The South Bank Centre, the Undercroft skate space, and restricted photography.

After being hassled by security at the South Bank Centre, photographer Marc Vallee called a photo-walk in response to a PR-motivated welcoming tweet from the Centre’s management. There, I learnt more about the devastating plans to destroy historic and free culture in the area.

Photographer Marc Vallée has been documenting street culture, especially skateboarding, for many years. He has many publications to his name, and is a very respected member of the freelance community in London.

Due to encroaching privatisation, monetarisation and the resulting sanitation of the public realm, Marc’s interests have also encompassed street architecture, the deliberate design of public space to discourage the dispossessed, and especially anti-skating devices (which are becoming a commonplace part of that design).

It’s no surprise then, that he has keenly supported the struggles of the “Long Live South Bank campaign” (@Long_Live_SB  http://www.llsb.com), who are campaigning against South Bank plans to destroy the historic and long-standing skateboard space in the undercroft area of the South Bank Centre as part of a ‘regeneration’ project .

Last week, Marc was down at the South Bank documenting some new fences that had appeared, when he was approached by security guards who told him he couldn’t take pictures. After some discussion, a security manager was called, and although the command was apparently retracted, no-one offered any sort of apology or explanation and the guards refused to discuss the matter further.

Once Marc had raised the issue through the NUJ, the South Bank Centre issued a public tweet to more than a 100,000 followers, simply suggesting that photographers were always welcome.

01 LLSB stall

So, last Saturday, around a dozen photographers met at the LLSB stall next to the Undercroft, and they were treated to a guided walk co-hosted by Marc and by ‘Uprise’ Director Paul Richards, who has worked with young people in the area for many years, is knowledgeable about the local history, and supports the Long Live South Bank campaign.

02 skater, Marc, Paul

Several of the photographers attending on Saturday confirmed that South Bank’s PR-driven tweet was blatantly untrue – most had stories to tell of hassles and questions from over-eager security staff in the area.

The Undercroft itself is now about a third the size it used to be – a few years ago, large areas were sealed off by South Bank to create room for what they called  “temporary storage”.

03 Undercroft

Among the redevelopment plans, we were told, was a huge glass box to connect the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall/Purcell Room. Objectors to this architecturally old-fashioned plan include Anthony Gormley, who is concerned that it will actually lessen the exhibition area of the Hayward, and the National Theatre, who are concerned at the change to their visible skyline.

The area in question is open to the public and used as a walk-through without restriction all year round. Although legally the space is not public, as it is owned by the South Bank Centre, because most of their funding comes from public bodies like the Arts Council, a privatising land-grab of this sort is inappropriate and concerning. We also heard that the new glass box area will be hired out privately on a regular basis, thus reducing its public status further.

Next we were taken to the spot under Hungerford Bridge that South Bank are earmarking for their new specially designed skateboard park. It’s a dark, dingy area cut off from light and the river view by a long concrete ramp. In initial proposals, this ramp was going to be removed – but later plans no longer promise this. £1.2m was originally offered for the building of the skate park – the wording has now reduced to the worryingly imprecise “up to £1m”.

04 Hungerford

A young skateboarder (a potential user of the site) flagged up an immediately obvious safety concern. Every few minutes a train rolled very noisily overhead, causing our hosts to pause speaking each time. When skateboarding, you need all your senses. If someone’s coming up fast behind you, you need to hear them – with the trains above, this would be impossibly dangerous.

Finally, we were shown a commissioned graffiti by Stik, depicting a row of figures along the ramp wall. The last four look sad, are smaller, and stand on skateboards. It captures what the street skaters think the new site will become – a playground for children starting off on their boards.

05 stik graffiti

They are convinced that the real street culture will move elsewhere. South Bank will have sanitised and commercialised their land, privatising, enclosing and controlling this wonderful public space to the detriment of London, and tourists will have what was once a rich experience reduced to the cultural paucity of a shopping mall.

Join the tens of thousands of objectors to the South Bank plans at http://llsb.com

See Marc’s great photography at http://marcvallee.co.uk

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