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Spot Check: Stockwell Skatepark

March 9th, 2009 by Crossfire

Since the 1970’s, the infamous Stockwell Skatepark (aka Brixton Beach) has been sessioned by thousands of skaters, BMX riders and a million little shits on bikes.

Over the last few years though, ‘The Curse of Stockwell’ has played havoc with the people involved in the project. Some loons say that the park was built on remains from ancient history and it’s haunted, others say it was just bad luck but the park took a man’s life as he skated there whilst on holiday, 2 other people connected with the park also passed away throughout the rebuild and the surface and overall organisation from the contractors allowed the park to become more of a building site than a beach.

All of this activity has annoyed the local South London skaters throughout the changes but fortunately the park is now back to its best with some new additions and most importantly a surface that should hold throughout the coming changes of seasons. Phil Procter spoke to local skater and skate park designer Jeremy Donaldson about the ongoing project that seems to have a very happy ending.

The first time I rode Stockwell was about 15 years ago and was a scary experience, the lack of coping freaked me out, what were your first impressions?

Totally stoked, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was, all the organic shapes just ready for you to invent your own way to skate it. I used to have pictures of Stockwell (and that old Tijuana park) on my wall and the reality was better than I’d imagined. Even back when it was rough as the Hackney bumps, it seemed smooth to me after all that Irish tarmac I grew up skating.

It was definitely rough, but I remember when they first tried to resurface it and it was an awful final finish, how did that happen?

The park had been resurfaced twice before I got my way and had it done with a full layer of reinforced concrete. The first time was the legendary pink surface that Matt McMullan (RIP) and Gnarly Tom worked to get put down. It was a lot better than the old surface but it started breaking away at any weak spots because it was only on thin surface layer. With a badly cracked concrete surface underneath, that made for lots of cracks in the red surface which peeled back away from the cracks. That gave us a smooth surface but with foot wide rough depressions – all the locals learned how to ride the park despite them but it wasn’t ideal.

When did you get involved with improving the park?

I’d finished my architecture post-grad in 2000, been traveling to the US to skate the new parks out there and the new phase of concrete skatepark building in this country was just getting started. So, when Brixton Cycles started a petition to get the cracks between the pink surface repaired it was the perfect time for me to jump in. I realised that more of the same surface would have been more of the same problems, so I started making proposals for how to resurface it properly. I registered www.stockwellskatepark.com and Gorm set-up the website which we used to raise awareness and let the council know how many people out there cared about the park.

Did you always want to add to the park or just fix up the red surface?

Having ridden some of the early Oregon parks I’d seen what could be done in parks less than half the size of Stockwell. It seemed obvious to me that instead of pouring a load of flat concrete dead-ends that we change the profile of the floor before re-concreting. That’s what we did eventually but it was a long road! I made a couple of photo-montages with a new design superimposed across the back edge of the park, put them on the website and then all hell broke loose! I hit upon the problem of working on an existing park – you have park locals who love their park and don’t want to compromise it and those who don’t care about the park other than as an opportunity for something completely different; my buddy from Dreamland just wanted to bulldoze the whole thing and start again. That sort of idea was pretty unpopular down at the park, so we had to work hard to calm things down and make sure everyone had a real say about how things were going to turn out.

What were the major obstacles that slowed things down?

Politics, money & experience. We had to get the council and local organisations behind the idea, and then get the funding to make it possible. That took long, slow, relentless pressure, and good help from Dave Carlin, Gorm Ashurst, Ad Downie, James Williams and countless others who helped out with our writing letters campaigns, and from the originator of the first campaign, the legendary and sorely missed Matt McMullan. We also made a couple of good allies in the council and had the help and support of the local councilors, Paul McGlone, Sally Prentice and Neil Sabharwal. This got us on our way.

Back then, I didn’t have much of a track record with building concrete parks, so I needed to call upon the contacts I’d made in the US to back me up. When I took Stefan Hauser (PTR Skateparks) down to meet the council and he told them what I’d been saying about the park for two years, they finally believed it. With a few respected skatepark builders lined up for the project, we thought we were good to go.

I guess this is where the politics politics slowed things down right?

Yeah, unfortunately the council’s tendering procedures resulted in the contract being awarded one of their ‘approved contractors’. They’d held themselves out as concrete specialists but it soon transpired there expertise was car parks, not skateparks! Their first attempt produced a horrible rough, dusty resurfacing, but we didn’t give up and nor did the Council. The Council had to stick with their Contractor for legal reasons but equally, the Contractor had to get the job done properly. Whilst all the arguments where going on I managed to develop fresh proposals and more money was raised, so by the time the Contractor was ready to try again, the project was significantly more ambitious. We put the contractor in touch with Duracrete, Gravity and with Wheelscape, whom they subcontracted to resurface the old park properly and make all the new additions. Nick from Wheelscape hired some of the Stockwell locals onto his crew to make sure the park didn’t lose it’s familar shape when 5″ of new concrete got laid over it.

Just when things were looking good again, tragedy struck. Nick Fyfe, founder of Wheelscape died. He’d been ill for some time but had kept on polishing the concrete until his last days. As a final insult, it transpired that the concrete supplier had been ‘economising’ on the amount of cement in the concrete, making it weak, and most of the new concrete needed to be taken up. More legal wrangling meant more delays. Meanwhile, the Contractor decided to hire some of Wheelscape’s crew and the park locals directly to carry on with the job and get it finished. All of us involved had to work really hard to save the project and make the park what it is today. Everyone bust their nuts, working early, late, weekends, paid and unpaid; Gav, Miller, Chris, Roland, Peter, Tony the Pirate, Michael and of course, Gee – those guys are the heroes of this project.

As far as the new design, did you consult with the locals, or was it your own vision?

The design process was a real learning curve for me. Having seen the wide range of reactions to the proposals I drew up off the top of my head in 2002, I decided to try a different approach – the one I still use today. I called a big meeting at the skatepark to find out what everyone wanted – what they wanted to add, what they didn’t mind changing and how we wanted the park to flow overall. During this time we also built a few things in timber and in concrete to try out new ideas. I’d get a few “what is he up to now, how is that going to work?” sort of comments but when we finished each piece they were always popular. It’s tricky to do that in a skatepark you build from scratch but it worked well here. It gave everyone confidence in the project, and gave me confidence in what I was doing. Stockwell was a long slow project, and meanwhile, I’d done Cantelowes, started Hereford, The Level in Brighton and a few other projects. So, when the time came to build for real, the design I produced was so rooted in Stockwell itself – the old park, the additions, the locals and the stuff we skate – it had a piece of everyone in there and we all agreed that it was the one.

The surface is certainly the best the place ever had, how do you feel the overall design works?

I spent such a long time trying to chase perfection for the park that I had a hard time seeing it like everyone else does. I had to go away for a few weeks; when I came back and saw how stoked everyone was, I figured it was time to get back in the session. I’ve been loving it ever since. Well, until last week when I said “bye-bye skatepark” and “hello hospital”.

The new stuff is certainly more challenging, it’s almost Portland like, do you think it appeals to all levels of skaters or does it make people have to step up to get the most out of the layout?

Trips to Burnside certainly inspired my mission, but not the scale of this park – there’s no 10 foot bowls. I think it’s still as accessible as ever, which was very important ot the feel of the park, but yes, it has a lot more opportunities if you want to step up. I think that makes it appeal to more skaters than before, the only downside to that is it being so busy.

Who shreds the park the most in your opinion? Personally I could watch Ivan speed around it all day…

I can’t really single one person out – Ivan and all the other locals have got some killer lines, as does honorary local Chris Ault. Anyone feeling the park, going fast – that’s what I like to see.

Right, on to new projects, whats next? Hereford?

We’re just waiting for the concrete to cure on the first phase of Hereford. We’ve built both the biggest and the smallest stuff there first – a little curved manny pad and a big double set, some mellow bank hips and pool. I’ve certainly enjoyed skating the bits that I’ve tested and can’t wait to get back up there for more skating and more building. We start building in Uckfield, E. Sussex this month but the rest of the new work seems to get ever progressively further away from home; there’s a Stockwell inspired park near Aberdeen, a skatepark and another bowl both in Macclesfield, all commissioned by Wheelscape and, directly though my work with Robert Dye Associates. I have also just designed a big plaza in Doha, Qatar amongst other things.

Awesome, you will have to keep us posted on the progress, anything you want to add?

I’d just like to raise a glass to the heavens and toast Matt McMullan and Nick Fyfe. They’d both be so proud to see Stockwell today and we all wish they could. And, I’ve got to give a big thank you to Dave Carlin for all his help too, and everyone who is a part of Stockwell – it exists because of everything everyone put into it – cheers everyone!

Watch Crossfire’s Stockwell edit courtesy of Alan Christensen here and look out for an official opening event in the next few months.

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