In the Square with Alexis Sablone

by Will Jivcoff in Interview

When it comes to DIY spots, the aspect I appreciate most is going from concept to physical product. As a consequence of planning, likely skipping the permit process, mixing concrete and building it, getting to skate and share your creation is something very personal.

When I came across Alexis’ new sculpture project in Malmö, my curiosity was instantly piqued. Sweden’s highly regarded around the world and they’ve been on the forefront of architecture, are often praised for having an idyllic society(although this topic is looking a bit scary with recent politics) and it’s no secret to skateboarders how progressive they’ve been when it comes to integrating our needs in the city.

So, I needed to know how one get’s involved with designing a skatable sculpture downtown Malmö. Alexis’ case was quite the opposite from having to hastily build a spot under the cover of night – it actually involved a legitimate design process and an invite with open arms from city officials.

Can you give me some back story about the Malmö project? How did it come about? Where in the city is it?

I’m good friends with Sarah Meurle and a couple years ago I was invited to “Skate Malmö”—the event, but also, you know, to just skate Malmö for the first time. It was such a fun time and that’s where I met Gustav (Eden) who’s the official Skateboarding Coordinator for The City of Malmö—or holds some amazing title like that. Anyhow, this past spring he contacted me saying the city was inviting 3 designers, each to design skateable sculptures/installations around the city. He was wondering if I would be interested and I was like, ’Seriously? YES.’

Can you take me through the timeline and process from top to bottom?

It was a remarkably quick timeline. Rich (Holland), Soren (Enevoldsen) and I took an initial trip to Malmö and found sites we were interested in. Those sites were approved by the city. Mine is an elevated square in a public plaza called Värnhemstorget.

The actual design process was really short. I had been drawing rough ideas in the month leading up to the site visit, but after that, there was about one month to finalize the design, 3D model it, make construction documents etc. It’s funny because for the first 10 days after finding the site in Malmo I was on a skate road trip through Portugal. So, I was literally drawing in the van and then making clay models all night in my hotel room trying to come up with something I was happy with. Ultimately, Bryggereriet agreed to fabricate it within the budget and executed it beautifully, all in such a short time span. I’m still amazed it all came together.

And they’ve deemed it as a sculpture that you can skate, versus a skate spot or park. What’s the theory behind that?

Yeah. I think the idea is that spots like this can benefit the whole community—not just skateboarders. By bringing new energy and encouraging play in public spaces there’s the chance to activate otherwise underutilized and under-appreciated areas.

Do you see a difference in the way the city officials handle skateboarders and vice versa? Do you think more cities can benefit from this type of integration that Malmo utilizes? Malmo is small – do you think this could work in larger, denser cities like New York or Shanghai?

I think the logistics and politics at play might make it way more complicated than in a place like Malmö where there’s already a well-established relationship between the skaters and the city. I think in a lot of cities there’s this built in bias against youth culture that really stands in the way of projects like these. But fundamentally, I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Skateboarders look at cities with their own unique perspective – they’re after something different than a tourist or a senior citizen. As an architect and a skateboarder, what are you looking at or paying attention to when you get to a new city?

I’m not—at least not consciously. I think I’m way more interested in studying the people—walking around and trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. That and hunting around for bookshops(laughs). The architecture and skate stuff is just a built in sixth sense type of thing—all skaters have it. Even when you’re not looking, you’re looking. As soon as you see something visually interesting or odd, or smooth, crusty, grindable, thread the needle-able—it’s like little built in bells go off.

What city/cities have really enamoured you with their architecture? Why?

New York City. Because it’s dense, dirty, energetic, home and even though I’ve lived here for more than a decade it still amazes me all the time. Paris, because it’s pure magic. There isn’t an ugly corner. Barcelona, because Gaudi has to have had one of the strangest imaginations of all time. I’m going to Tokyo in December for the first time so we’ll see.

The list goes on, honestly. But in general, when it comes to cities, for me it’s never just isolated examples of amazing architecture that feel impressive. I love cities where you can feel layers of history—like expressions of different time periods all mashed together and being lived in and used (or maybe abandoned) at once.

Alexis Sablone – Boardslide

Top 3 favourite architects?

(laughs) That’s as hard as picking your favorite skater. Enric Miralles, Lina Bo Bardi, Louis Kahn, Luis Barragán, Corb, Mies…etc. It depends on the day.

Favourite era and/or style of architecture?

Brutalism and experimental stuff of the late 60’s/early 70’s.

Have you read into any of Ocean Howell’s essays or conversations regarding skateparks, defensive architecture and gentrification? Have they changed your perspective or practice?

Yeah. I found them really alarming, actually. Not because the points he makes don’t make sense but because they had never occurred to me before. It felt like someone took a picture I was so familiar with and completely turned it on its head. The idea that skateboarders and spaces made for them act as the “broom” of gentrification—pushing out other less privileged and undesired populations to drive up property value—it made me feel a little sick actually.   And I don’t have a good solution for it—it’s hard, but I suppose at least now I’m definitely thinking about it.

Back to the Malmo skatable sculpture. This field of skatable architecture is a unique one – is it one you’re actively pursuing? Are we going to start seeing more skatable public spaces designed by you?

I hope so. Selfishly, because I loved working on it. The opportunity to work at that scale and make something that becomes part of the city was seriously a dream project for me. To be clear, nothing built for skating will ever be as cool as something a skater finds and decides to make for skating. I think that decision to skate something that was meant for something else—the spirit and creativity that goes into that is what skateboarding is about. That’s why it’s an art, not a sport.

That said, anything that combats the idea that skateboarding should be relegated to the skatepark is cool, and to me a worthwhile cause. So, design more public artworks that allow skateboarding? Yes. Please.

What else are you working on these days? Be it skateboarding, art, architecture, upcoming travel, etc.

A bunch of things. Too much(laughs). No, but I guess the main things are trying to collect footage for a part, getting started on the next season of WKND graphics, trying to make progress on this graphic novel I’ve been working on forever (but never seems to be done), a couple larger animation projects, and I’m in the process of finding a studio space because I’ve been working on some larger sculptures and my room can’t handle it anymore—they’re beginning to encroach on my bed.

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