12 January 2009


the architecture of waves
Zubin Singh
Through the act of surfing, as no other human activity, man enters the domain of the breaking wave, is contained by and participates in its broadcast, measures and is in turn measured, meets its rhythm and establishes his own, negotiates continuity and rupture at the scale of the body. What is the nature of this inhabitation? A bold proposition: surfing is an architectural act. Through it the surfbreak is drawn within the sphere of culture and the wave becomes an architectural domain.

Geographically the surfbreak represents an actual threshold between environs, but historically it has also been a symbolic Porta between two overlapping and irreconcilable realms, two inimical elements: the land and the sea, earth and water. On the one hand, the stable and the familiar: the ground upon which humankind has built its civilisations and institutions, established its relation to space and time, defined culture. On the other, the capricious and unknowable: the quintessential other, Nature at her most fecund and ruinous, that which is beyond, indeterminate. It is not accident that Hesiod's Aphrodite was conceived in the spume, or that Botticelli's Venus is born ashore on the crest of a breaking wave: the surfbreak has always been a fertile territory in the human imagination, a metaphor of paradox, of life.

As a point of departure: the pier, beginning with a comparison between surfing and skateboarding — an analogous relation between the surfer's appropriation of the pier and the skateboarder's appropriation of the urban environment. In Skateboarding, Space and the City (Berg 2001) Iain Borden present skateboarding as a 'performative critique' of the values associated with life in the modern capitalist city, specifically as they are manifest in architecture, as they order our relations with space and time. Skateboarding subverts the intended function of architecture (namely utility) by reducing architecture to a terrain — a composition of objects and planes to grind, jump or ride. 'Skateboarders analyse architecture not for historical, symbolic or authorial content but for how surfaces present themselves as skateable' (p 218K); 'the city for skateboarders is not buildings but a set of ledges, window sills, walls, roofs, railings ...and so on' (p229). While skateboarding often rejects the commodification of space (frequently the skateboarder transgresses the boundary between public and private) it is also a rejection of time as a commodity: 'Skateboarders are...more concerned with temporal distance as proximity (temporal closeness of things, temporal locality), and its repetition, than with time as a valuable resource or measure of efficiency' (p226). The surfer appropriates the pier in a similar fashion.

Ever since surfing emerged on the California coast its adherents have congregated around the pier (the Huntington Beach Pier is perhaps the most famous example) because of the structure's inadvertent tendency to create sandbars, whose presence enhances the shape and power of the breaking waves. The intended function of the pier, on the other hand, is primarily commercial. It exists as a simple structure built for fishermen (who pay to use them), or as a more elaborate commercial enterprise designed to attract tourists (e.g. Santa Monica Pier). As skateboarding does with the urban fabric, surfing subverts the intentions of the architectural object; the surfer rejects its commercial function, which she appropriates for her own purposes — free of charge. Surfing transforms this largely utilitarian artefact into an armature of the surfbreak, the locus of an alternative social realm: the privileged refuge of the individual surfer, engaged in the solitary session; or a remote commons, where local surfers gather outside the spatial and social bounds of conventional society. In the end however, it is not the pier but the wave itself to which the surfer is drawn; and it is ultimately the wave that determines not only the space of the surfbreak, but more profoundly the surfer's relationship with time.

In the water the surfer is constantly in motion, negotiating the ever-shifting regions of 'inside' and 'outside', the areas shoreward and seaward of a breaking wave that each successive wave redefines. In surfing timing is everything: not only while riding, but in simply finding the evanescent wave, whose rhythms do not obey the constructed meters of modern society. Surfing is not something to be scheduled; rather it must be scheduled around. consequently, in order to surf on a regular basis, all surfers must inevitably submit to the wave — the spatial embodiment of cyclical time.

Waves are created by vast pelagic storms; they follow the paths of the seasons, respond to the pull of the sun and moon, to the alternations of night and day — to rhythms that once defined our understanding of time's passage. The practice reflects this reality: surfers tend to return to familiar breaks season after season, year after year: the surf-session is defined by elliptical orbits — surfers paddle outside, wait for and catch a wave, only to return outside and repeat the sequence again; there is no score, no tangible goal, no clear beginning or end. This stands in stark contrast to the linear conception of time upon which the idea of progress is founded, the imperative which drives the modern world. As a result, surfers are often caught between the demands of irreconcilable worlds as well as inimical elements.

Even the surfboard spans two seemingly antithetical domains: the mass production of the foam 'blank' (the primary component of the modern surfboard) and the hand-craftsmanship of the board shaper; the impersonal and placeless nature of the industrial process, coupled with the fact that shapers often craft surfboards in collaboration with surfers in response to particular conditions and locations — the gently tapered lines of Malibu or the fast-breaking tubes of Pipeline.

In the threshold between land and sea, between progress and nature's incurable cycles, between the modern and the vernacular, dwells the surfer. In the shadow of the pier a wave swells, steepens, suddenly mortal; and on a thin blade of glass and foam a surfer strokes into the wave, rises to his feet and descends — at the moments of its collapse: a dialogue, an architectural dialogue, between permanence and change.

Singh, Zubin. 'Surfing: the architecture of waves' On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Zubin Singh and On Site review

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