A Skateboarder's Guide to Architecture or an Architect's Guide to Skateboarding
(01) the performance:
An object’s use can only help dissipate its essential form and emphasize instead its attributes-each object is accompanied by its adjectives, substance is buried under its myriad qualities, man never confronts the object, which remains dutifully subjugated to him by precisely what it is assigned to provide...The object is always open, exposed, accompanied, until it has destroyed itself as closed substance, until it has cashed in all the functional virtues man can derive from the stubborn matter. From "The World as Object" in Critical Essays by Roland Barthes
Skaters are from the future. We have developed new ways of moving through Space. Much like cats, we share special views in and on the Earth. From Dysfunctional by Garry Davis and Aaron Rose
What is the relationship between skateboarding and architecture? In order to address this issue, we have to pose a broader question: what is the relationship between form and function. Architects are constantly investigating the relationship between form and function, from Vitruvius to Le Corbusier and Peter Eisenman. Rem Koolhaas’ programmatic diagrams and Bernard Tschumi’s notations begin to expose dynamic relationship between more flexible relationship between architecture and program. A former skateboarder and architect myself, I’ve come to an understanding that skateboarders are the most functional and engaged users of architecture and urban space.
The average pedestrian engages architecture and urban space at only one level, while skateboarders engage in multiple functional levels. An ambler sees a bench and sits on it? Exactly what the architect and designer intended. A skateboarder sees a bench and contemplates. How many different ways can I engage the form of this bench with my wooden board, metal trucks and four rubber wheels? First, I’ll do a rail slide. Then perhaps a grind, regular then goofy footed, maybe into a rail slide. Lastly, perhaps a tailslide or a foot plant and then continue down the street until the next obstacle. They operate tactically, adjusting to the environment like a soldier in the jungle. This modus operandi is the essential difference between the pedestrian and skateboarder.
The average pedestrian experiences architecture a casual and indirect level, one that places architecture in the background of the user. For the skateboarder, the architectural landscape is the main focus; they experience it on a direct and specific level. It is a relationship of board to surface that relies on foot-driven improvisational thinking. For instance, a conventional wall generally differs from other surfaces due to its vertical orientation. A skateboarder does not discriminate on the basis of axis rather all surfaces are treated with equal vigor, engaging everything every which way they can. While financial districts in many cities throughout the world are empty on the weekend, you’ll be sure to see skateboarders making use of public space by grinding and sliding away on corporate headquarters. An argument can be made that skateboarders are the most functional users of this architecture. Similar to the homeless, they engage architecture with a purist’s devotion, optimizing every nuance of the urban realm.
Skateboarding is also a political act. An age group that cannot vote and is not well represented in public office; skateboarders are often restricted by law in their pursuit of architecture. "No Skateboarding" signs are commonplace on city streets and plazas in an attempt to keep the youth from grinding and sliding away on benches, handrail, steps, fountains and planters. While it is okay for office workers to eat brown bag lunches in the sanctioned "public space" of a corporate tower, skateboarders are shut down. With the police and security guards watching over them, skateboarders struggle to define their public territory. Unhappy and bored with skateparks created to keep them contained, they search for the next rail slide the urban landscape has to offer. Grinding is a political act.
(02) mapping performance:
Not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function. What happens when a thing no longer performs its function-the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else. From City of Glass by Paul Auster
What does architecture become when it no longer performs its intended function? Or when it performs several functions, not built into the design and how do we map these relationships which are not static but dynamic exchanges between the architecture and user? Although architects need to address this exchange or is it out of our hands to script them, but a few architects have explored ways in which to document these exchanges.
Some of the interiors of Rem Koolhaas’ buildings look like a skateboarder’s dream, with floors that arch into walls with a radius similar to a half-pipe or mini-ramp. His diagram of events attempts to uncover hidden connections between spaces and their associated programs, either tangible or intangible. In a diagram for the project Programmatic Lava in Yokohama, Japan he maps programmatic intensities in a 24 hour period. He measures when and how spaces are used, graphically showing how contiguous and unrelated programs can relate, sometimes overlapping and sometimes occupying the same physical space but at different times of the day/night. These diagrams open up the possibilities for the overlaying of multiple functions that co-mingle within the same space.
When Koolhaas speaks of architecture one gets the sense that he is not an architect per se but a cruise director or an event planner. He finds the discipline of architecture limiting as architects are constantly defining, determining and closing the possibilities for architecture. Like a film director, Koolhaas sets the scene and then allows for his actors to improvise, leaving the architecture open with potential uses and interpretations. Koolhaas’ tactics are comparable to spontaneous maneuvers made by skateboarders in the field to specific conditions. Koolhaas bows a wall to define a space and a skateboarder shifts his weight to maneuver around an obstacle imbedded in the asphalt. Though the programmatic diagrams are intriguing attempts to come to terms with a dynamic architecture, the actual flexibility of his buildings in built form are still up for discussion.
In his 1994 book Architecture and Disjunction, Bernard Tschumi attempts to expose weaknesses in the relationship between space and content, stating his dissatisfaction with the conventional means of architectural documentation. He employs diagrams from dance choreography, music and sports in order to document the intangible movements within space. In the "Manhattan Transcripts," he makes these diagrams/actions the main focus of his project outlining three relations: transformational, spatial and programmatic sequence. Tschmui questions the casual links between spaces and its events asking, "Do cylindrical spaces go with religion and rectangular with industry?" By supplementing traditional architectural drawing with methods borrowed from other disciplines, which are concerned with the contained, not the container, he attempts to verify if there is a one-to-one relationship at work.
With the follies in the Parc de la Villette in Paris, Tschumi again attacks the space and content relationship by disassociating program from their respective traditional forms and employing methods from the "Manhattan Transcripts" project. He is mainly concerned with ideas of dislocation, disassociation and rupture. With these concepts, Tschumi creates the framework for multiple combinations and substitutions that exist simultaneously. In Architecture and Disjunction, he outlines three concepts: crossprogramming, transprogramming and disprogramming. Crossprogramming is the use of a space not as intended; Transprogramming is the combination of disparate programs; and Disprogramming is disparate programs that contaminate each other. These operations offer possibilities of combinations and permutation of existing programs as well new programs. In a sense it is a glossary for the skateboarder’s use of the built environment.
(03) concluding performance:
So what can skateboarders offer architects? First, we must admit that the connection between space and program is shaky. Second, we have to attempt to document these dynamic relationships between the architecture and its user. Last, we need to utilize these documents to begin to create a space that holds the possibility of improvisation by the user. With these attempts, the potential of new programs and spaces arises. Basically, architects must grind.