The Surface Industry

I don’t know any casual skateboarders. Everyone I know who’s ever done it has either an era of their lives or their entire essence defined by it—the rebellion, the aggression, the expression—inextricably bound up with their being. It’s the way you wear your hair and the way you wear your hat. It’s the kind of shoes you wear and which foot you put forward. It’s the crew you run with and the direction you go. There is something about rolling through the world on a skateboard that changes people forever. 

The author at age 11 and the beginning of a very long road.

Ever since I first saw Wes Humpston’s Dogtown cross on the bottom of a friend’s skateboard in the sixth grade, I knew it was going to be a part of my world. I first stepped on a skateboard at the age of 11. There are scant few physical acts and objects that have had a larger impact on who I am and how I am. Through the wood, the wheels, and the graphics, skateboarding culture introduced me to music, art, and attitude. Riding a skateboard fundamentally changed the way I see the world. “Skateboarding is not a hobby,” says Ian MacKaye, “and it is not a sport. Skateboarding is a way of learning how to redefine the world around you.”

Disparaged by pedestrians, police, and business owners, skateboarders reinterpret the urban landscape with style, grace, and aggression. Their instrument of choice, the skateboard, is a humble object of plywood, plastic, and metal. A 2×4 with roller-skates nailed to the bottom, in the 1950s the skateboard was adapted to emulate surfing. Carving the curves of empty pools, skateboards and skateboarders eventually moved on to custom ramps and the streets of the city. MacKaye adds, “It was like putting on a pair of filtered glasses—every curb, every wall had a new definition. I saw the world differently than other people.” Riding a skateboard changes how one sees the world generally and the built environment specifically. Where most see streets, sidewalks, curbs, walls, and handrails, skateboarders see a veritable playground of ramps and obstacles to be manipulated and overcome in the name of fun. Hills are for speed. Edges are for grinding or sliding. Anything else is for jumping onto or over. Looking through this lens all one sees is lines to follow and lines to cross.

Spike Jonze crossing lines. Photo by Rodger Bridges.

“We lived in a dead-end town with nowhere to go,” says the professional skateboarder Mike Vallely,

and then when skateboarding came along—especially street skating—it made our town bearable. It made our town livable because it blew it wide open… It was like the possibilities were suddenly endless in a town that once felt like we had nowhere to go. Suddenly it was like, this place ain’t so bad because there’s a curb and there’s a bench and there’s some stairs and there’s a wall. Everything was redefined. These weren’t things that confined and defined our lives, they were things we were now defining.

The game designer Brian Schrank defines affordance mining as a way of determining a technology’s “underutilized actionable properties and developing methods of leveraging those properties.” Schrank has done this most famously with computer keyboards, designing games that challenge the use and user of QWERTY keyboards to find new ways of interacting with the common computer. It’s a form of hacking, he says, that instead of searching for weakness in a system, is about finding its hidden strengths. Affordance mining can also be found in other underground, punk, and DIY cultures. In her book Adjusted Margin, Kate Eichhorn writes, “If copy machines and their gritty output of posters, flyers, and zines helped to define and spread movements intent on bolstering the rights of people on the margins, it was largely against, not with, the grain of the machines original intentions.”

Skateboarders mine affordances from all of the edges and surfaces of the city, challenging the design of our everyday built environment. Skateboarding is perhaps the best example of the oft-quoted line from Automatic Jack in William Gibson’s 1982 short story “Burning Chrome”: “The street finds its own use for things.” Skateboarders find their own use for everything in the city: ledges, curbs, stairs, handrails—surfaces, edges, and angles of all kinds. Even with the proliferation of skateparks, pure street skating is still the true measure of skill and vision. But just as the skateparks have spread, creating skateable terrain in towns large and small all over the world, the effort against street skating has evolved as well, creating its own countermovement.

Hostile architecture: a “bum-proof bench” in Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Morrow.

There are several bus-bench designs that allow sitting while waiting for the arrival of mass transit yet prevent the bench from being used as a bed. Most of these designs involve armrests or ridges in the seat to prevent one from lying prone across the bench. In his book, Callous Objects: Designs Against the Homeless, Robert Rosenberger writes, “The websites of bench manufacturers rarely advertise the fact that these designs are specifically intended to discourage sleeping, although on occasion such partitions and armrests are referred to as ‘antiloitering’ features.” My favorite has to be the backless, round-top bench: The seat is shaped like half of a cylinder resembling a barrel and allows one to sit, albeit not a luxuriously comfortable place to park yourself. Without your feet on the ground to stabilize you though, you’re not likely to stay on top. Therefore, there’s no napping on this bench. Urban theorist Mike Davis calls these varieties “bum-proof benches.”

The manipulation of the perceived affordances of objects and surfaces is another great example. Chairs and tables offer surfaces that are affordances for the support of weight. That is, a table affords support. If you have a glass counter on which you don’t want anything placed, it should be slanted. If it’s flat, it gives the perception of affording weight placed on top and often ends up cracked. The handrails around hotel balconies are typically rounded or beveled in such a way as to prevent the setting down of a beverage. This is to keep one from setting a beer bottle on the rail then drunkenly or excitedly knocking it off onto passers-by, cars, or just the ground below. These are not design flaws.

In the past few decades, architects and urban landscapers have made or retrofitted handrails and ledges to make them unusable for skateboarding. Large knobs welded onto metal handrails or blocks bolted to ledges keep skateboarders from using these surfaces as props or obstacles for their maneuvers. These are not mistakes, but hinderances designed — often clumsily or not exactly aesthetically — for preventing certain uses. Even if nonverbal, the message is clear: You are not welcome here.

Skateblockers installed on a once throughly enjoyed ledge. Photo by Mark Turnauckas.

In 1998, Nike attempted to enter the skateboarding market with a line of shoes designed specifically for the sport. Their ad campaign featured unusable athletic spaces and gear like basketball goals permanently blocked by welded crosses of rebar, football fields with chained-off 50-yard lines, baseball diamonds with obstructed home plates. The ads ran with the slogan, “What if all athletes were treated like skateboarders?” It would be years before Nike was able to establish itself within the sport, but the ads were an interesting take on skateboarding’s place in the larger context of sports.

Nike in the 1990s: “What if all athletes were treated like skateboarders?”

“Skateboarding is a rebellion,” says Miki Vuckovich, a photographer and fixture of the skateboarding industry. “It’s a sport, an activity, a lifestyle adopted primarily by adolescents, and as an individualistic activity, it gives participants a sense of independence. It sets them apart from others who don’t skate, and their own particular approach to skateboarding further differentiates them from their skating peers.” He continues,

Skateboarding, however mainstream it may become will always give skateboarders a unique perspective on the rest of the world. It’s as simple as the difference between crawling on all fours or walking upright. Skateboarders glide around, hopping up and down onto and off of curbs and objects: Benches and handrails are for grinding, not sitting or holding, and staircases are for jumping, not climbing.

Like dirt paths meandering off to the side of paved sidewalks, skateboarding is the slang in the pattern language of architecture. It works constantly against the rhetoric of the built environment. It is where the affordances of design and the desires of humans diverge. MacKaye continues, “For most people, when they saw a swimming pool, they thought, ‘Let’s take a swim.’ But I thought, ‘Let’s ride it.’ When they saw the curb or a street, they would think about driving on it. I would think about the texture. I slowly developed the ability to look at the world through totally different means.” Skateboarding is the built environment dreaming.