Blog: Architecture, Urbanism, and Skateboarding / by Bob Little

Robert Little, Jr., AIA
Design Principal

I recently spent a long weekend in Barcelona, utilizing my soon to expire frequent flyer miles. High on my list of sites to see, was a visit to one of my favorite modern buildings, The Museum of Contemporary Art by Richard Meier. Opened to the public in 1995, it is a quintessential piece of “Meier” architecture. All white, an entrance placard, vertical circulation defined as a glass volume and the squiggly nugget that stands proud of the façade – a nod to Corbusier. While it was exhilarating to see the building in three-dimensions, its white gridded panels basking under the Spanish sun, I’ve always been most intrigued by the ground floor plan. The circular rotunda creates a pathway between the plaza at the front, and the plaza to the rear. The movement between these two public spaces is anything but static, rather the circular form creates a moment of compression along the pathway helping to instill a sense of visual movement – very well done.

However, I’m not sure how I feel about the building, and its plazas, becoming a hub for skateboarders. As I stood observing these skateboard “dudes,” dressed in the obligatory and international skate attire, I realized these were not the local kids just out to have fun. They poured out of taxi cabs with dozens of different types of skateboards, with varying numbers of wheels and shapes.

As architects, we talk about how architecture can activate a space and provide an enhanced identity to the urban context. In this particular instance, I can only wonder how empty and lonely the Meier building would be without the contemporary hip-hop/punk rock skateboard dudes jumping and moving (and often falling) all around the plazas. In an article, “Medieval Streets Inspired the MACBA’S Linear Organization,” Richard Meier is quoted as saying, “Contemporary art is boldly unpredictable, whether it be painting, sculpture, video, digital media, prints and photography, or performance art”.

Does urban skateboarding qualify as a form of contemporary performance art? I think it does. Would Richard Meier be pleased with the use of this urban plaza? I think he would. Would he feel the same about the resultant scaring of the building’s surface caused by the constant battering of this performance art? I’m not so sure.

In this singular aspect of skateboarding, as observed on my visit, where the skateboarders were intentionally using the building as a surface for ‘wall-riding’ or ‘grinding,’ I found disrespectful and inappropriate. For me, this building is not only a museum that houses art, it is, in itself, an object of beauty. Conceptually contextual to the urban morphology, the building’s form and color, or lack thereof, contrasts the surrounding civic landscape. It sits as a gleaming white jewel in an otherwise decayed medieval context. It is precious, and should be treated as such.

I like the activity and energy created by the skateboarders. They appear to be a great addition to the life of the plaza. Barcelona, until recently, was considered one of the top skateboarding cities in the world. That has changed ever since the City of Barcelona has banned skateboarding throughout, making it illegal except on specific days of the week at specific locations. Was this done in an effort to control the defacing of public and private property or was it an attempt to police/control the skateboarders? I can only speculate. In my opinion, banning skateboarding unfairly vilifies the activity, and the individuals involved. They are there to learn the craft of skateboarding, and perfect their skills. I don’t believe they are there to intentionally deface property. I was happy to see the skateboarding activity on the day I visited the museum. It is permitted two days of the week at the museum, Sunday and Tuesday.

Some would argue that the engagement of the skateboarders and the building is exactly what is so wonderful about the experience, that this engagement is a great example of how modern architecture influences the urban experience. Okay, I hear you but I don’t fully agree. My home city of Philadelphia has a skateboard culture also. Recently, Love Park, a well-known former skateboard hot spot, was opened to skateboarders one week before its demolition/remodeling. They flocked to the city to experience it before it would no longer exist. Don’t forget, Love Park and the skateboard culture of Philadelphia attracted the Summer X-Games in 2001 and 2002, but like Barcelona, Philadelphia banned skateboarding at the park due to the damage caused by the sport. Plans for the remodeled park will make accommodations for skating as the City realizes this is an important aspect of urban life and culture.

While I believe the skateboarders positively enrich the life and activity of the plaza in front of the Meier museum in Barcelona, I do believe certain areas should be off limits. In my opinion, there is no reason the walls of the museum need to be used as a skateboarding surface. This unnecessarily destroys the building without really enhancing the skateboard experience. I don’t blame the skateboarders, as the walls are part of their canvas in which they exhibit their craft. The responsibility falls upon us, the designers/architects, to anticipate such uses and make the appropriate design decisions to either protect the buildings or invite the use. The skateboarders are there to have fun. Let them have fun, let’s just respect the architecture.


IMAGE CREDITS:
1. MEIER, RICHARD. SITE PLAN OF THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART. HTTP://WWW.RICHARDMEIER.COM/
2. LITTLE, ROBERT. DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPH OF SKATEBOARDERS.
3. UNKNOWN AUTHOR. IMAGE OF SKATEBOARDER IN LOVE PARK. HTTP://WWW.GRINDTV.COM/