Underneath a Manhattan-side artery of the Brooklyn Bridge is a pedestrian egress area linking streets Rose and Pearl. The area is of little consequence to most New Yorkers – it has neither a Wikipedia page nor a Google Maps marker – but for the small yet loyal skateboarding community it is one of the most used, photographed and mythologized parts of the city’s fabric. Since 2003, the area known to insiders as “Brooklyn Banks” has been legally open to skateboarders and they’ve been permitted to modify it to better suit their needs. The site’s DIY attitude has been further demonstrated by the work of non-profits such as Open Road NY, an organization that engages community volunteers in the development and maintenance of environmental projects that extend from urban gardening to skatepark design and construction.
While the future of Brooklyn Banks is tenuous – due to staging during bridge maintenance through 2014 – what continues to lure skaters to this location under the bridge is a brick embankment that mirrors the ramp’s grade in what seems to be an attempt to control the ratio of the pillars. This change in elevation, coupled with the shade provided by the ramps and the site’s seclusion, makes an impossible place for skaters to resist.
Sometimes, the spaces that inspire skaters the most are those that seem designed by default, or at least not intended to be used in this way. Other times, specific design interventions intended to discourage skaters’ “abuse” only make a skater’s experience more enjoyable because of the added difficulty. But no matter the architect or city planner’s original intention, if the designed form works for skaters, often it will be re-appropriated into skatepark design. This system – skaters appropriating parts of the built environment for their own uses to invent and test tricks and then skatepark designers appropriating what works into purpose-built skatepark design and construction – is essential to skateboarding. But the proliferation of skateparks being built today (estimated at three per day, nationwide) blurs the origin of the physical forms that define our sport.
The phenomenon is not exclusively urban. Rumor has it that the concept for the classic and best-known skatepark structure, the half-pipe, came into being out of the infrastructure used in the Central Arizona Project, a massive public-works project to divert water from the Colorado River to Phoenix. As the legend goes, teenagers from California began traveling to the Arizona desert in the mid-70s to skate in the project’s 24-foot diameter water pipes and the half-pipe as a structural typology was born.
The history of using residual infrastructures extends, of course, beyond the half-pipe. On the West Coast in particular, emptied swimming pools have served “pool skaters” who take advantage of the deep wells and steep slopes (this form of skating has been on the upswing lately as home foreclosures have led to more abandoned pools). “Street skating” (currently the more popular form) refers to the use of paved surfaces and objects like curbs, handrails and stairs found in an urban setting. Because of the popularity of these urban and infrastructural forms for skaters, modern skatepark architects incorporate many elements of these structures into their designs.
I first began work within the human scale by riding a skateboard through and on architecture: planters, benches, handrails, sculpture. The nature of that activity forced me into a dual relationship with physical space. I was in command of the built environment while the built environment was simultaneously in command of me. After six years as an apprentice to a furniture maker, it became clear to me that the thrill I got from this dual relationship with the built environment meant I should probably go about trying to design it.
So, skateboarding sent me to architecture. And now architecture has sent me back to skateboarding in a role I never planned. I’ve become a skateboard park designer. In doing so, I’ve had to force myself to consider skateboarding’s larger context as “urban phenomena” and while manipulating a part of its theater (the “skatepark”), I’ve found myself increasingly interested in its future possibilities in both architectural and urban terms.
With 11.8 million skateboarders (71% between the ages of 12 and 17 and only 41% representing that range in 2006, recorded 2008) creating a $4.8 billion dollar market, we see a significant rise in investment: as sporting goods manufacturers increase professional sponsorships, all kinds of investors are realizing the market value of the sport and its consumers. Yet citizens still have a difficult time convincing any city to build an urban skatepark. Even when that obstacle is overcome, its success would require a conscientious designer who would consult skaters within the community and non-profits such as Skatepark.org to learn about the type of park most appropriate to a particular community as well as to inform his or her understanding of the sport’s specific physicality. It would also help a lot if the designer were a skater.
Queens is aiming to do just that. Renowned skaters Chris Cole, Geoff Rowley and Steve Rodriguez and Joe Ciaglia, president of California Skateparks, helped develop the design of a 16,000-square-foot street course being constructed in Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, where we’ll see some of the city’s most notable skate terrains – including a replica of the original Brooklyn Banks 9-stair rail, the iconic Union Square rail/steps and the Police Plaza 7-stair rail – represented.
No matter how relatively young the sport’s history or how destructive it may appear, skateboarding is here to stay. It’s a valid form of youth recreation in a healthy and active city, and the sport deserves better representation within city funded parks programs and physical education programs.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.