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Søren Nordal Enevoldsen Interview

Sometimes the angry security guard creates the utopian city

At this year’s Copenhagen Open, a bus drove us to Roskilde (you might know the festival) for one of the missions. When we got off the bus, we started walking through a snake run that led into a ditch and what at first glimpse looked like a street spot turned out to be planned for skating. The deeper we got into it, the more obstacles appeared. There was even a bowl next to it. It was a skatepark called Rabalder Parken. The man who had the genius idea to combine a normal ditch, which is empty most of the time anyway, with a skatepark was Søren Nordal Enevoldsen, a Danish architect, who, for example, designed Fælledparken. If you talk to him, you’ll quickly recognize that he has a lot to tell about integrating skateboarding into cities and it was a no brainer to integrate him into this issue.

Can you please introduce yourself? How did you get into architecture?

My interest in architecture basically came from skateboarding. In architecture school, I even took a year off to skate, [laughs] but I didn’t really want to pursue any architectural work within skateboarding, because I thought there was no industry for it in Europe. I mean, I did little projects here and there and my teachers pushed me and said, “You should do something with skateboarding” – and then luckily Fælledparken came about. Because I had been doing all the small projects up to then in Denmark, I was an easy choice for that development, and that sort of started my company.

Till now, skateboarders mainly got skateparks. Now things are loosening up. What are your thoughts on this?

I think one reason is the skatepark revolution that had already happened a long time ago in the States through Burnside and all those projects, the whole DIY movement. Also the people involved in design are a different generation of skateboarders and probably more street influenced.

"If you build these spaces, you need stuff to create an interesting atmosphere and add an identity to the space"

What are the pros and cons of integrating skateboarding more into the city compared to just building a skatepark?

I think a (indoor) skatepark is a necessity, a training facility to get the topography you dream about, and it’s also a place to go when it rains. I have always felt a bit alienated by these skateparks because it’s not authentic. I think it’s really interesting in relation to how Copenhagen has become this skate-friendly city. Are these new sorts of hybrids authentic enough? If you take a normal skatepark, it’s an amusement park that offers everything that you dream of from what you have seen in the videos. Of course, it is way more complicated to do these hybrids. There is a funny example with Læssøesgade Skole: now I actually have to go to a meeting because skateboards fly out into the street from the staircase, which was initially made to be skateable. So that illustrates very concrete what the cons are. It’s way more complicated than closing something off and declaring it “skate turf”. For me, it goes totally against the idea of skateboarding. If you clash a lot of stuff into each other, then the whole idea becomes more complex but also way more interesting. If you do a skatepark, most of the time you will end up with a rather predictable landscape: a hip, a flat bar… A lot of my work is to raise awareness that if you build these spaces, you need stuff to create an interesting atmosphere and add an identity to the space instead of just continuing to build these small or medium-sized classic normal skateparks.

Are cities open to go new ways? How did places like the Red Plaza in Copenhagen, for example, get built?

It’s complicated, but in the Scandinavian countries, they are really trying to listen to the users and their needs and come up with new ways of addressing social inclusiveness and social sustainability.

Soren Bs Lipslide print c Henrik Edelbo

Backside Lipslide – Photo: Henrik Edelbo

Where do you see potential to integrate skateboarding more?

About 15 years ago, we tried to create these skate routes in Copenhagen because we had a connection to a young guy at the city council. He said, “Skateboarding is interesting, how can we do that?” So even back then, we tried to push the city to make a skate route with different spots. Now I see what Leo [Valls] is doing and I think that is a really good way to show the cities that this can actually work. In the future, it could definitely be fully integrated into the urban planning. We proposed to create natural bumps in front of fire hydrants or electricity boxes in areas where you don’t bother anyone. Urban skateboarders as travelers in the city are very interesting to me – and then with the rainwater management and climate changes, there are endless possibilities to address skateboarding and a lot of other issues. My dream is to get skatepark designers more aware of the fact that we are not per se a squat culture anymore, we have become an accepted culture in a lot of ways. We need to come out of our shells and not just think about skateboarding, because it’s in the meeting with other people where it becomes really interesting.

What do non-skaters get out of it?

It is in the meeting with others that we create a democratic society and those meetings can create friction. Maybe you are annoyed by someone else taking your space, but it is also where you develop your social skills. Take, for example, the Red Plaza, it is like this trash-training facility with our own homemade obstacles and some people get annoyed when they have to cross the plaza, while the skaters are like, “You are in my space!” Sometimes I tell the skaters, “You should be happy that you are here with other people,” but there are also people who come and hang out and look at the skaters because the very activity of skateboarding is interesting. As a skater, because you hang out there so much, you are on a first-name basis with the bottle collectors – and for me, that’s integration. That’s where we meet “the others” and they meet us. That might be the finest task for an urban public realm. Instead of putting people under different stamps and saying “this is for skaters” and “this is for sitting”, it’s about meeting.

"It is in the meeting with others that we create a democratic society"

Let’s talk about Rabalder Parken. How did you come up with the idea?

It was just a closed down industrial area that was surrounded by social housing. The city said, “We want to develop this area.” It was one of the first emerging landscapes that focused on climate change because there were these big floods around that time and a lot of basements got flooded. The city had a master plan for the infrastructure to take water away. I was called up by a local skater because they had access to one of the old factories and had a skatepark there. So the users were already there. I went to a meeting and presented what we as skateboarders thought would feel natural when skating these ditches. I was like, “Why not use the whole stretch of the area to involve skateboarding and other activities?” The stars were totally aligned at that time: the city had a lot of flooding, there was a new area that needed development, and the city was progressive enough. Some people called the approach “life before cities”. If you think about the public life before you think about the buildings, then you have a lot more freedom instead of just trying to see if you can fit a small plaza in there between a cluster of commercial buildings.

Was it complicated to work on Rabalder Parken?

Some unforeseen problems emerged, like, how do classic sewer department engineers work with parks and recreation? Until that time, if you were a sewer department engineer, you were really successful if nobody cared about your work – because that meant that nothing was flooded –, and the responsibility of parks and recreation was only to make the citizens happy. So that meeting was like breaking down the Berlin Wall between these sectors. I think one of the big issues was that this was a technical infrastructure first and foremost. We needed to make sure that there would be no flooding in the future. When you get into that as a skatepark designer and say, “Can we do a quarterpipe here and a transition or bank there?” they would say, “No.” Try it again – “No!” Maybe after three times they would be like, “Maybe…”

Are they happy with how it turned out?

Yes! It got a lot of attention. Wired Magazine was writing about it, I got into the finale of the Index Award, which is the biggest design award in the world, and CNN did a mini documentary. The project was such a clear story, “We have this infrastructure which is basically a sewer and all the kids are having fun in it” – that’s a story that every grandmother can understand even though she has never heard of skateboarding. The other side of the story is that the infrastructure works to get the rain away and keep your basement from being flooded. It really is a win-win situation. In architecture these days, instead of talking about style, it’s about storytelling and how you experience the practice in relation to clear use. Bjarke Ingels made the famous waste-burning facility Amager Bakke in Copenhagen with an integrated ski slope on top. Even if you don’t give a shit about architecture, that is something that makes you say, “Wow, I wanna go there.”

How many days is the place actually flooded?

I don’t know if it has ever been totally filled with water since 2012. If water gets there, it will only last between a day and a couple of hours. These flood preventions are not in use 99 percent of the time.

Tom Penny Bs Flip Phot Morten Westh

Tom Penny – Backside Flip I Photo: Morten Westh

You have another project now: Læssøesgade Skole. What is it?

It’s close to the very first skatepark I did during my years in school around 2000, where I was skating as a kid. They closed down the area because they needed space to build a huge school. So, of course, the skaters were pissed and they needed to give them a new space. That new place needed an overhaul and a redesign, and the area needed a public space because it was so dense. We also wanted to address rainwater management because the school is situated relatively high compared to the rest of the city and if you stop the water early on, it is way better than stopping it later. So it became a possible place for a skatepark where we could put it all together and the city could cross out a lot of things they were obliged to address. A lot of times, the city cannot afford what they want to do for their citizens, but by opening up for a new approach, it becomes interesting and eligible for a lot of additional funding.

I think, in general, architects like it when what they built is used by different groups even though skateboarders tend to destroy stuff a bit.

I have always been interested in these activities like skateboarding or graffiti in the cities that are borderline destructive but also really creative. We can probably agree that it is not cool to do graffiti on a graveyard, but where is it actually okay and where not? Where is it okay to skate, where not? That goes back to my idea that a democratic city does not just float effortless, it does create some tension and friction – and by investigating that friction, that is where you learn something. How much lack of safety and lack of predictability is a city willing to accept?

How do you envision the city of the future?

Copenhagen is a really progressive city when it comes to letting skaters interact with the urban space. When the Quartersnacks guys came here a couple of years ago, they did not want to film at a lot of spots – they were like, “What is this, is it a skatepark or is it a street spot?” So I don’t know if there is a correct answer to a utopian city. Waiting for one and a half hours until the security guard has gone home or sneak past a CCTV cam are some experiences I had in my teens in LA and they are very poetic and very utopian for me. It’s kind of a weird answer, but sometimes the angry security guard is what creates the utopian city. In the end, it is about the mixed use of the city, the angry security that teaches skaters how to navigate it.

That’s where the stories come from.

Yes! It is a continuous feedback loop… Of course, a utopian city is a city where government and the municipality are open to listen and integrate the users, but I have discussed with some of my friends that Copenhagen has almost reached the limit. There are a lot of spots that I don’t feel that inspired to skate. I remember skating Santa Monica Courthouse back in the days. I saw Koston and those dudes there and it was like a Mecca for me. Coming there again was a really disappointing experience because it was this red theme park with metal edges. I do not want to diss that place, it’s amazing for the locals that they finally have a place, but sometimes it can also water down the authenticity.