarding’s
space-time become a flow of encounters and engagements between board, body
Find it. Grind it. Leave it behind (19).
Skateboarding here resists the
standardisation 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 grands projets,
skateboarding suggests that cities can be thought of as 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 (20).
On the street the urban blight is being
reworked to new specifications. The man on the avenue is the architect
of the future. [. . .] There are now no formalized plans. Invent your
own life (21).
Through such compositions, skateboarding
brings back that which strictly economistic Marxism evacuates – it
brings back the dream, imaginary and "poetic being,"(22)
what one skater called the "skate of the art."(23)
Skateboarding points to the resurrection of the urban not as a product,
but as a way of living.
Skateboarding is, then, at one level an
aesthetic rather than ethical practice, using the "formants" at
its disposal to create an alternative reality (24).
Skateboarders analyse architecture not for historical, symbolic or
authorial content but for how surfaces present themselves as skateable
surfaces. This is what Thrasher skateboard magazine calls the
People who ride skateboards look at the
world in a very different way. Angles, spots, lurkers and cops all dot
the landscape that we all travel (25).
How then does this aesthetic activity
take place? What techniques or modes of representation are involved?
As already noted, skateboarders undertake
a discontinuous edit of architecture and urban space, recomposing their
own city from different places, locations, urban elements, routes and
times. The city for the skateboarder becomes a kind of capriccio,
the tourist’s postcard where various architectural sites are compressed
into an irrational (in time and space) view,(26)
except the editing tool is here not eye, camera or tourist coach but
One effect of this 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, window sills,
walls, roofs, railings, porches, steps, salt bins, fire hydrants, bus
benches, water tanks, newspaper stands, pavements, planters, kerbs,
handrails, barriers, fences, banks, skips, posts, tables and so on
"To us these things are more."(27)
New York, for example, is for skaters not the New York of the Statue of
Liberty, Times Square, Central Park and Chrysler Building, but of the Bear
Stearns Building (46th and 47th, Park and Lexington), "Bubble
banks" (south side of 747 3rd Avenue), "Harlem banks"
(Malcolm x Avenue and 139th), "Brooklyn banks" (Manhattan end of
Brooklyn Bridge), Washington Square Park, Mullaly Park in Brooklyn,
Marriott Marquis Hotel (45th and Broadway), Bell Plaza banks etc.(28)
Washington, by the same process, became known architecturally to skaters
as Pulaski Park, National Geographic Building, Federal Welfare Archives,
Georgetown School banks, "Gold Rail" and "White
Other cities receive the same treatment; Tokyo, for example, becomes
Akihabara Park, "jabu jabu" banks in Shinjuku, ledges at Tokyo
Station, curbs at Yotsuya Station, banks at Tokyo Taikan and so on.
What is the mode involved in such a
recomposition? Occasionally, this takes the form of a map or geographic
list, such as alternative routes through Bristol (30)
or the Knowhere internet site, where nearly every skate location in
the uk is identified. (31)
But more usually a more localised kind of mapping takes place. Skate
magazines in the 1990s, have tended to focus less on professional skaters,
major cities and well-known skate places and more on local skate scenes
– the "streets and back yards of Anytown" (32)
– like those in Oxted, Ipswich, Oxford, Milton Keynes, High Wycombe,
Stroud, Cirencester and Cardiff; in the us, a single issue of Slap,
for example, covered not just la (the oldest centre of skateboarding) but
also places like Sacramento (California), Fort Lauderdale (Florida) and
the urban backwaters of Nevada, Utah, Iowa, Kentucky, Connecticut, and New
In such articles, the reader-skater finds descriptions of local banks,
rails, curbs etc., not just to encourage a visit, but to generally
demonstrate that such locations are to be found in all urban centres, and
so available to all urban skaters.
Here are more pictures of Everyman
skating in Everytown. It could be your town. It could be you (34)
This is a communication which engenders
empathy and similarity between towns and skaters, not a spectacularised
Other of terrain and personalities.
In their own locality, therefore, the
skateboarder’s cognitive representation is neither map nor directory,
for skateboarding is "hard to put onto paper," (35)
nor of a spectacularised centre-point, but a mental knowledge composed of
highly detailed local knowledge about dispersed places,
micro-architectures and accessible times.
always be on the alert for a possible
spot [. . .] Be alert [...] keep your eyes open and your head
Skaters’ representations thus have more
in common with the Situationist tactics of the dérive, détournement
and psychogeography – "maps" composed from the opportunities
offered by the physical and emotional contours of the city, and, above
all, enacted through a run across different spaces and moments (37).
I’m directed most to movements, the
way I travel, the directions I move in. I follow my feelings (38).
Skating is a continual search for the
Skateboarders’ representational maps
are thus always situated through a continual re-living of the city
– "an open mind always seeking out new lines and
Skaters attempt neither to "see" the city or comprehend it as a
totality, but to live it as simultaneously representation and physicality.
Walls aren’t just walls, banks
aren’t just banks, curbs aren’t just curbs and so on [. . .] mapping
cities out in your head according to the distribution of blocks and
stairs, twisting the meaning of your environment around to fit your own
needs and imagination. It’s brilliant being a skateboarder isn’t it?
Another distinction from conventional
maps concerns temporality. In the aerial form of map, the entire city is
understood simultaneously within a single glance – but in
skateboarders’ cognitive mapping the time is that of the run, composed
of a disparate objects in a sequence (linear time), with some objects
"read" once (isolated time), others encountered several times
(repeated time) and still others returned to again and again on different
occasions (cyclical time). The whole run can also be repeated the same or
differently (differential time). As one skater described the experience of
skateboarding among traffic:
Ridin’ from spot to spot, at high
speed, during rush hour is my version of the ultimate test for any urban
"street skater." On a good day, when all the stop lights are
working in my favour, I feel like I’ve figured out where my place is
in this fucked-up world. That lasts for maybe a minute, then the feeling
disappears and I’m lost again. So it goes (42).
Skateboarders are thus more concerned
with temporal distance as proximity (temporal closeness of things,
temporal locality), and its repetition, than with time as a valuable
resource or measure of efficiency; time for skaters is what is lived,
experienced and produced, not what is required.
It’s about time, it’s about space,
it’s about time to skate someplace (43).
Another aspect of this sense of adaptive
temporality concerns memory and documentation, for the skateboarder’s is
not an historical but everyday memory, often surviving only for the period
in which a set of places are skated. Skateboarders thus negate the
"historical" time of the city, being wholly unconcerned with the
many decades and processes of its construction, so that the city appears
out-of-the-blue with no temporal past. "I’ve always lived for the
present. I live for the present."(44)
Nor is the city recorded by
skateboarders, but is that of the here-and-now, the immediate object,
re-born each day of the skater’s run. "This isn’t art, it isn’t
business, it’s life." (45)
Just, then, as skateboarders do not attempt to understand the city, nor do
they try to document it. Skateboarding leaves almost no text to be read;
its marks and assaults leave virtually no discernible script for others to
translate and comprehend. These kinds of marks are about the only
"text" left by the activity of skateboarding itself.
Skateboarding is, then, less a mode of
writing or drawing, and more a mode of speaking of the city –
that "speech doubling" (46)
which at once interrogates and increases the meaning of the city, while
leaving its original text intact. Above all, speech requires the actual
presence of the subject, the active speaker of the city.
Speaking-skateboarding is not a mimicking of the city, an oration of a
pre-given text, but a performative utterance wherein the speaker forms
anew themselves and the city.
The new urban strategist realizes that
while it may not pay to be different, no one can really afford the price
of being the same. In the new master plan, conformation has been
replaced by confrontation. Act, don’t react, turn off the air
conditioner go outside and move. (47)
It is, therefore, in the continual
performance of skateboarding that its meaning and actions are manifested;
as one skateboard maxim puts it, "shut up and skate." These are
not things which can be simply seen or understood through pure
abstraction; like any socio-spatial rhythm, skateboarding requires a
multiplicity of senses, thoughts and activities to be represented and
comprehended. Above all, because the experiencer relates the fundamental
conditions of their own temporality to that of the world outside, they
create a subject-object engagement that is ultimately a lived form of
dialectical thought. They produce themselves bodily and socially, and they
produce the city in terms of their own specific bodily encounter with it.
[Iain Borden is Senior Lecturer in
Architectural History at The Bartlett, University College London.]
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991),
(2) Gary Davis, "Steep Slopes," Thrasher, v.3
n.5 (May 1983), p. 8.
(3) Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve
Preludes September 1959 - May 1961, (London: Verso, 1995), p. 301-2.
(4) Stacy Peralta, interview, Interview, n.17, (July
1987), pp. 102-3.
(5) David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of
Difference, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 418.
(6) Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1996), Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (eds.), p. 101.
(7) Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 75.
(8) "Where?," R.A.D., n.79 (September 1989),
(9) Lefebvre, Production of Space, pp. 338-9.
(10) John Smythe, "The History of the World and Other
Short Subjects, or, From Jan and Dean to Joe Jackson Unabridged," SkateBoarder,
v.6 n.10 (May 1980), p. 29.
(11) "Searching, Finding, Living, Sharing", R.A.D.,
n.79 (September 1989), p. 15.
(12) Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 137.
(13) "Fire and Friends," Sidewalk Surfer, n.3
(January-February 1996), unpaginated.
(14) "Fire and Friends," unpaginated.
(15) Elliott Willensky and Norval White, AIA Guide to New
York, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, third edition, 1988), p.
(16) Kevin Wilkins, "New England Hot Spots," TransWorld
Skateboarding, v.9 n.11 (November 1991), p. 43.
(17) Pete and the Posse, letter, Thrasher, v.11 n.9
(September 1991), p. 6.
(18) Santa Cruz, advertisement, Action Now, v.7 n.12
(July 1981), p. 53.
(19) "Blast From the Past," Thrasher, v.17 n.9
(September 1997), p.. 56.
(20) Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell,
"Narratives of Architecture in the City," Iain Borden, Joe Kerr,
Alicia Pivaro and Jane Rendell (eds.), Strangely Familiar: Narratives
of Architecture in the City, (London: Routledge 1996), p. 9.
(21) John Smythe, "No Parking," Action Now,
v.8 n.2 (September 1981), p. 55.
(22) Henri Lefebvre, Espaces et Sociétés, v.4
(1976-8), p. 270, quoted in Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas,
"Lost in Transposition," Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, p.
(23) Stacy Peralta, "Skate of the Art, ’85," Thrasher,
v.5 n.8 (August 1985), pp. 38-40.
(24) Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, p. 321.
(25) "Skater’s Eye," Thrasher, v.17 n.1
(January 1997), p. 71.
(26) Barry Curtis, "Venice Metro," Borden, Kerr,
Pivaro and Rendell (eds.), Strangely Familiar, p. 45.
(27) "Searching, Finding, Living, Sharing", p. 15.
(28) Marco Contati, "New York, New York," Skateboard!,
(second series), n.43 (June 1990), pp. 32-41; "Skatetown: New York
City," Thrasher, v.9 n.10 (October 1989), pp. 58-65 and 106;
and Wilkins, "New England," p. 43.
(29) Pete Thompson, "Washington dc," TransWorld
Skateboarding, v.13 n.5 (May 1995), pp. 86-9; and Andy Stone,
interview, TransWorld Skateboarding, v.13 n.5 (May 1995), pp. 90-3.
(30) Steve Kane, "Street Life: Bristol," Skateboard!,
n.15 (November 1978), pp. 36-9.
internet site, (accessed 7 February 1997).
(32) "From Surf to Hellbows: the Styling of Street," R.A.D.,
n.75, (May 1989), p. 60.
(33) Slap, v.6 n.1 (January 1997). See also Jerry
Mander, "Sacto Locals," TransWorld Skateboarding, v.9
n.10 (October 1991), pp. 80-5.
(34) "Scary Places," R.A.D., n.82, (December
1989), p. 20.
(35) Ewan Bowman, "Comment," Sidewalk Surfer,
n.13 (January-February 1997), unpaginated.
(36) Gary Davis, "Radical Manifesto," Thrasher,
v.2 n.2 (February 1982), p. 18, reprinted from Skate Fate,
(37) Guy Debord, "Introduction
to a Critique of Urban Geography" and "Theory
of the Dérive," Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist
International Anthology, (Berkeley: Bureau of Public
Secrets, 1981), pp. 5-8 and 50-4.
(38) Rodney Mullen, interview, R.A.D., n.74, (April
1989), p. 28.
(39) Caine Gayle, "Multiple Choice Through Words and
Pictures," Slap, v.4 n.9 (September 1995), p. 33.
(40) Christopher James Pulman, "An Environmental
Issue," Sidewalk Surfer, n.1 (September-October 1995),
(41) "Twisted," Sidewalk Surfer, n.14 (March
(42) Jesse Driggs, "Swamp Trogs from Outer Space," Thrasher,
v.15 n.9 (September 1995), p. 43.
(43) Rick Blackhart, "Ask the Doctor," Thrasher,
v.11 n.11 (November 1991), p. 24.
(44) Rune Glifberg, interview, Sidewalk Surfer, n.14
(March 1997), unpaginated.
(45) Mark Gonzales, in "Trash," Thrasher, v.16
n.2 (February 1996), p. 139.
(46) Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World,
(London: Transaction Publishers, 1984), p. 176.
(47) Smythe, "No Parking," p. 57.
1998 Iain Borden.
All rights reserved
Originally found at http://www.psychogeography.co.uk/borden_on_skateboarding.htm
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