DEVOTION TO STYLE—
A PARALLEL HISTORY OF SKATEBOARDING AND ARCHITECTURE
By François Perrin
In 2011, I was invited to participate in the design of a house for a skateboarder in Malibu, California. The client, a former world champion pro skater turned business owner, wanted to create a house where one could skateboard on every surface inside or outside the home. He tried to develop a prototype with a local, non-skateboarding architect, but for many reasons, the project was not successful and was temporarily shelved. He then began developing a new version, this time with a skateboarder/designer working alongside him. They thought of a ribbon that would connect the inside to the outside. That is when they contacted me, creating an opportunity that would finally link my two passions: architecture and skateboarding.
I started skateboarding in the late seventies with the first popular wave in France. (Skateboarding was introduced in France in the late sixties by traveling Californian surfers who gave a few skateboards to local surfers in the South West). Born and raised in Paris, the discovery of skateboarding was a revelation for me and countless others from my generation, allowing us to approach our urban environment—constituted mainly of asphalt and concrete—in an entirely different way. Suddenly, underground parking lots and their access ramps became intriguing, magical places. And unlike traditional sports, this one not only came from another continent but was practiced almost equally by both boys and girls (contrary to the United States, where males dominated the sport).
Skateboarders, since the beginning of their discipline in the early sixties, have introduced an entirely new relationship to urban space. From the appropriation of existing public spaces (Place du Trocadéro in Paris, for example) to the creation of specific zones, including skateparks, the practice of skateboarding has come to be known in the last thirty years for its astute hijacking of urban furniture—benches, stairs, fountains, ramps—and its fluid approach to the environment. During the same period, architects took their practices in radical new directions. From the first experimentations with the Oblique Function to today’s geometrical explorations, both the theoretical approach to architecture and architectural form-making have changed.
Skateboarding was invented in the 1950s in California by surfers who, in their constant quest for waves, started to “surf” the streets. It was then called “sidewalk surfing.” While it is not known who fabricated the first skateboard, one could assume that many arrived at the same idea at the same time in a sort of phenomenon we might call spontaneous creation. The first boards were created by attaching roller skate wheels onto simple wood planks, then later evolved to more complex structures. Skateboarding at the time was confined to going downhill or making slaloms or acrobatic figures, using techniques simply known as freestyle.
At the beginning of the sixties, skateboarding experienced its first popular wave before being eclipsed by its own success. The first contingent of popular skaters were also the most popular surfers of the times—Phil Edwards and Skip Frye were two masters of style. Skateboards also became more flexible, allowing figures that were aesthetically closer to those found in surfing.
At the same time in France, Claude Parent, after collaborating with many artists affiliated with the New Realism (including Arman, César, Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely), developed the first concepts of the Oblique Function. As a critic of formalism and spatial continuity, he introduced in his early residential projects (Maison Drusch, Bordeaux Le Pecq) the concepts of discontinuity and spatial openness. Joined by critic and philosopher Paul Virilio, they rejected Euclidean space and proclaimed “the end of the vertical as the axis of elevation” and “the end of the horizontal as the permanent plane.”1 They designed and built the Sainte Bernadette church in Nevers, applying the Oblique Function—which itself was later presented through the drawings of one and the texts of the other—in their magazine Architecture Principe. It was a new means of appropriating space that promoted continuous, fluid movement and forced the body to adapt to instability: “While the enclosed and the cryptic lie at the origins of this new era of architecture … we must also recognize within the sense of disequilibrium, of vertigo, the second archetype of this art of space.”
Parent would go on to build several structures based on these theories—including the French pavilion at the 1970 Venice Biennale—and several private apartments, including his own. His work was aimed at creating an experience of space that would respond to the evolution of society and the need for greater fluidity. While skateboarding was not widely present at the time, one could already envision the relevance of their vision for the next generation.
In 1975, Skateboarding experienced a revolution with the rise of a new generation of skaters from Venice Beach, also known as Dogtown. The Zephir team, comprised of Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and Stacy Peralta, introduced a completely different way of skateboarding. Dividing their time between surfing at the bottom of the Ocean Park pier in Santa Monica and skateboarding new terrains in the backyards of local schools, they originated the modern practice of skateboarding.
At the time, a serious drought was affecting the region and most of Los Angeles’ iconic backyard swimming pools had to be emptied out. Always in search of new territories, the “Z Boys” began skating within these more organic spaces, which seemed to reproduce the geometry of the waves they had mastered so well. A new board design was implemented and technological improvement of key materials, including urethane wheels, took skateboarding in new directions.
At the same time, in the same neighborhood, Frank Gehry, after many years of working for other architects or producing projects for clients not interested in his own aesthetic, decided to build a house for his family in a quiet residential area of Santa Monica. At the time, he was influenced by many contemporary artist friends whose work was being exhibited at the local and now legendary Ferus Gallery.
Starting from an existing traditional house, he chose to remodel and enlarge it in a resolutely contemporary way using rough construction and industrial, off-the-shelf materials including corrugated metal, chain-link fences, plywood, and cinder-blocks, in a formalism closer to the assemblages of Kurt Schwitters or Robert Rauschenberg than to the Arts and Craft movement and its highly popular California bungalow. Gehry’s house, now acknowledged to be a landmark of Los Angeles’ residential architecture, is one of the first of many manifestos from an architect who would come to be known as a radical visionary, and whose forms, complex geometries, and innovative materials transform both their immediate and broader contexts—aesthetically, economically, and civically.
Street Style: Skateboarding’s Impact on Architecture (and Vice Versa)
Since the 1980s, skateboarding has spread throughout the world to become a global urban phenomenon, far removed from California’s shores. A new generation of skaters, most of whom have never seen the ocean, have developed an approach to the urban environment—essentially known as Street Style and defined by its co-option of ubiquitous concrete public spaces and underground parking lots—by skating every aspect of their surroundings. Moving out of the dried up swimming pools of Southern California or the skateparks that recreated the architecture of waves, skateboarders today have unconsciously reinvented their practice by adapting to urban environments.
Benches, ramps, sidewalks, street furniture—everything and anything was utilized to invent new figures in a constant creative improvisation. Skaters like Mark Gonzales, raised in the industrial suburbs of Los Angeles, would influence generations of kids worldwide with his modern approach to skateboarding. Moving beyond L.A., this legendary skateboarder explored a number of new territories including, in the early 1990s, the empty pools at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. Gonzales would later retreat to Paris to pursue a career as an artist, returning to the original site of his first intervention twenty years later to test a ring of boards in the early morning, riding a creation that he alone would be capable of maneuvering. In a famous 1998 performance, Gonzales skated inside Mönchengladbach’s contemporary art museum dressed as a fencer. The result was a critically and historically significant short film that showed not only a new and poetic approach to the pristine white minimalist interior of the gallery space, but also a radical new encounter between skateboarding and architecture in general.
But before Gonzales, the first real hint of an encounter between architecture and skateboarding took place during the construction of skateparks in the late seventies. During that popular wave, a great number of these concrete parks were built in the U.S. and Europe, mimicking the empty pools of Southern California and allowing skateboarders to experience on land the shape, geometry, and movement of waves.
Because of the shift toward street skateboarding in the next decade, many of these parks would disappear or be abandoned to invading vegetation. But the tough regulations restricting skateboarding in public space, especially in the U.S., would lead to a renewal of skatepark construction. If many of them would recall the first generation of parks with their organic concrete forms (also helped by the evolution of shot concrete technology). We also see the ironic rise of parks reproducing the traditional public plaza with outdoor furniture once banned to skateboarders, now exclusively built for them.
A fake real environment (or real fake, depending on whether or not you skateboard), these parks exist somewhat like a model in real scale of a nonexistent city where skaters can let their creative minds loose without fear of being arrested. If the notion makes sense, it is only in a meta or surrealist sort of way, and calls for a new vision in the design of outdoor spaces.
If these new places for skateboarding reproduced public architecture from the last twenty-five years, in an interesting, inverted twist, we found many contemporary architects who, on Parent’s and Gehry’s heels, introduced complex geometries into their own buildings. The group of architects gathered during the 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture show at the MoMA (Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenmann, and Gehry) started to build projects that, even if they were not made for skateboarding, would—through their complex geometries and materials, (curves or angled shapes and plywood and concrete)—evoke an important encounter between the two disciplines. A building like Koolhaas/OMA’s Educatorium in Utrecht ends with a half circle curve covered in plywood—exactly like a skateboard half-pipe (the wooden structures developed in the eighties for the practice of vertical skateboarding; now a discipline of the X games). Early buildings by Hadid—such as the Vitra fire station in Basel or the Cincinnati Museum of Contemporary Art—include large waves of concrete reminiscent of early skatepark architecture.
At the same time, new directions and territories were explored in architectural schools in the United States, beginning at Columbia University under the direction of Bernard Tschumi. New architectural theories—influenced by the writings of Deleuze on the “fold” and developed through the use of computer software originally created for cinematographers—would create a new formal vocabulary. If these explorations were not yet transposed to the real world, you could see the potential of creating new environments that would be specifically relevant to the practice of skateboarding. More recently, across the world, we see a number of projects that include spaces dedicated to skateboarding in their outdoor areas.
A building like the Yokohama Terminal by Foreign Office Architects introduced continuous surfaces inside and outside the building, as did their outdoor park in Barcelona with a topographical surface used by local skateboarders. Snøhetta’s recently completed Oslo Operahouse is composed of large outdoor slanted planes that seem to emerge from the nearby water and invite walking in all directions. (It is also a building that for many reasons recalls Parent’s drawings for the Oblique Function). Steven Holl’s Ocean Museum in Biarritz also reproduces the organic shapes of the nearby ocean. This case, however, turns out to be a purely formal and non-functional approach that simply appropriates the architectural vocabulary of the skatepark. This outdoor space, which is not only the museum’s roof but also an outdoor plaza, will soon be covered by grass and therefore become unskateable—a situation was not envisioned by the designer but rather a result of the city of Biarritz’s fear that accidents and civil lawsuits would ensue if the roof of the building was skateable. Even more absurd is the kidney-shaped empty pool in the middle of this roof—clearly a reference to the Dogtown Z-Boys era—whose occupation is rendered impossible.
All of these influences and references were present during the design of the Skateboard House and the full-scale prototype we presented at the Public Domaine exhibition at the Gaîté Lyrique Museum in Paris in the summer of 2011. The concept of turning a house into a skateboard environment has long been present in the skateboarder’s mind. For example, there is a now-famous video from the eighties in which a classic California bungalow is turned into a skateboarder’s dream with the help of plywood boards, mini ramps and other makeshift artifacts. There are also countless examples of skaters living with ramps in their lofts and apartments. In the early nineties, the Beastie Boys had one installed inside their Los Angeles recording studio.
The idea for the PAS House was to create a fully hybrid structure, finding the middle ground between a house and a skatepark. As opposed to simply placing skateboarding elements inside a domestic environment or installing furniture inside a skatepark, the notions behind the PAS House are fully integrated within its architecture. The house—as yet unbuilt—will function as a ribbon that creates a continuous surface to be skated from the exterior to the interior, which is divided into three separate spaces: a public area (for lounging, food prep, and dining), a private zone (bedroom and bath), and a dedicated area for skateboard practice. As the skateboarders who visited the prototype demonstrated, each space is fully skateable, as the floor becomes the wall, then the ceiling, in a continuous surface that forms a radially elongated tube, 10 feet high where floor and ceiling structures are parallel. Even the furniture is skateable, whether it is integrated into the curve, as it is in the sitting area, or a freestanding object such as the kitchen/dining table. Closets and drawers could be integrated in the curve as well.
As conceived, the PAS House is the first domicile to be entirely used for skateboarding as well as traditional dwelling. It will be the ultimate place for generations of skateboarders who have dreamed of bringing their practice into their homes. In the realm of architecture, it also represents a ground-breaking moment: the construction of a non-Euclidian geometrical space with a continuous surface that creates a new experience of the domestic, one that is more fluid and dynamic than ever before, and reflective of our twenty-first century lifestyle.
François Perrin—who died in 2019 after a brief illness—wrote this article for PARIS LA 12, the “Alternative Habitation” issue (Fall 2014).
Text © PARIS LA.
1. Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies & Blobs: Collected Essays (Bruxelles: La Lettre Volee, 1998), 111.
Prototype of the PAS House in the exhibition Public Domaine/Skateboard Culture, La Gaîté Lyrique, Paris, 2011, design by Gil Lebon Delapointe, photographs © Mike Manzoori, Sam McGuire, and Benjamin Deberdt.