Friday, January 29, 2010

Ski Your City!

Last week, most of Maine got a soaking 3 inches of rain, which washed away most of the season's snow. It was a sad day.

But as I write this, an unlikely alliance of scaffolders, public works employees, and snowmaking crews from the Sunday River ski resort in western Maine are converging in Monument Square, the center of downtown Portland, to put together an artificial ski hill and cover it in snow. Tonight, hotshot skiers and snowboarders will spend the evening running dozens of loops up the scaffold's stairs, down the short hill and its stunt-rails, and up the stairs again. Here's a video of last year's event:

Admittedly, the main intention of this is to get the kids to drink more Red Bull and surrender $60 for a day's lift ticket at the big ski resorts that are sponsoring this. Still: a temporary ski-slope installation in the central public space of your city's downtown is pretty cool. They've brought the mountains to the people.

It also reminds me of a proposal to redevelop Berlin's Templehof airfield as a giant mountain, girdled at its base by the Nazi-era terminal building. It wasn't a serious proposal, but it was meant to inspire more creative and interesting ideas for redevelopment beyond the typical mix of apartments, parks, and office buildings:

Templehof Mountain, by Jakob Tigges and Malte Kloes, via Der Spiegel

And it also reminds me of the mid-century craze for winter carnivals, with the massive ski-jump constructions they brought to the nation's big stadia. Pruned posted a good compendium of those historic photos last year - my favorite might be this one from Dodger Stadium:

Ski jump in Dodger Stadium, 1963. Photo by Tom Courtney, via Pruned.
Note the palm trees in the photo. Skiing in Los Angeles required both architectural and meteorological interventions.

Historically, skiing has always served to open up new ways of crossing the landscape in the winter. Before it became a "sport," it was a mode of transportation for Swedish postal carriers, soldiers in Italy, and Ernest Hemingway. It wasn't until the sport was commercialized and commodified after World War Two that skiing became limited to something that you primarily did downhill, on mountains with elaborate and expensive cable lifts.

Why should it be that way, though? The ski slope in Monument Square doesn't particularly make me want to drive 2 hours to the ski resorts. Instead, I look up at the even taller buildings that surround the Square and think about what it would take to ski down the four-story terraces on the office building at One City Center.

Two or three times a year, there are snowstorms big enough to overwhelm plowing crews downtown, and it actually is possible to ski through the streets. And in back alleys, snowdrifts pile up and open up new, otherwise inaccessible shortcuts between buildings.

Skiing in the city can be, like skateboading or parkour, a radical act to rearrange our understanding of and relationships with the urban environment. As such, we should probably expect these attempts to commercialize and control it, but that doesn't mean we have to buy it. Skiing in the city is free - and fun.


Corey Templeton said...

That ramp at Dodger Stadium is something! They should atleast cut down some trees on the Western Prom and do jumps there again. (

Anonymous said...