If Salvador Dali had fashioned the moon, its surface might look something like the skate park in Sayreville, N.J. Undulating concrete bowls flow toward one another like bumping wombs. Ribboning "snake runs" slither around steel-pipe rails and abrupt concrete boxes. If it all seems like a dreamscape, that's because it is. This is the kind of place that skateboarders dream about. Steve Lenardo, 32, a physical-education teacher who also co-owns the local skate shop, comes down here a lot with his board. "It keeps my blood flowing," he says. "There's always something new to try, always new lines to find."
There's a skate-park building boom going on right now, and new lines--the kind that skaters course along and the kind that designers draw--are what it's all about. "Five years ago, there were 200 skate parks," says John Bernards, executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies. "Today there are over 2,400, with many more under construction." During those same years, skate-park design reached a plateau of sophistication that you might not have expected from guys who wear really baggy shorts. As skaters have moved into the role of designers, establishing firms like SITE Design Group, Dreamland, Team Pain and Grindline--a grind is what you do when you skate down one of those steel-pipe handrails--the skate park has evolved into an entirely new subdepartment of landscape architecture.
What it produces are places where familiar elements of the urban landscape are digested and sent back to us as sculptural environments. Curved basins recall the empty swimming pools where so much of skateboarding was refined. Slopes hint at the concrete canal embankments where a million kids scuffed their elbows. The best parks give you the impression that layers of urban and suburban memory have been compressed into rolling seabeds. The whole place is like a collective unconscious forged in concrete. All so that some 12-year-old can use it to do a kick flip.
In the same way that skateboard style has influenced clothing and graphics, the new parks have begun to grab the attention of designers in other fields. Architect David Rockwell, designer of the Nobu restaurants in Manhattan and the set of the musical Hairspray, says skate parks, with their use of "the continuous ramp that leads you through a series of adventures," were an inspiration for a new playground he's working on. Joe Ragsdale, who teaches landscape architecture at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo, says that every year his students come up with different ways to provide ideal flight paths for intrepid skaters. "Skate parks have come of age," he says.
Skateboarding has been around since the late 1950s, when California surfers began attaching wheels to short boards so that they could retrieve on dry land just a bit of the feeling they got from a wave. In no time it had evolved into an acrobatic art form that derived, like ballet, from the eternal human impulse to part the air with style. Skate parks, which first appeared in the 1970s, started out as places meant to draw skaters away from the respectable concrete of downtown. But those early parks tended to be melancholy stretches of concrete with a few bowls and half pipes--that's a semicircular ramp--thrown in. The merest parking lot was more fun. Over the next decade many of the parks closed, victims of underuse and high insurance costs.