- “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theatre and is the theatre.” (Mumford, 1937: 185)
Devoid of the familiar bright bursts of graffiti and reliable clunks of skateboards hitting the floor, the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall pictured in the 1960s is almost unrecognisable. Standing on the site of a shot tower built as part of a lead works in 1826, this brutalist piece of architecture was retained for the Festival of Britain and was worked on by architects such as Bennett, Whittle, West and Horsefall before being opened by the Queen in 1967. As with other brutalist works of the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth Hall reflects the efforts of young designers looking for new ways to express their belief in the future. For example, this is demonstrated in their use of concrete, a traditional material, in original and experimental ways. Love it or hate it, the creativity enmeshed in the brutalist genre is incontrovertible.
In light of this, a building as expressive as Queen Elizabeth Hall should surely stand as the pinnacle of creativity and innovation in the city. Yet, this is not necessarily the case. In the midst of exchanges between large organisations, authoritative bodies, renowned architects and other key public and private players, the individual city dweller can become disconnected from the city that rises around them. Rather, the dictation of how the city is structured from above works to pacify citizens. In this way, people are shaped by the city, or more accurately, the power relations that shape the city in the first place. While Mumford’s (1937) metaphorical description of the city as “theatre” suggests its inhabitants are granted endless freedom in their performance, in reality, this performance must comply with a particular set of restrictions imposed from above. Perhaps the city as “container”, or even “prison”, would be more appropriate.
However, the skate park found in the Undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall today suggests otherwise. Despite being intended as a pedestrian walk-way, the Undercroft’s interesting features drew skaters to adopt it as an undesignated skate park – “Southbank” – in 1973. In appropriating public space for their own use, Southbank’s skaters are performers in their own theatre, regardless of restrictions imposed from above. They are active agents shaping the city, just as the city shapes them. In a broader sense, subversive actions, such as skateboarding in undesignated areas or making graffiti art, speaks to the re-politicisation of public space through the agency of the everyday citizen. As contended by Hall (1998: 7), the city is “a unique crucible of creativity” and this creativity hands every person the potential to destabilise the supposed natural order orchestrated by those above.
That said, the potential for small-scale subversive activities to make a profound difference in the contemporary urban landscape may seem limited. Indeed, a skateboarder with a can of spray-paint in hand seems unlikely to win a hypothetical battle against the Greater London Council. Collectively, however, the power of communities must not be underestimated. In 2004, the Southbank Centre temporarily closed large sections of the Undercroft for exhibitions, but closures continued until plans for a commercial redevelopment of the Undercroft as a “Festival Wing” were uncovered in 2013. In response, the Long Live Southbank campaign was set up by the Undercroft Community to resist the proposal. Following an incredibly successful campaign which saw immense public support for the Undercroft community, Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre signed an agreement guaranteeing the long-term future of the skate spot. Moreover, the Long Live Southbank and Southbank Centre have been in a partnership and joint project team to restore and renovate the Undercroft as a skate area since 2016. As demonstrated by the Long Live Southbank campaign, the collective action of everyday citizens has the potential to make huge institutional changes at all levels of authority and power.
To reflect the changes made to the Undercroft by the skate community, I have graphically imposed a representation of their graffiti artwork and skateboarding onto one of the photographs taken in the 1960s. Indeed, the very action of creating artwork on top of an original photograph seemed subversive in itself. Just as artists spray-paint city walls, I felt as though I was altering property that was not mine to alter. Surely photographs stored in archives were for “proper” research with books and essays to show for it? Yet these are exactly the kind of unspoken expectations creative art forms can challenge. In using the archive in such a manner, I was performing in a theatre of endless possibility myself.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
- Hall P (1998) Cities in civilization: culture, innovation and the urban order. Weidenfield and Nicholson: London.
- Mumford L (1937)What is a City? Architectural Record, LXXXII.