Article by Lorraine Johnson

ITH FREEDOM AND SPEED defining the most adept skateboarders’ moves, it’s easy to be dazzled by the motion and lose sight of the spaces in which such skilled practitioners of the sport are performing. But if one looks beyond the physical dexterity of the young skateboarders themselves to the open space designs in which they practise their skill, what one can often find, in the most successful skateboard parks, is a kind of functional sculpture—decorative elements embedded in, and inherent to, the use of the space.

Landscape architect Bill Gurney, and the company at which he is senior design manager, New Line Skateparks Inc., which specializes in concrete skatepark design and construction, takes this design idiom even further. For Kyle Dion, New Line’s founder, president, and creative visionary, the functionality of a park’s skateboard terrain is not the only goal. Instead, the purpose is, as Gurney puts it, “to design successful public spaces that are also skate-able.” A subtle but crucial distinction.

New Line’s precedent project, at which their defining concept of integrating public art with skateable terrain was honed, opened in 2006 in Winnipeg’s Plaza at the Forks. The highly public site—the Forks is one of the premier cultural destinations in Winnipeg, even more so now, with the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights—has long been a site of cultural and historical significance, at the convergence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers.

Putting a skateboard park there, in such a publicly visible place, was a bold move on the part of the developer, the Forks Renewal Corporation, and the City of Winnipeg, considering pervasive anti-skateboarding sentiments that were common a decade ago. “It was groundbreaking,” Gurney points out, and it required equally bold moves for the design. Two of the most striking elements in the park which combine sculptural qualities with functionality are the “Spirit Fish” (a skate-plaza feature that represents the 6,000-year-old catfish of local lore) and the “Magic Carpet” (a skate-plaza feature that refers to the railway lines that used to meet at the main terminal in the Forks until the 1920s). Both are sinuous and arresting sculptural pieces of public art that speak to the site’s history and culture; both are popular magnets for skateboarding youths to develop and hone their skill-testing, balance-challenging manoeuvres.

Another skatepark, at the University of British Columbia, completed in 2012, which Gurney describes as “the first public skatepark developed in the context of a university campus setting,” manifests the public art component more literally: sculptures shaped like books form the tiered surfaces on which to skate, with the books piled at rideable angles. A quotation from Vincent van Gogh (words that resonate both for a school that is a place of learning and for a park that is a place of physical skill-building) adorns one of the layered book sculptures: “One must work and dare if one really wants to live.”

While skateboard parks are all about living life to the fullest, it’s not surprising that a number of parks are designed with decorative/ functional features that commemorate skate­boarders who have died. At Kensington Skate-park in Vancouver, for example, a monument to the late Don “Mad Carver” Hartley, who was also a reggae DJ, is a skate bank ramp in the shape of a record. The red, green, and yellow tiles lining the central skateboarding bowl like­wise reference reggae’s unofficial colours.

Gurney describes the work of designing successful skateparks as being based on incor­porating skateable public art that’s relevant to each specific community. “It’s important to make every project unique,” he says, “by responding to the opportunities and con­straints of the site and to the feedback from the community.” Thus, the skatepark for the northern B.C. town of Mackenzie incorporates a wildlife theme in the form of bear paws (little mounds used by skateboarders for jumping on and off) and running wolves (cut-outs in flat bar railings). “It’s specific to Mackenzie, and not replicated anywhere else,” says Gurney. “And that’s part of what makes it relevant to their community.” In Marina Park Skate Plaza in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the design of a skateable mound sculpture was inspired by the local geological off-shore feature, the iconic “Sleeping Giant.”

In other projects, environmental concerns drive the design. The Ed Benedict Skate Plaza in Portland, Oregon, for example, incorporates storm water management into the design, with water-drop-shaped sculptural cut-outs in the concrete exposing natural water-filtration beds underneath the park’s surface. New Line collaborated with artists from Portland’s local skate community in the design, thus fostering stewardship by the young park users themselves.

“There’s an aspect of ornamentation in all of our skatepark projects,” explains Gurney, “but it’s also integrated into function.” Art might not be the first thing to come to mind in the context of skateboarding, but with young skaters all over—literally—skatepark sculptural elements, perhaps public art reaches its most deeply engaged utility in this fast-moving sporting spectacle.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Lorraine Johnson is Associate and Managing Editor of Ornamentum, and Editor of Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly.

University of British Columbia skatepark Courtesy of University of British Columbia