Ah, Tontine Street, once Folkestone’s most prosperous, has been less so for some decades. It was here, at the age of 19, that I helped a friend’s dad make some brand new “antiques” that he sold in his shop, aging lacquer on freshly made sea chests. painted and others. There was no hint, at the time, that an apparition like F51 would appear at its top end, a silver bull-nosed wedge the height of an ordinary eight-story building. As its primary activity – skateboarding – requires depth and free height, it has four floors of generous proportions.
F51 bills itself as the world’s first multi-level skatepark, a place where skaters, cyclists, scooters, roller skaters and rollerbladers can try out different surfaces, designed to suit skills from beginner to Olympian . There is also a climbing wall, rising inside the building, and a boxing club on the ground floor. This was all done without any public funding, as the capital costs came from a charitable trust set up by Sir Roger de Haan, whose Saga Group made billions selling holidays, insurance and the like to over-50s. . The facility is expected to cover its running costs, while also being available off-peak, for a fee of just £1 per month for school-age residents.
The idea is to achieve “generational regeneration”, i.e. to give young people reasons to love and enjoy a city that is not known for its young spirit, so that they are more likely to stay there in the future. Judging by the reactions of the skaters invited to test the installation last week, who appreciated not only its technical qualities but also its role as a gathering place for their community, everything suggests that F51 will keep its promises.
There’s also a wonder, for the uninitiated, in the design of the various terrains, by specialist designers Maverick Skateparks and Cambian Action, places where normal expectations up, down and sideways are blurred. They contain traces of history in their fabric, memories of teenage improvisations over the past 60 years. There’s, for example, a deep concrete bowl, inspired by the empty backyard pools that California skaters appropriated in times of drought, that comes with the kind of curbstone you get poolside and a mosaic band around the edge, in an authentically 70s orange. Part of the joy of these features is the rattle of the wheels on the slabs and their rhythmic bump on the seams of the coping.
The “street” park offers scattered abstractions of sidewalks and railings and benches, freed from the usual constraints of traffic engineering and the fear of hitting pedestrians. “Flow” is a lunar landscape of cones and valleys whose double curvature plywood has been cut and bent with impressive skill.
These three types of park – bowl, street and flow – are contained in simple, sturdy and unheated rooms with steel beams painted orange and murals animated by artists linked to the skate world. Here, it is hoped that a spirit of non-competitive camaraderie will prevail of the kind that was so appealing in skateboarding events at the Tokyo Olympics last summer. These parks are stacked on top of each other, with the high funnel of the climbing wall rising on one side, so climbers and skaters can catch a glimpse of each other’s efforts from around the corner. eye.
On the ground floor is a café, its walls clad in custom and decorated planks available for purchase, its ceilings curved downwards with the shapes of the boules park above. Glass walls give views of a somewhat haphazard streetscape outside. Viewed from the outside, the bumps and nodules on the underside of the bowl protrude through the top of the glass screen.
The overall design of the building was carried out by Kent and London-based firm Hollaway Studio. It makes the right choices by giving parks concrete spaces where they and their users are the stars. Its exterior, of a kind one might once have described as ‘iconic’, does an effective job of telling Folkestone that something new has landed within it. “That’s great,” an uninvited passerby says. As a structure designed by old people for young people, it borders on the architectural dance of dads, but none of the young people seem to feel that way.
What could have made a good project a great project would have been a stronger link between the actions inside the building and the city outside. There are reasons why you don’t have large windows in an indoor skate park – consider looney tunes skater shaped holes in the glass as they crash through – but surely would have been a bonus to play in front of the cliff and sea views you can get from here and not impossible to reach. It would also be nice if some of the interior life of F51 could spill over into its surroundings, which are currently rambling local authority landscaping and parking. Much of sport, after all, is about the creative occupation of urban spaces, but at present the building creates too tight a layer between its indoor and outdoor lives.
But I’m picky here. F51 is the most inventive and engaging of several projects that de Haan has supported in Folkestone, in an attempt to improve its quality of life, prosperity and self-esteem, which have included the art of Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono, painting house facades in bright colors, schools and a 1,000-house beachfront development under construction. A strength of its 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 Rue Tontine (the authenticity of which I don’t wish to cast any doubt on) but you can also do your flips and grinds in the shiny tower up the road.