From Dirt 2 Dust: Skateboarding as an Architectural Marker

Tengis Cinema Square, Ulaanbaatar

Ten years after, skateboarders, photographers and an architect return to Mongolia to marvel at its landscapes, cities, and drainage ditches. With skateboarding as an uncanny reading grid, the disorientated transplants experienced the creeping westernization of a once powerful Empire. 

Skateboarding the urban revolution in Mongolia




By Nicola Delon, Tsolmon Sergelen

and the Mongolian University Science and Technology students

Does the City make the skateboarder, or does the skateboarder make the City? Through the protocol of a collective exploration in Ulaanbaatar, we tried to decode the relationship between public/urban space and its inhabitants, through the prism of skateboarding.

In order to draw “sensible portraits” of the three main places of skateboarding’s appropriation in town, we decided to lay on paper both space and time. By “space,” we mean the cartographic/aerial represen­tation of a terrain—a fascination we had developed from 2009 on, when we flew to Ulaanbaatar compare reality to what Google Maps seemed to clue us to. By “time,” we mean a drawing of paths, usages, fluxes coexisting on the same given spot over one July afternoon in the Mongolian capital.

Lead by a group of students from the MUST archi­tecture school (Ulaanbaatar University), this analysis is a tool that helps understanding what we had vaguely seen, but that we had perhaps failed to look at, so far.

To look at the act of skateboarding, from an archi­tect’s point of view, gives an angled pretext to discuss ground, its resistance, its grit, its potential of mini­mal friction. It’s a way to corner a specific space of action and analyze, in one sitting, movements, stairs, inclines, curves and formal accidents that all can turn into a potential encounter.

As a fisherman would do, the skateboarder reads his own river, its currents, its shaded patches, feeding off any available hint to achieve his fish-catching goal. Public space is the skateboarder’s river, the lieu de vie where he knows, familiar paths, favorite places.

To pin it all down, we picked three emblematic public spaces used by skateboarders in Ulaanbaatar, drawing their buildings (existing, or under construc­tion), their street furniture (lights, benches, shrubs, trash cans, etc.), as well as the paths taken by vehicles, pedestrians, bicycle users, skateboarders. Revealing differential densities and representing territorial occupations, these drawings ultimately offer an unique look at the unfolding mutation of Mongolia’s capi­tal, a City re-inventing itself through its discoveries, influences and cohabitations.

All of the three places chosen for our study each tell the tale, in their own way, of a City changing so fast that it’s barely recognizable from a stay to the next—even if they are only six months apart. These places also inform us about what’s happening on their grounds, what’s at stake, and what these few pioneers on their wooden boards, by creating their own collective and free playground, have to say about Ulaanbaatar.

Gingiss Square, Ulaanbaatar


Ginggis Square is symbolically and literally the City’s central plaza, the hub for power, festivities, not to forget any folkloric, commercial and political gathering.

Bordered by Peace Avenue and the Parliament, as well as a symbolic garden on its south end, Ginggis Square is Ulaanbaatar’s focal point. Initially named Sükhbaatar Square, it took in 2013 the moniker of the illustrious Mongolian Empire founder, as did dozens of beer companies, vodkas, cigarette brands and real estate complexes.

Covering over 7 hectares, this square hosts, at its center, a gigantic statue of one of the leaders of the 1921 revolution, Damdin Sükhbaatar.

Ginggis Square’ surface is made of smooth stone, with a giant grid drawing the four cardinal points. Skateboarders typically meet on its North-East end, at the bottom of the Parliament. A relatively unpractical gathering point (sitting on the official building’s steps is forbidden, and armed guards make sure to enforce this law), this specific area is favored by skate­boarders because of the tiny stone curb it hosts, where one can discreetly sit down on.

The lack of obstacles make Ginggis Square a monotonous space for skate­boarders, who limit their movements to East-West oscillations, and use it more as a meeting point than a “spot”. Not a true skateboarding hub per se, it would be comparable to a forest clearing from which skateboarders scope future summits to climb.

The portrait of this space sheds a light on Ulaanbaatar’s strong sense of centrality: forced out of their step­pes, nomads gather to a capital that’s growing at an unimaginable speed. In turn, the capital itself converges to Ginggis Square’s central statue— a metpahor of the city as a magnet, of its vertiginous economic growth and its attraction power that keeps creating inequity.

On the fringes of this symbolic black hole, young people gather to ride wooden boards, as the visible emer­gence of some sort of sense to imagine for the next steps of the Mongolian adventure. “Riding,” here, is the perfect word to synthetize the past and the pre­sent of the country: the word is shared by Genghis Khan on his horse, and the local crew’s sessions.

Tengis Cinema, Ulaanbaatar


The Tengis Cinema spot lies between Ginggis Square and the hill of Gandan Temple, where Ulaanbaatar was founded. Over the years, this plaza has become the symbol of the post-Soviet mutation of the City.

Besides the Tengis Cinema giving it its name, it is bordered by a building celebrating Stalin (it hosts a giant bust of the Russian leader), currently in the process of becoming a museum dedicated to the T-Rex dinosaur.

A gathering place for families, a meeting point and a place for various festivities and games, Tengis is the quintessential skateboard spot. The plinth of its central statue consti­tutes the main influence zone of skateboarders, whose circular moves concentrate on the plaza’s upper deck, separated from its lower deck by a six-stair staircase.

As everywhere else in the City nowadays, cars’ presence is undeniable here—a mixture of neo-millionaires’ dark Hummers, 1960s’ Russian UAV vans and Japanese cars with the stee­ring wheel on the right-hand side.

An interesting fact from analyzing Tengis reveals a seasonal appropriation of the space: it changes according to the current weather and the time of the day. For instance, the shadow cast by a 25-fioor building (under construction for a few years) on its West end has modified how the public uses the place: in the Spring and in the Winter, the public escapes it, while seeking it during the hot summer days.

In fine, drawing a shadow amounts to drawing the vertical element that generated it, the same way an arrow symbolizes the axis of a movement, a gesture, a sound. A rapport to time and space that skateboarders jealously treasure as its unbeknownst sentinels.

5th School, Ulaanbaatar

Located at the North end of the circular Maga Toiruu boulevard, 5th School is more confidential of a spot than Tengis Cinema and Ginggis Square. Another specific: unlike both the other places, its public space is largely unused, save for North West-South West crossings. Yet, it still is local skateboarders’ favo­rite spot, because of the perfection of its smooth stone ground and its recently installed obstacles. Namely, contempo­rarily designed wooden benches, ending by an incline—the perfect “natural” spot, as exhibited by our drawings.

Another peripheral bench space, shadowed by pergolas, also offers a privileged space for rest and observation. Incidentally, this analysis reveals that a third parameter (besides the ground’s quality and the “urban accident” constituted by the skateboarder), is pivotal to generate -a good skateboard spot’s genetics: the relationship between action and inaction—effort vs. rest.

The distance between these two influence zones seems crucial, as skateboarding also exists because of who is watching it happen. In skateboarding, the actor perpetually becomes the spectator, and vice versa, creating a never-ending ballet where time disappears and even the wait is lived as an intense experience.

Resource: From dirt to dust / Skateboarding the urban revolution in Mongolia, 1980 Editions

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