How a Maverick Scottish Architect Turned Livingston Into Skater's Paradise

Tom Nicholson
·5-min read

From Esquire

If you're not familiar with it, the Central Belt of Scotland might not appear to have much in common with California. But if you visit Livingston, there's an alien structure which seems to have crash-landed from the Pacific Coast.

"It’s almost hidden away in the landscape," says documentary maker Steve Urquhart, "but once you get there – you walk up a little hill – it’s vast."

Livingston Skate Park, affectionately known as Livi, was designed by Steve's uncle Iain, and opened in 1981. "It’s almost like a lunar landscape," Urquhart says. "It's quite gnarly looking. There’s lots of graffiti which there wasn’t on day one, and on a busy day there can be hundreds of people there on skateboards and scooters and bikes."

Ahead of its 40th anniversary next year, and the first Olympic Games to include skateboarding, Urquhart has dug into for a new BBC doc, 'Curves and Concrete'. Livingston might seem an unlikely place for a skate park lauded by Tony Hawk as "a legendary spot," but, in some ways, it couldn't have landed anywhere else.

Livingston was one of the new towns built in a spirit of post-war optimism and urban renewal, giving families from Glasgow the chance to move into the country and drawing people from rural West Lothian to the town for work. By the time the first new residents moved in in 1966, a village which had snoozed gently for 800 years had been transformed into a concrete wonderland.

Citizens of new Livingston were separated from cars by aerial walkways, and traffic lights were foregone in favour of roundabouts. There was money put aside for public art too, Urquhart says, "which seems bonkers now, for quite a small town in central Scotland".

By the mid-Seventies, Urquhart's uncle Iain was an architect based in Edinburgh but working for the Livingston Development Corporation. Steve, who grew up in Carlisle, remembers him as a bearded, pipe-smoking enthusiast, "just this sort of cool guy who always had something really exciting to share with you. He always knew about the latest crazes and trends – I was introduced to a Rubik’s Cube before any of my school friends".

"His role specifically was to find and create new and exciting, weird, quirky things for people to do, particularly the younger population."

That included a trail around the town which encouraged people to run, jump and swing from monkey bars as they explored. As a keen skateboarder and rollerblader, he was aware that the early Seventies skateboarding boom hadn't been matched by professionally designed skate parks.

Designing a purpose-built skate park was not an obvious thing to do. The sun-bleached Californian ideal of a skate park hadn't reached Scotland yet.

"It was councils putting planks of wood in car parks to create a bit of a ramp," says Urquhart. "Before [Livingston] it was much more a rule of thumb, winging it really – this one was fully planned out."

Still, Iain liaised with local skaters to find out what they wanted, and visited parks in California to get a feel for what he wanted to create. The variety and ambition of the park's design, the transitions between its sections, and the attention to details like exactly how much of an incline was needed to get a skater up to speed for a bowl or ramp, set Livi apart immediately.

"One thing I hadn’t realised was just how much energy he had and that he poured into what he did," Urquhart says. "Dee, his widow, said he never did things by halves and he poured his heart and soul into everything he did, and that’s true."

That extended to overseeing the laying of the concrete on site. At one point, seeing that his instructions weren't being followed, he ended up "on his hands and knees in wet concrete" pointing out exactly what he wanted. "He wasn’t prepared to take any chances," says Urquhart.

Going back to the original plans for the skate park brought back more memories of his uncle: "The thing I really remember about him is his handwriting – beautiful, really beautiful." Iain's swooping style is is all over the hand-drawn and annotated plans for Livi.. "Creativity and artistry just seemed to seep out of him," Urquhart says.

Having fought hard for the money to build Livi, skateboarding's first flush of popularity had start to ebb away by the time it opened in 1981. In spite of that, its renown gradually grew, thanks in part to visits from Hawk and fellow skating legends Steve Caballero and Mike McGill. Iain died two years later of lung cancer, aged 44. Urquhart was eight. Livi stands, Urquhart says, as "his masterpiece".

Unfortunately, Livi has been prey to the elements and four decades of wear and tear. Though still much-loved, it's in need of some TLC. But according to Hawk, there's a lot of life left in it. As he said earlier this year, "the park is something tangible and important, and it could really become a destination". With some repairs, Livingston could be the future again.

Curve and Concrete is available on BBC Sounds until 28 November

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