Daniel Yábar Interview - Skatepark builder Ep 2

Interview with Daniel Yábar, Skatepark Architect. |  by Sebastião Belfort Cerqueira

Daniel Yábar’s skatepark designs have drawn much attention, revealing an unusual sensitivity to textures, colours, and surrounding spaces. In this interview he lets us know how his architectural ethos has more to do with giving the people what they need than necessarily creating masterpieces.

I’ve had the chance to read about your process of becoming an architect and designing skateparks in other interviews you’ve done, but I haven’t found one where you tell the other side of that story, that is, how you became a skater. Where and when did you start?

I started skating in Logroño, the capital of the Spanish region of La Rioja. I think I started when I was thirteen, more or less, after seeing the movie Thrashin’ [1986] with my friends. We decided we should see if we could get some skateboards. I found this Sancheski orange cruiser and that was my first step. Then we always went to the only place around that seemed skateable at all, the Plaza del Espolón. It’s a square in the centre of Logroño, where people still go to skate today. We didn’t do anything, we just cruised. Not much later we saw a guy there doing an ollie, just going up a little step, just jumping and landing and we were like “wow!”

That was the beginning. Logroño is a small town but there was a big boom in skateboarding. Suddenly there were like three or four different crews of people skating on different routes. That meant like 50 or 60 people skating in Logroño. The city was pretty small so we hung out all over the city, I mean, we knew the city to the millimitre, we knew each spot, each little place... We’d go all around the city, to the industrial park, pretty much everywhere just finding places to skate.

So you had a little skate scene in Logroño, that’s pretty cool. When was that, like the late 80s?

I think I was thirteen so... I’d say around 91. But we were the first generation in Logroño that ever skated. People there didn’t understand it, they’d be like “what are you kids doing here with those things?” I’m still friends with some of the guys I started skating with and some of them haven’t stopped skating. I live in Madrid now, but when I go to Logroño to visit my parents I still get to hang out with them and with the new generations.

  • "We knew the city to the millimitre, we knew each spot, each little place...
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I know you began designing skateparks as a trade after spending some years in another architect’s studio. That was some years ago, how long have you had your own studio?

I finished college in 2004, I think, yeah I’m pretty sure. I spent four years in that studio in Bilbao. They did a lot of singular projects, like wineries, football stadiums, bullrings, etc. The head of the studio was an architect from Bilbao called Diego Garteiz and he knew I was a skateboarder so he told me that if I knew of any skate-related projects, any skateparks or anything, that he’d be open to work on them in the studio. I did three or four skateparks in the studio, but then I moved to Madrid, I’d say around 2008.

So you’ve been on your own for over ten years now. I was looking at your website and all the projects you have there are of skateparks or skate plazas – do you still do typical architect stuff, like houses and offices and so on?

Well... sometimes I get some different projects. I designed the offices for the football federation of La Rioja, I also did the project for a local medical centre in a small town near Logroño, but, I mean, when you go down the way of a certain specialization, you have to let go of some of the other stuff. In the beginning you try to work as much as you can, but now I’m more focused on skateparks. I don’t know how to express this idea of specialization better. I guess in architecture, when you know how to design skateparks or houses, it doesn’t mean that you know how to design hospitals or stuff like that. So nowadays if someone offered me a project for a house I’d probably have to refuse it or refer them to a friend.

Then that means that you can have your studio running on skatepark projects, that must be a cool feeling.

Well, most of the projects are about the skatepark, but many of them include compatible uses, landscaping, integration with city planning. Sometimes you design a skatepark but it has to include an outdoor gym or a fitness trail, sometimes it’s not just a skatepark but it has to be a bike park too, or a garden... but yeah, all things surrounding a skatepark.

Many architects who have their own firms will say they only do their kind of singular designs, and maybe ten years from now I’ll be able to say something like that, but right now I think the skaters have to come first.

Do you have a team working with you?

I work on my own. In Spain we have a saying that helps me explain this: quien mucho abarca poco aprieta. [Don’t bite off more than you can chew.]

Yeah, I guess we have a similar one in Portuguese. What about the building part, do you have anything to do with the people who end up building the parks you’ve designed?

It depends on the management model. Many times the owner, the council, whoever is in charge only wants the design to begin with. Then they organize a public tender and the builders have to submit their proposals. That’s the most common model in Spain. Sometimes they say “ok, we want it designed and built”, and so the architects and engineers collaborate with the builders and submit joint proposals to the same tender.

Looking at your portfolio, one could say you have both the more traditional kind of skatepark and then the ones that I understand have drawn more attention to your work, which are more integrated into the urban landscape. Which of your projects do you feel blends in better with its surroundings?

I think a good example would be the one in Santa Cruz, in La Granja. Maybe also the skateplaza in Logroño or the Santa Lucia skatepark, in Vitoria. But it’s not that big of a deal for me. I’m not prejudiced in favour of the unique design, integrated kind of skatepark nor the more traditional, sports facility-type ones. It depends on the goals of the project. If the skaters or the council are asking you for a functional skatepark, it’s very egocentric of you to say “no no no, I don’t do traditional, I only make singular designs”, like you want to be the architect-designer. If they’re asking you for a traditional skatepark with a simple and functional design, then that’s what you have to give them. Many architects who have their own firms will say they only do their kind of singular designs, and maybe ten years from now I’ll be able to say something like that, but right now I think the skaters have to come first.

Places like Macba or Love Park are huge, they’re massive. Five times larger than most skateparks. How can you compete with that?

I get it. Actually I was thinking that it must be rare to get the opportunity to turn a regular city square into a skateplaza. How does that happen? Did you ever have to convince the people from city council, were they looking for that in the first place?

At some point, as an architect, you have the obligation to give the best possible advice to the skaters and decision makers. As an architect and a skater I have to tell them what I think is best. Sometimes they’ll say “no, I know what I want, I want a traditional, concrete skatepark, with fences around it.” I may try to tell them that that’s not the way skateboarding and contemporary skateparks are going, but they have the final say. Sometimes the local skaters and the local authorities know about skateboarding and where it’s headed, so you don’t really have to give them much advice. It depends on the project.

I remember the case in Santiago de Compostela. The skaters were skating this plaza for years that is not exactly in the centre but still in a good part of the city, behind the Galician Parliament. They had conflicts with the neighbours and people walking around with their kids and everything, so city hall wanted to take them out of there, build them a standard skatepark outside the city. The local skaters’ association tried to fight to stay in the plaza but the council wasn’t having it so they had to arrive at a compromise. The plaza was in this big park, inside of which we managed to find another plaza with granite floor that was completely abandoned. We did a little street course with rails and stuff, so in the end they had the same granite surface to skate and although they weren’t in the original plaza, which was skatestopped, they only had to move like 15 metres away from it.

Do you think that in the near future there’ll be a bigger overall sensitivity towards the benefits of having skateparks in livelier parts of the city, instead of being confined to urban voids?

I think there’s already some awareness and some sensitivity, as you say. Not only on the side of the skateboarding communities but also with the decision makers. When you are dealing with these decision makers, you find a little bit of everything. You find some people who are really well-informed and really know what the people want and then you find others that have no idea what we’re talking about. I think there is more awareness and, as time goes on, people learn about these things, also because of the olympics. People in general are more interested in skateboarding now that they’ve heard that it’s going to be an olympic sport, so they’re trying to figure out what it’s all about, what the skateboarding communities are looking for in terms of facilities and everything. I feel in general there is more and more knowledge about what skateboarders need.

Well, one thing is for sure, I think your skatepark designs really help in bridging that gap. If I was going to meet with city council tomorrow to get a skatepark built I know I’d take some pictures of your designs to show them how architecturally and visually rich a skatepark can become.

[Laughs] Thank you.

Moving on, does it ever happen to you, when you’re just walking around a city, that you look at some place and you immediately think it would be a perfect spot to transform into a skatepark?

Yeah, sure. It happens to me but I’m sure it happens to all the skatepark designers. It comes with the profession. Still, many times you see a really cool spot in the street and then, when you want to bring it into a skatepark design, you realize that this spot needs a lot of space. Nowadays skatepark design is going through a standardization, where every distance between features is really measured and so on. So when you see a cool spot that you’d like to adapt, often you find out you need a lot more space than you have, and if you need more space that means you won’t have room for all the standard features, you know, the hubba, the eurogap, the manual pad... You might have to sacrifice your whole design just because you found an amazing spot in some street in some city... it’s not as easy as it seems.

For example, in the Santiago plaza I was telling you about I included a reproduction of a famous street spot, this handraill in Málaga. It’s like a long ramp, then you have three stairs and there’s a long rail alongside. So when you get to the three stairs you can slide the end of the rail. This spot is amazing, it’s near the sea, this long, blue rail. Lots of pros have skated it. The thing is the ramp is so long you really need space if you’re going to try to reproduce it. However, in this case, in Santiago, I was working with one stipulation: that the skateplaza would be pedestrian-friendly. In order to make it safe for pedestrians, I had to follow the Spanish accessibility laws. Of course that ramp in Málaga was built according to these norms, because it’s in a public street. That, plus the shape of the area we were working with, made it possible to reproduce the street spot.

I was wondering, if you could choose any place in any city, maybe even a famous skate spot like Love Park or Macba, to make a project for, which would it be?

Well... the ones you’ve said are some of the more internationally recognized... but for example, the Macba plaza... you’re talking about 5000 square metres. The average skatepark will have an area closer to 1000 square metres, so the plaza is like five times bigger. It’s really difficult. But actually once I had this idea for the main space in Macba, where you have the long ledge and the gap, just by the entrance to the museum. I thought it would be pretty cool if it were a symmetrical spot. Because you have the ledge on one side and it determines what tricks you can do whether you’re regular or goofy, so it would be great if you had the same ledge on the other side.

But anyway, places like Macba or Love Park are huge, they’re massive. Five times larger than most skateparks. How can you compete with that? Just that main area of Macba is 1000 square metres. If you design a whole skatepark with just a ledge, a gap, and a low-to-high... well, people want more stuff.

Speaking of wanting more stuff, I have to ask you if there’s anything that you’re working on that we can know about, maybe something going into construction or about to open to the public?

Right now I’m working on the design for a skatepark bowl, in Tenerife, near La Granja. The city organized an opinion poll and they asked me for two designs: one was a granite skateplaza, the other was a bowl. So they had this poll and the bowl won.

Actually, I find that a little unexpected. I mean, here in Portugal the tendency is always more towards street skating. I’m pretty sure the street course would win here.

In this case the bowl won but I think because in Tenerife you already have some good street plazas. And also because you have a lot of surfers, you get people there that are into surfing or longboarding and those guys will also get in the pool to skate. I guess it wasn’t just skaters, the surfers may have helped to tip the scale.

Very well. Would you like to add anything to wrap this up?

Well... I don’t know... maybe I’d just like to go back to that idea we were talking about: I really don’t feel that all skateparks need to be this special, singular design that blends in perfectly with the urban landscape, but I’m also not of the opinion that they should be a detached, enclosed sports facility kind of thing. Both options are ok if they serve the needs of that particular community. If you ask me, I’d say the direction skateboarding is taking leans more towards the integrated kind of skatepark that is a part of the city, that is built with the city. That’s the opinion I think most skateboarders have... but you need everything. The city needs everything: the sports facility for training and competitions and the olympics and Street League, but also the plaza in the town, integrated into the life of the city. The ideal would be to have everything.

Yeah, I guess that would be perfect. Thank you very much, Daniel.

Thank you.

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