November 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Desirable elements

By Jenan Taylor
Desirable elements
Simon Oxenham has designed some of the world’s greatest skateparks

Twelve years ago, as China’s economic growth surged and the Olympics loomed, the Chinese government and an entrepreneur, John Dai, decided to build a skatepark in Shanghai. They were keen to promote extreme sports and to create, from scratch, a community of elite skateboarders. And, says Simon Oxenham, co-founder of Convic, the Australian specialist design company hired to do the job, they wanted it done “yesterday”. Although more than a decade has passed, Oxenham massages his forehead with both hands as he recalls the project. In the end, it took 18 months to design and build SMP Skatepark Shanghai – a constellation of ramps, pipes and bowls that, at 13,700 square metres, was the largest in the world.

Back then, Oxenham already had a reputation for building top-rated skateparks, and for his fearless skateboarding. One of SMP Skatepark Shanghai’s signature elements, a 4-metre-wide full pipe, seems to entice skaters to swoop in at top speed and attempt to loop its cavernous rim. Few do. An image of Oxenham, suspended upside down from the pipe’s ceiling, increased his cachet among skateboarders.

Skateboarding’s popularity has continued to rise across the globe. Since the Shanghai project was completed in 2005, Convic has created parks in Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong. January saw the company open its first project in the Middle East, a 3200-square-metre skatepark in Dubai.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, skateboarding draws more adolescents than traditional sport in this country. Oxenham’s company has designed or built many of Australia’s 1500 skateparks in which youths ollie and flip, including award-winning sites in Fremantle and Geelong.

Oxenham, 47, is sinewy and smooth-faced, but far more measured than his boyish appearance suggests. Outsiders who aren’t into football or cricket tend to choose unstructured sports, he says, instead of congregating at shopping centres or online. Indeed, where young people are perceived to be antisocial, it’s because they have little else to do. “That same issue exists in China, the Middle East, it exists right across Asia, in Europe. This is a very significant cross-cultural problem that we’re facing globally, and we’re seeing the repercussions of that in depression, suicide in the young people. It’s increasing significantly.”

As a teenager, Oxenham would skid around car parks and rumble down homemade ramps in Brisbane backyards with his mate Cameron Melville. Sometimes they’d go out in the morning and still be at it at dusk. Oxenham had at times considered suicide and, for him, skateboarding was a raft.

In the early 1990s Oxenham and his young family moved to Margaret River in the south-west of Western Australia. The area was idyllic but there were few activities for kids, he says. He struggled through a plumbing apprenticeship. Meanwhile, back on the east coast, Melville went into civil engineering and built skateparks. So, it seemed like kismet when Oxenham’s local community started a push for one. He joined in and proposed to build it. When the go-ahead came nearly six years later, he called his mate to help him shape the appointed mound into something skateable. To create the ideal ramps and transitions, they “had to invent a whole new methodology”, says Oxenham. He and Melville refashioned tools that are normally used on flat surfaces and rigid angles, and used them to sculpt the concrete curves and spines of what was to become the first of Western Australia’s premier skateparks. Together they worked on several other parks over the next few years, with growing success, until Melville died in a motorbike accident in 2002.

For world champion skateboarder Andrew Brophy, watching Oxenham and Melville build at Margaret River when he was a local teen remains one of his most exciting memories. “They made a damn good park,” he told Soggybones surf and skate magazine in 2011, saying he still looks forward to skating it whenever he visits the town.

As Oxenham puts it, designers today need to anticipate the functionality of a skatepark and a community’s needs. At Roebourne, in Western Australia’s north-west, the new park has a fire pit for cooking, a yarning circle, a covered basketball court, and a place for indigenous dance and art. Some skateparks have iPod stations; others cinema spaces, wi-fi and soundproofing.

Bato Yard, the new skatepark in Bateau Bay on the NSW Central Coast, features sunset-hued bowls and a smooth street area. Its centrepiece is the deepest bowl in Australia. Some call it the dream bowl; others, the blood bowl. On opening day, the slap of polyurethane on its granite edges filled the air as skaters prepared to soar down its incline. There’s something for just about everyone in the surrounds, including parkour elements, a basketball court, an outdoor stage and food outlets.

Even so, there’s always someone who isn’t happy. Oxenham says “we still get the same half-dozen fear-based responses to [the parks]”. But a festive laugh escapes him. “It just conjures some people’s worst nightmare. You know, gangs of kids running around and devaluing their property!” Such concerns may well be baseless: research by the University of Western Australia shows that skateboarders are less inclined to be antisocial, and tend to co-operate, help one another and take turns. Nevertheless, the designers and landscape architects at Oxenham’s company usually have to figure out how to deal with such opposition.

When I visit Convic’s airy office overlooking the Melbourne skyline, five designers in neat jeans and skate-brand shoes have gathered for a first stab at a proposal for a youth plaza in Queensland. Unusually, the developer’s brief is that the space be more about skating and less about pedestrians. Metallic chairs creak as the team contemplates this. It would be tempting to plunge into plans for vertical ramps, hips and pipes, but that brief means the developer clearly has no idea.

They sift through a dozen pieces of crisp tracing paper, and a landscape architect sketches a series of possibilities in orange marker on the whiteboard. There is talk about view and flow, and how to make the space where the park would meet a protected habitat more organic.

At the entrance to the office, a dozen colourful skateboards, a large couch, and a grey-and-red miniature half-pipe share space with awards and certificates of appreciation. Absent are photos of Oxenham clinging to his board while upside down, or of him meeting the Obamas, the president’s hand clasped in both of his. (“They were reaching out for ideas about how to tackle youth obesity and social problems, and had heard about our parks.”) Instead there’s a framed collection of 24 retro skateboard trading cards.

Perhaps it’s because Oxenham is retreating gently. He now lives in the United States and only occasionally alights in Melbourne, happy to direct from afar. He still loves extreme sports, but when he was in his late 30s he broke four ribs and punctured a lung. “I’ve had to reconsider whether hurling myself into 30-foot-high full pipes is smart play.”

Indeed, the world’s best skatepark designer doesn’t roll much these days. He prefers yoga.

Jenan Taylor
Jenan Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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