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Defensive Architecture

Sometime ago, we received an email from Seb Price, a Graphic Design student studying in London who had decided to incorporate some of the issues relating to ‘Defensive Architecture’, (or skate-stoppers to you and I) into a project he was working on. After becoming interested in the LLSB campaign, Seb had decided to tackle issues relating the regulation of public space through his work, going so far as to create his own version of skate-stoppers and place them around Southbank as part of his project. We caught up with Seb recently to discuss his work and the wider politics of space.

Read on for an interesting insight into something that we, as skateboarders, take for granted…

So Seb, can you talk us through your entry point into this piece of work? What attracted you to the idea of making work about skate-stoppers/’defensive architecture’ initially, and what was it about Southbank that was interesting to you in terms of you creating artwork relating to the space and what it has come to represent?

I have been interested in ‘defensive architecture’ since I first heard the term, it seems somewhat dystopian and quite unreal that you would have buildings designed to sit within public spaces that are inherently anti – human. Southbank in particular interested me as it seemed ironic that a place which is supposedly a haven for culture is in fact quite anti cultural with its actions.

On one hand you see this pro cultural rhetoric about ‘investing in future generations’ (from their website about page) and on the other you have them trying to close and destroy a landmark of great cultural significance, a space that is known and loved around the world, something they really should be proud of.

 

Are you a skateboarder yourself and/or was skateboarding something that interested you prior to working on this piece? Or did you see skateboarding more as a crucible from within which issues of ownership of space and regulation of behaviour could be discussed?

I grew up in Bath and used to skate around the Victoria skate park, but mostly I just enjoyed the community and social aspects of things. I skate as a means of transportation every week now, but mostly as you said, I saw the attempted closure of Southbank as very poignant case of issues of ownership of space, but on top of that a blatantly hypocritical stance to be taken from somewhere that should be an area for all cultures.

The wider context surrounding the idea of skate-stoppers is an interesting one – being of a certain age, I can recall a time when skate stoppers weren’t part of the urban landscape but they did have a precursor – which had even more sinister undertones – what is referred to now as ‘hostile architecture’. The first example I can recall seeing of this were in the late 80’s/very early 90’s – whereby businesses (generally multi-nationals at first – McDonald’s being the first example I recall) used serrated metal plates to deter people from sitting on their windowsills. The justification given for this was to ‘deter loitering/begging’ at the time – which has subsequently been revised to the catchall description of ‘anti-social behaviour’. What’s your opinion on this?

It’s shocking to hear, but not unbelievable. It’s quite funny that ‘hostile architecture’ has now essentially become ‘defensive architecture’ in a more friendly rebrand, clearly still having the exact same intentions. On the point of architecture like this deterring ‘anti social behaviour’, I find that notion to be the crux of the issue, I cant think of anything more anti-social than the closure public spaces, spaces for freedom of expression, community/culture and art. Whether closing down a skate spot, or arming a McDonalds or wherever, if your aim is to disperse groups of people you are against social behaviour.

Seb Price's Skate Stopper typeface

Clearly, any modification to exterior architecture, (private or public) is deeply political in so far as the classification of any type of behaviour as being ‘anti-social’ presupposes a norm, or assumed acceptable version of public behaviour. Was your work influenced by this kind of thinking?

Yes definitely. There’s a kind of ‘our culture or no culture’ attitude within the attempted closure of Southbank, I think especially in England (but definitely not exclusive to) there has always been an acceptable way to act and to speak or to dress associated with establishment, but when these ideals become asserted upon members of the public, forcing them, there becomes a dark and sinister sense of control. Spaces like the Southbank, no matter how adverse to the accepted or presumed norm, need to exist for there to be any real sense of freedom of expression.

Talk us through the genesis of the idea and how you arrived at the eventual outcome please…

For a while I’ve been interested in defensive architecture, and since moving to London I have really noticed how much need there is for public spaces, there was a great feeling spending time in and around the Southbank for this project, it was one of the only times I really felt people actively engaging in their environment, it felt special and unique to the rest of London, which I often feels disconnected from the people that inhabit it, like a museum where it feels wrong to touch anything around you.

The photographs you sent over appear to suggest that your ‘skate stoppers’ were physically attached to aspects of SB and other bits of London architecture (at least temporarily) – how did that process work, and, were you approached by anybody (from either side of the argument) whilst doing this?

The idea was to put them in and around the Southbank centre. With a friend, I started laying them out near the under croft and photographing them. I was approached by the Southbank centre security while placing them down, at first just resting them on the side, which, “so long as I was quick” they were fine with, but when some of the letters started to fall off I used some tape to hold them down and that apparently was against the rules, so I was told to leave at that point.

I came back another day to get some more photographs within the skate area, and spoke to a few skateboarders who were interested in what I was doing, they all seemed concerned about both the lack of spaces to skate and defensive architecture, as well as the skateboarders there were a number of members of the public that were watching me set up my photographs and asked about the project, all with a positive response.

What was the concept behind using language forms for your skate-stoppers and why did you select the phrases/words you used?

All over the city you can find buildings designed with skate-stoppers, homeless spikes and different types of defensive architecture, and it isn’t always apparent what these ‘devices’ or ‘features’ are. So to highlight their purpose and existence I took a quote from the Southbank centre’s website (in particular the ‘about us’ page) “investing in future generations”. The quote seemed at complete odds with their attitude, and was the perfect corporate white noise that people would usually glance over.

Using this quote as the skate-stoppers, which are themselves blended into a sort of architectural white noise, I hoped to cause a thought process that led to people realising the irony and backwardness of using defensive/anti social architecture to deter ‘anti-social behaviour’.

 

Presumably you have followed the Long Live Southbank campaign and have drawn inspiration from their hard work and eventual ‘success’, correct?

Yes, although not involved personally (other than the petition) their success and passion definitely inspired me to think more about this subject.

Looked at it context, particularly with the recent demolition of Philadelphia’s Love Park (an equally iconic skate spot/piece of public architecture) – LLSB’s success in saving SB’s space is almost unbelievable – do you have thoughts on why this particular campaign succeeded where many others haven’t?

One amusing aspect of the whole LLSB campaign was the sheer malice exhibited in many of the online comments towards the notion of ‘saving SB’, (ironically most prominently on websites connected to the left-leaning press, The Guardian in particular). Have you any thoughts there? Particularly as to why this was such a polarizing issue and why many of the people you might presume would be in favour of something like the LLSB campaign, which politically engaged youth and utilised all of the machinery of traditional ‘anti-capitalist protest’ was roundly condemned as ‘a bunch of complaining teenagers’ (to paraphrase).

I think it succeeded not only due to the sheer number of people that signed the petition and that got involved, but also due to the many influential people that spoke upon the importance of the skate space, (Boris Johnson/Tony Hawk as the most obvious examples I can think of). An interesting aspect of the campaign is that it was fairly polarising, there were a few people I spoke to who work around there during the project who really didn’t like it and wanted it gone. I think they saw it as an eyesore and the people in it as ‘teenagers’ and ‘wasters’, the usual ignorant comments. Some people mentioned that it attracts drug use and homeless people, but I think that is an issue that’s present everywhere, something that definitely will not be solved by moving them elsewhere, and not related to or a product of Southbank’s skate culture in the slightest.

The company which holds the registered ‘Skate Stoppers’ trademark (Intellicept in CA) actually offers skate-stoppers described as their ‘Artistic Range’ which include bespoke architectural and pattern designs supposedly themed to ‘blend in’ aesthetically. What are your thoughts there?

The sentence ‘artistic skate stoppers’ seems to be contradictory, but I think it’s beneficial to the people who use skate stoppers to have them blend in as well as possible, the less obvious defensive architecture is the less public offence it will likely cause.

How did your University peers and tutors receive this piece of work – what was their take on it from an academic perspective?

Surprisingly not many of them knew what skate stoppers were (tutors in particular), so it was a bit of a shock for them to find out that all around them in London they were surrounded by defensive architecture, without them realising. Because of this I think they felt that it was quite effective, and were very enthusiastic about the project.

Is this an issue that you intend to explore further?

I think ownership of public space and defensive architecture are definitely really intriguing, topical and corrosive subjects that aren’t highlighted or talked about often enough, so I would definitely like to explore it more.

Where can people go to find out more about this piece and your work in general?

My skate stoppers and more of my work is all on www.sebprice.com or at my Instagram @seb_price

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