Ever met a skateboarding architect? We have, down at London’s Southbank Centre. A man with a plan, Chris Allen is a partner at the trailblazing Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, which was founded in 1978. They were commissioned to refurbish the ageing brutalist buildings that form
the iconic Southbank Centre, which has been part of the capital’s skyline since 1968.

From 2013 – 2017, Chris and his team were charged with bringing the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall back to their former glory. Read more here. Refreshing some hefty concrete masterpieces was no easy feat, but aside from sprucing up the inside, Chris also had a special part to play in the legendary Long Live Southbank campaign. To help understand how his skateboarding past brought a special flavour to the refurb, we took a wander down the Thames and asked him to give us the lowdown.

“The Southbank Undercroft is a fantastic public space beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer that opens out onto the river. It’s been used by skateboarders since the Californian craze arrived in the U.K. back in the 1970s. When we (FCBS) got the gig, early feasibility studies suggested it should be closed down and used for commercial purposes.”

Anyone who has ever mooched around that part of London these days will have seen the Undercroft thronging with skaters (of all ages!) perfecting tricks. It’s been a subcultural hub for anyone and everyone worth their ollie-skills for decades. A no-rules-zone slap bang in the centre of the city. Pretty radical, when you think about it. The fact it’s still there – after the communities fear of it turning into a massive Starbucks is thanks to the Long Live Southbank campaign.

“Long Live Southbank was a grass-roots community group established by the energised users of the space who campaigned for the Undercroft to be recognised for its importance as a heritage asset and continued safe space for people to skateboard, BMX or do graffiti.

Personally, I’d always felt a connection and responsibility to a place I’d skateboarded as a teenager, so once works were finished upstairs on the venues and gallery, I started working directly with LLSB to extend and refit the Undercroft. We reinstated some of the banks that had been demolished over the years and extended some of the flat ground. Since this additional space has opened it’s been brilliant to see more women and girls skating down there.”

His muscle memory clearly wasn’t operational at the Undercroft’s opening party. LLSB had chartered a boat to celebrate the success of the campaign, with family and friends all invited along for the shindig. Laughing, Chris remembered, “What a night! When the boat moored back up at Festival Pier the crowd disembarked and flooded the Undercroft, skateboards in hand. A few drinks in, I got caught up in the moment, grabbed a board to demonstrate my ability and, predictably, ended up in a heap on the floor with nothing more than embarrassment and some pretty big bruises!”

Chris qualified in 2015 and since then he’s been championing London as a special place to be an architect. When we asked why, he said, “London is never static. Its continual growth and international influence has created a rich tapestry of stylistic influences – it’s a testbed of architecture and public space. Its organic development has fought against the various ‘grand plans’ that have tried to organise and control the way the city looks and feels. For me, the
protagonist is the River Thames. Its snaking form is the reason London exists in the first place!

As we saunter back towards the tube station, Chris starts chucking out some pretty good Southbank insider facts, “Did you know Pink Floyd are permanently banned from playing there after the bubble machine at one of their early concerts got out of hand and stained the auditorium seats?! Or that Shirley Bassey used to exit via the secret underground tunnel that connects the Royal Festival Hall to the Queen Elizabeth Hall so she didn’t get mobbed by fans? Or that there’s 22,400m3 of concrete within the buildings – and that it took 15 technicians and 180 carpenters to design and construct the timber framework that the concrete was poured into?”

Some recall eh? Part art, part science. Architecture isn’t for the faint hearted. Seems
skateboarding (badly) isn’t his only skill.