Article by Tom Critchley, skateboarder, researcher and writer from Kent, England.
Following the Woolwich Road from Greenwich towards Charlton, the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach intersects the A206 overhead creating an unassuming underpass boasting little attributes which could claim any meaning to the space beyond functionality. Little attributes that is, unless you have an exploratory eye for skateboarding spots. Tucked into the corner of this melee of traffic junctions and debris is an array of DIY skateboarding ramps, rails and ledges that can be traced back to early 1990s video parts, having stood the test of time yet slowly decaying into the decrepitness of the surrounding motorway infrastructure. Inconspicuous yet extraordinary, these legacies of subversive architecture provide an insight into DIY culture within Greater London that provides an opportunity to re-examine how we understand our relationship with the city in times of rapid urbanisation and excess through the lens of ‘non-places’.
‘Non-places’ is a term coined by French-Anthropologist Marc Augé, referring to places that lack significance and meaning to humans. They are concerned with a move away from social spaces that are relational, historical and tied with identity to places that have become emptied and devoid of history. Born out of expansion, greed and excess, non-places are considered neither here nor there; lacking cultural influence and limiting on user agency. Consider the helpless feeling of waiting for a delayed flight in an airport terminal or the one dimensional purpose of a motorway which could exist outside of time and space.
The permanent structures of this site as of Autumn 2019 consists of two ledges – one slightly larger than the other – and a slightly inclined handrail. Having visited the site throughout September 2019 and tracing archival footage of the area on YouTube, a number of wooden ramps, kickers and manual pads have been built, left at the site and at some point, removed. A quarter was once built against one of the supporting structures of the South Circular above transitioning into a wall ride, however a local shop owner informed me this was removed due to safety concerns for the road overhead. There is noticeably little information online regarding this space; limited to a few grainy YouTube videos and a brief mention in a few outdated skateboard forums, these ledges and rails seem to subvert the most keen London skateboarders, and their online presence is much-eclipsed by the slightly more known ‘Greenwich Hip’ which can be located slightly further down the road.
However, what makes these ledges and rail such an interesting space to study is there consideration as guerrilla architecture that directly challenges the non-place in which they intervene, as well as the wider systems of urbanisations that architecturally embody neoliberal political ideologies. If non-places exist out of neoliberalisation, individualisation, inequality and greed, inventive DIY skateculture contests these ideas through a radical intervention and reproduction of urbanised space that creates a sense of place and community for skateboarders.
These illegal interventions at the hands of skateboarders create concrete disruptions that deconstruct hazy non-places. Noted for their spatial restrictions whereby movement within non-places is controlled by arbitrary signposting – the standstill airport security line, the intrusive shopping centre advertisements and the dull-monotonal train station announcements. At the underpass, road signs, traffic lights and road crossings enforce the user into null sense of place where immediate functionality replaces any historical or cultural understandings of the space. Yet, the DIY ledges breaks a passer-by’s daydream in a place that would usually fail to record any interesting considerations, transforming the individual into a flâneur-inspired engagenment of this now place: who built those ledges? How long have they been there? Who are the skaters using them?
Similarly, these DIY ledges and handrail transform this non-place through a renegotiation of rhythm and sound. Whilst at the underpass it is easy to lose consciousness of your existence in this non-place through the continual dissonance of the white noise of passing traffic. Marc Augé writes how the passively invasive sound of traffic provide the soundtrack for motorway users to disengage with reality; the partial absence of mind whilst driving whereby the user slips into autopilot for a number of miles, minutes and hours. However, skateboarding and the intervening sounds of the wood popping off the concrete below sonically challenges this partial absence of mind transforming this motorway infrastructure into a relational space for consideration. Be it to the cars momentarily stuck in traffic or the individual waiting to cross the road, skateboarding creates a spectacle within the otherwise boring space; turning heads inside lorry cabins and cars, briefly interrupting the mundanity of life as the skateboarder glides across these DIY ledges and rail.
Historically skateboarding has always been considered anti-establishment: skate and destroy, and these attitudes are also expressed in the DIY culture that underpins the practice. Extending beyond construction, DIY skate ideology includes self-published zines, clothing, music and other inventive ways skaters can challenge materialism, excess and overarching political systems. And as the transformation of the motorway underpass between Charlton and Woolwich shows, anti-establishment can mean “fuck the system, let’s rebuild the establishment on our own terms”. Whereas disparity of non-places create ideal circumstance to actively engage with building DIY spots, they also redefine these places and challenge the neoliberal urbanisation processes they are born out of.
Photographs taken by Liam Evans using Kodak Hawkeye Film, traditionally used within Traffic Surveillance Cameras, mirroring how the spot would be viewed by surveillance systems, a prominent feature of neoliberal cities.