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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

FI skatepark, Folkstone, review – boarding house gives the seaside a kickflip | Architecture

Ah, Tontine Street, once the most prosperous in Folkestone, in recent decades less so. It was here, at the age of 19, that I helped a friend’s father make some brand new “antiques” that he sold in his shop, distressing the lacquer on freshly painted sea chests and the like. There was no clue, back then, that an apparition like F51 would appear at its top end, a silvery, bull-nosed wedge the height of a regular eight-floor building. As its primary activity – skateboarding – requires depth and headroom, it in fact has four generously proportioned storeys.

F51 bills itself as the world’s first multilevel skatepark, a place where skaters, cyclists, scooters, rollerskaters and rollerbladers can try out different surfaces, designed to suit skills from beginner to Olympic. There’s also a climbing wall, rising up the inside of the building, and a ground-floor boxing club. All of which has been achieved without any public funding, as the capital costs come from a charitable trust set up by Sir Roger de Haan, whose Saga Group made billions out of selling holidays, insurance and the like to the over-50s. The facility is expected to cover its running costs, while also being available in off-peak hours, for a membership fee of only £1 a month to school-age locals.

The curved plywood cones and valleys of the ‘flow’ section at F51.
The curved plywood cones and valleys of the ‘flow’ section at F51. Photograph: ©Hufton+Crow

The idea is to achieve “generational regeneration”, which means giving younger people reasons to love and enjoy a town not famous for its youthful spirit, such that they will be more likely to stay there in the future. To judge by the reactions of the skaters invited to test the facility last week, who appreciated not only its technical qualities but its role as a gathering place for their community, there’s every sign that F51 will do what it promises.

There’s also a wonder, for the uninitiated, in the design of the different terrains, by the specialist designers Maverick Skateparks and Cambian Action, places where normal expectations up, down and sideways are scrambled. They contain traces of history in their fabric, memories of teenage improvisations over the past 60 years. There is, for example, a deep concrete bowl, based on the empty backyard swimming pools that Californian skaters appropriated in a time of drought, which comes with the sort of coping you get on the edge of pools and a mosaic strip around the rim, in an authentically 70s-looking orange. Part of the joy of these features is the rattle of wheels on the tiles and their rhythmic bump on the joints in the coping.

The “street” park offers scattered abstractions of pavements and railings and benches, liberated from the usual constraints of traffic engineering and from the fear of hitting pedestrians. “Flow” is a lunar landscape of cones and valleys whose doubly curving plywood has been cut and bent into shape with impressive skill.

These three types of park – bowl, street and flow – are contained in plain, robust, unheated rooms with orange-painted steel beams and lively murals by artists linked to the skate world. Here, it is hoped a spirit of un-competitive fellowship will reign of the kind that was so appealing in the skateboarding events at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. These parks are stacked one above the other, with the tall funnel of the climbing wall rising up one side, such that climbers and skaters might glimpse each other’s exertions out of the corners of their eyes.

On the ground floor is a cafe, its walls hung with customised and decorated boards that are available to buy, its ceilings bulging downwards with the shapes of the bowl park overhead. Glass walls give views on to a somewhat haphazard streetscape outside. Seen from the outside, the bumps and nodules of the underside of the bowl poke through the top of the glass screen.

The climbing wall rises up inside F51.
The climbing wall rises up inside F51. Photograph: ©Hufton+Crow

The design of the building as a whole is by Hollaway Studio, a practice based in Kent and London. It makes the right calls in giving the parks matter-of-fact spaces where they and their users are the stars. Its exterior, of a kind that might once have been called “iconic”, does an effective job of telling Folkestone that something new has landed in its midst. “It’s great,” says a passer-by, unprompted. As a structure designed by older people for the young, it verges on architectural dad-dancing, but none of the actual young seems to feel that.

What might have made a good project into a great one would be a stronger sense of connection between the actions inside the building and the town outside. There are reasons why you don’t have big windows in an indoor skatepark – think of Looney Tunes skater-shaped holes in the glass as they crash through it – but it would surely have been a bonus to perform in front of the views of cliffs and sea that you can get from here and not impossible to achieve them. It would be good, too, if some of the inner life of F51 could spill out into its surroundings, which are currently some desultory local authority landscaping and a car park. A large part of the sport, after all, is about creative occupation of city spaces, but at present the building creates a too-hermetic layer between its inner and outer lives.

But I’m being picky here. F51 is the most inventive and engaging of several projects that de Haan has backed in Folkestone, in an attempt to raise its quality of life, prosperity and self-esteem, which have included art by Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono, the repainting of house fronts in bright colours, schools and an under-construction 1,000-home seafront development. A strength of his interventions, at least to an outsider’s eye, is that the older spirit of this Kentish seaside town remains intact. So you can still buy antiques in Tontine Street (on whose authenticity I have no wish to cast aspersions) but you can also do your flips and grinds in the shiny tower up the road.

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