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Sport

Game changer

Danish charity, GAME, is using street sports and culture to create teenage utopias out of derelict industrial buildings. Kath Hudson speaks to the creators


Imagine a place where teenagers can gather to ride their skateboards, shoot hoops, flip off the walls, practise graffiti, mix tunes or make an animation. Welcome to Streetmekka: a concept which is breathing life back into abandoned warehouses, while giving teenagers a blank canvas to participate in their favourite activities.

Danish NGO, GAME, was set up in 2002 with the aim of bringing about change by social integration through street sports. Two €3m facilities are already up and running in Denmark: the first site opened in Copenhagen in 2010, followed by Esbjerg in 2016 and two more are set to open next year, in Aalborg and Viborg.

“Prior to launching GAME, I was chair of Denmark’s biggest basketball club, but hardly any immigrants came, which didn’t match the identity of the sport, or reflect the community,” says GAME chief executive, Simon Prahm. “Streetmekka has been designed to make street sports and street culture – which have a broad appeal among young people – widely accessible, both in terms of location and price.”

GAME went about the design process in an archetypally Danish way, by asking the target market to build their dream centres out of Lego. Skateboarding was the number one request, along with street soccer, parkour, bouldering, street basketball, street dance and yoga.

Keeping it real
Danish architects, EFFEKT, won the competition to design the facilities in Esbjerg and Viborg. EFFEKT co-founding partner Tue Hesselberg Foged led the projects and says the architecture has to be inventive in order to support the concept. “The main challenge is how to put street sports into a building, while keeping the edginess of the sports and the rawness of the street,” he says.

“We needed to create a new typography,” he continues. “During the design process, we were thinking less about how it will look and more about how it will act. So we pared down lots of the design features, to make it more minimal and pragmatic. Rather than make it look cool, we made sure it can be used in a cool way.”

In order to make the concept work, the price needed to be low. Prahm is proud of the fact that annual memberships cost less than 10p a day. “The whole goal is to lower the barriers and we know that money is sometimes a barrier,” he says.

Foged agrees affordability is all important and was taken into consideration in the design. “All buildings in Denmark have to meet certain environmental standards, but I think what makes this most sustainable is the social inclusion aspect,” he says. “We have created a cheap building, with cheap maintenance, which can offer cheap membership and therefore even the poorest people can come.”

Consultation was part of the development process, with a youth representative for each activity, but EFFEKT went further in involving the target market. “We were constantly having to invent new solutions to problems, as we were working with old ruins, a low budget and high ambitions,” says Foged. “We ran a co-creating workshop, where we designed furniture which could stand on the uneven floors, got the materials sponsored and then got the community to build it. So the furniture was free, the network was engaged and the users were given ownership.”

Rolling it out
In Copenhagen, 30 per cent of the members of the facility are immigrants, or refugees, and 16 per cent in Esbjerg, which is well above the percentage of immigrants in each city. In less than a year, Esbjerg has become the most popular sports club in the city, with more than 3,600 members and 40,000 visits a year.

“At 3pm it looks like all the young people in Esbjerg are heading there on scooters, skateboards or with basketballs under their arm,” says Prahm.

Having achieved such pleasing results at home, GAME is now looking to export the concept to Lebanon, where places to play are in short supply. “Sports club memberships fees are around £80 to £100 a month, so the majority of people can’t afford to go,” he says. “Added to this, there is literally no place for play. Beirut used to have 12 per cent public space, but now it’s down to 0.5 per cent. The roads are blocked by cars and there isn’t even space on the sidewalks for rope skipping.”

Beirut will likely have a scaled down facility, costing between €100,000 and €0.5m. “It’s expensive to rent or buy buildings, so we are looking at creating a makeshift portable facility,” says Prahm. “I’m in talks with an architect about creating something out of shipping containers and we’re also looking at steel structures with tarpaulins.”

Financed by contributions from municipalities, private housing companies and ministries, GAME needs the centres to be self-sustaining. They are created so they don’t need many staff – users are expected to respect each other and the facilities. GAME also partners with organisations to run specialist sessions, such as Street Movement, which offers parkour training.

Going forward, Prahm is hoping other organisations will follow their blueprint: “We’re always ready to share what we do. We’ve developed compendiums and training tools and are partnering with another Dutch organisation to develop and disperse methods of creating public play.”

Tue Hesselberg Foged
Tue Hesselberg Foged

"The main challenge is how to put street sports into a building, while keeping the edginess of the sports and the rawness of the street"

ESBJERG

Streetmekka Esbjerg is based in an abandoned railway depot. Although a beautiful steel and wood structure, it didn’t immediately lend itself to the purpose. “It was one of the oldest buildings in the town, but almost a ruin,” says Foged. “The municipality didn’t want to lose it, but didn’t know how to use it either. One of the biggest challenges was that it wasn’t really suitable for skateboarding, because there were lots of columns inside, and it would have been expensive to insulate it.”

EFFEKT came up with the idea of using the old building as an unheated parkour facility and creating new buildings from rough, industrial materials to keep the rawness. “This retained the old building, while giving the client double the square footage for the same budget,” says Foged.

The former train shed has been repurposed and is now home to facilites for skateboarding, football, parkour and basketball
The former train shed has been repurposed and is now home to facilites for skateboarding, football, parkour and basketball
The former train shed has been repurposed and is now home to facilites for skateboarding, football, parkour and basketball
The former train shed has been repurposed and is now home to facilites for skateboarding, football, parkour and basketball

VIBORG

“This was a run-of-the-mill, 20-year-old, factory on a post-industrial site. It’s super ugly, with no windows and doesn’t work at all from the outside,” says Foged. “But inside is a different story. It is a wonderful, expansive space which we envisaged turning into a coloured street, with asphalt, and punching windows into the concrete walls to bring in light.”

The two ends of the building have been covered with a plastic, translucent façade, which as well as being a striking architectural feature, lets in light, acts as a sound barrier and also serves as a giant canvas for budding visual artists to display and project their art.

“This equips the building with a completely new exterior and makes it possible to pull in more daylight, while improving the connection to the exterior space,” says Foged. “Targeting a broad demographic audience from across a variety of cultural backgrounds, gender, age and interests, our goal was to create an open and welcoming building, lowering the threshold for involvement and engagement.”

The transclucent façade lets light in and acts as a sound insulator and a canvas for displaying art
The transclucent façade lets light in and acts as a sound insulator and a canvas for displaying art

AALBORG

JAJA Architects won the competition to repurpose a 1960s laboratory in Aalborg into the fourth Streetmekka, which will open next year. The building’s former experimental hall will host bouldering, parkour, basketball and soccer, and the laboratory wing will be used for activities with practical requirements, such as dance, the sound studio and street kitchen.

An outdoor area has been organised into a gigantic streetscape, with a calisthenics area, parkour track and a bouldering rock. The façade of the building will become a living canvas for street art.

“Inspired by the beauty of the existing building, we have strived to preserve its industrial magic and generate an environment which invites the users to play with new forms of movement, social meetings and surprising happenings. Our aim has been to create a thriving and dynamic street laboratory,” says Kathrin Gimmel, partner at JAJA Architects.

Copenhagen-based practice JAJA Architects are turning a 1960s building in Aalborg into a ‘thriving and dynamic street laboratory’
Copenhagen-based practice JAJA Architects are turning a 1960s building in Aalborg into a ‘thriving and dynamic street laboratory’
JAJA’s design includes spaces for resting and viewing as well as the sports facilities
JAJA’s design includes spaces for resting and viewing as well as the sports facilities
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Company profile: Willmott Dixon
Willmott Dixon delivers the social infrastructure that people depend on in their daily lives. We partner with our customers to focus on the services they want to provide, not just the building we construct, and we are committed to achieving a higher social purpose through our work.
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