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The Architecture of "Basic Human Pleasure"

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Issue: 26 Section: Arts Geography: Canada

February 17, 2005

The Architecture of "Basic Human Pleasure"

Godzilla vs. Skateboarder showcases the art and politics of skateboarding

by Dru Oja Jay

Skateboarders are at once lazy and industrious. Lacking in any apparent productive contribution to society, they nonetheless dedicate hundreds of hours improving their complex and intricate craft. Skateboarders (there are an estimated 30 million worldwide) can be seen languishing for hours in parks and on streetcorners--stretches of time punctuated by brief maneuvres packed with concentration, risk and skill.

For architects and urban planners, they are something of an affliction. Conspiring with riders, skateboards cause damage to buildings, sculptures, parks, railings and benches. The potential for skateboarders to injure themselves has invoked the insurance industry's wrath in the form of overcautious safety requirements. In urban centres throughout the western world (and perhaps beyond), public architecture and art alike are being retrofitted with obstacles that eliminate their appeal as surfaces--edges, rails, ramps, half-pipes--for skateboarding.

Godzilla vs. Skateboarders, an exhibition of skateboard-related art that has been making the rounds of Canadian art galleries since 2001, is an attempt to recast the currently tense relationship between skateboarding and architecture.

In the artwork and the narrative that accompanies it, the exhibit is unabashedly theory-driven. In the large-type wall mounted introduction, curator Anthony Kiendl proposes that skateboarding can be the basis of a "critique of architecture, social spaces, and the values constituted by those spaces." Further comments displayed on the walls alongside the artwork by architectural historian Iain Borden (among others) speak of "movement of the body across social space", of skateboarding as "a reassessment of the values of society as expressed through the reappropriation of social space," or as a kind of "performative language".

The prominence of theory is fortunate, as the art in the exhibit is more compelling for its ideas than for its aesthetics. The exhibit includes skateboarding video games, architectural models, short-lived skateboarder-friendly public art later dismantled by nervous authorities, and skateboard-mounted video camera recordings. Outside of the world of skateboarding politics and aesthetics, the work doesn't speak for itself, much less provide a critique of architecture.

There is plenty of enjoyment here for those with academic or intellectual inclinations. A discussion of the skateboarder as flâneur invokes Baudelaire and Benjamin, among others. Like the young men of 19th century Paris celebrated by urban critics and poets of the time, skateboarders are not only a part of the cityscape, but a critical, aloof, self-conscious force within it.

The embedded theoretical text also discusses the privilege granted to "the vertical" in urban architecture and posits the skateboarder as a subversive force that asserts her value in the horizontal plane. Emphasis is taken from the towering edifice and transferred to the ledges, curbs, benches and other ground-level surfaces that surround it. The authority of columns and grandiose feats of engineering are rejected in favour of the immediate human interface available on the ground. (In the language of one of the many quoted theorists, "hierarchies" are "reintegrated from vertical to horizontal arrangements".)

The viewer leaves mulling over the interaction between architectural theory and the visceral experience of the speed, sound, and hard surfaces of skateboarding. Outside of the gallery, edges--curbs, railings, low windowsills, stairs--begin to glow with previously unnoticed potential. The viewer is ready to imagine what artist Aaron Carpenter calls "architecture built around some principal, basic human sensual pleasures; speed, fluidity and spatial negotiation."

Outside the show, the texture and slope of pavement is more noticeable; the opportunity to turn a corner with a flourish with the help of a railing more evident; the possibility of momentarily viewing the street from the perch of a ledge or low wall more tempting.

The show offers many potential avenues of exploration for architects and city planners. From public housing with integrated skater-friendly half-pipes to art that "subverts the cliches of a formalist organic 'modern' sculpture," the overarching suggestion is that the relegation of skateboarders to skate parks and their marginalization by bylaw is a suppression of a potent critique and a source of linguistic, artistic, and architectural vitality. Quite simply, the show asserts that cities are choosing to reject skateboarders when they have the opportunity to learn from them.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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