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Southbank's Undercroft Is More than Just a Skate Spot

The push to turn London's Southbank, one of the most iconic skate spots in the world, into a plaza of high-end fast food outlets continues. And while I'm sure we can all agree that London desperately needs another Pret a Manger branch, it does seem...
November 18, 2013, 9:30pm

(Photo by Paulius Ka)

The push to turn London's Southbank, one of the most iconic skate spots in the world, into a plaza of high-end fast food outlets continues. And while I'm sure we can all agree that London desperately needs another Pret a Manger branch, it does seem like a shame to destroy British skateboarding's most recognizable spot, as well as the cultural history that's grown in and around it.

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Director Henry Edwards-Wood has been leading the Long Live Southbank campaign since its inception, playing the dual roles of  spokesman and coordinator, as well as making a number of films about the undercroft along the way. His most recent short film is a 15-minute documentary that lays out the 40-year history of the spot, the nine-month campaign to protect it, and the story of its intended destruction by the Southbank Centre.

I spoke to Henry about what's going on with the campaign and why Southbank has come to represent much more than just skateboarding.

VICE: Hi, Henry. Can you give me a potted history of the Save Southbank campaign so far?
Henry Edwards-Wood: The custodians of the undercroft found out via a newspaper that we were going to lose our home and their sanctuary, with not one word of warning and not one attempt to ask us how we feel about it. They refused to engage with us, so we engaged with our network of individuals, who all share the same belief that we should view the world objectively and respect one another. Despite their every attempt to discredit, undermine, bribe, and ignore us, here we are nine months later, still not angry and still just celebrating the thing that bonds us all together.

How does the future of Southbank look at the moment?
The future of Southbank is whatever the disenfranchised generations of young people decide they want it to be. We have a really simple, easy chance to illustrate to the world that the people can affect, change, and even stop this cultural gentrification that’s happening all around us. Everyone can contribute because we aren't exclusive. We're not a brand, we are a manifestation of our own beliefs—of the hope, freedom, and brotherhood Southbank emits, which comes from the people having a free space that allowed us to develop a new way of seeing the world we live in.

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How did the film come about?
Basically, when all of this kicked off, our whole world was turned upside down. It felt like our souls were about to be stolen, having put up with oppression by the Southbank Centre for 25 years, mixed with seeing all of our other treasured spots in London slowly become skate-proofed or redeveloped. All the people who use or used that space to find their place in life felt like, Well, I came here to get away from this backward world that doesn't make sense—now that world has caught up with me. What’s the point?

Everyone kept looking to me to do something, because I've been organizing these guys since I was a teenager so we could go and make skate videos. This film is basically a manifestation of all that frustration that has been built up, because I've been faced with the task of translating skateboarding to the British mainstream, and all I really want to do is make skate videos with my community to further our culture and progression.

(Photo by Andy Simmons)

It must be great to see the support coming in from around the world—not just from the skateboarding community, but from non-skaters as well.
This really isn't about skateboarding. Take the skateboards out of the equation and just look at the people who go there, interact, share ideas, learn their own history, and find their own identity. But what's so fitting is that it's the creative vessel that let's them realize the ideas and feelings they have been told a million times by institutions aren't actually valid.

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And as far as the relocation site is concerned, can you explain why building a new park wouldn’t really replace what exists at the moment?
To answer that I would like to ask everyone to try this formula I have come up with in an attempt to make people understand.

OK.
Watch the film and think about this: culture V capitalism. Replace the "V" with a pillar and think about the pillar. Then think about what that pillar has come to symbolize to skateboarders and, by extension, free-thinkers.

A short film from the Save Southbank campaign.

All right.
Then watch your favorite skateboard film that inspired you when you were young. Or, if you’re not a skater, anything else that inspired you when you were young. Then imagine if you could explain it to the world just by telling them to go to Southbank.

Yeah.
Then watch your favourite non-skate film from the 1980s.

I can do that.
Then imagine if everyone in the world knows about Southbank and what it represents to the point where it doesn’t need to exist, because it has allowed society to be free, meaning skaters don’t need their Mecca because it has finally affected the whole world around it and fills the missing link between logic and nature to create a new symbol: the pillar, which represents the value of culture. The answer is in the archives of British skateboarding. Skateboarding is dead. Long live spatial broadcasting.

Anything else you'd like to add?
Just please take time to share this film and start as many conversations on the themes it raises to you personally. That is how we get this urban revolution rolling. Culture seems to equal either sport or art; skateboarding has combined the two to start making sense of the architectural anomalies and is figuring out a way to recycle the mess left in the wake of capitalist development. The Southbank Centre has provided a perfect example of how this country works, and it's all spin. Check out their PR, their new site, their copycat tactics and then reference it with what we have done and put out.

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Follow Niall on Twitter: @Niallkenny

More on skating in London:

Why Closing Southbank Skate Park Would Suck for London

A Decade of Photos from London's Southbank Skate Park

WATCH – Skate World: London