The Hyde Park Art Center’s main gallery is usually your standard exhibition space: well lit, airy, and whitewashed to its lofty ceiling. But these days, unsuspecting visitors open the door and step into musty, claustrophobic semidarkness. Overhead, a solid wooden structure fills the room. Held aloft by metal posts, it bulges down almost to the floor in two inverted domes. The space shakes with a loud, low rolling sound, punctuated now and then by a tremendous clattering impact. A spiral staircase twists up and out of sight. At its top, all becomes clear–the strange scene below is the underside of a skateboarding bowl.

The installation, called Free Basin, is a plywood replica of the empty swimming pools that beckoned pioneering skateboarders in southern California four decades ago. It’s skateable, and it’s frequently filled with both skateboarders and rollerbladers.

The bowl is the latest project of the Simparch collective, a group of four artists who met and joined forces in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1996. Working mostly with salvaged materials, they’ve built internationally shown pieces–among them a mobile home made of sticks and plastic, a trailer built from old billboards, and a graffiti-covered ark–that irreverently explore nostalgia, class, and other aspects of the architecture of Americana. (The group’s name is a play on the Southern California Institute of Architecture’s acronym, SCI-Arch.) “Simparch is a way for us to be hackers,” says founding member Steve Badgett. “We counter the codification that occurs in the building industry. I think a lot of the beauty of building is sucked out by the structure of work and labor.”

The wiry, soft-spoken Badgett, who’s 37, was raised in Villa Park and skated as a teen, cruising his hometown streets and driving into the city to go to the skate park at the Rainbow roller rink. He put his board away when he went off to the University of Illinois, where he studied painting. Scratching an itch for “a more rural lifestyle,” Badgett moved to Las Cruces in 1993. There he paid his bills by working as a carpenter and builder while moonlighting with Simparch. It was a Simparch project that led him back to skating.

“The Simparch crew was asked to do large-scale murals on the banks of drainage canals that were frequently tagged with graffiti,” Badgett says. “We came to know it as a skate area, cleaned it up, did some work there…. And I picked [skating] up again then; that was three, four years ago. Since then, I would take my board along on Simparch projects. Just to relax, I’d skate around whatever gallery I was in.”

Badgett and Chicago artist Hamza Walker, who met a decade ago through mutual friends in the local art scene, had already discussed the possibility of collaboration. Last year Walker approached Badgett with an idea based on a skate facility he’d seen in Albuquerque. “Skating somehow seemed really appropriate for a Simparch project,” Badgett says. Free Basin not only encourages appreciation of the beauty of the skating form, he explains, but also, by placing skateboarding in the formal context of an art gallery, collides the worlds of high and low culture with a satisfying smack.

But the very things that attracted Badgett to the project scared off funders, says Lia Alexopoulos, the exhibition’s organizer. Rejected by the gallery’s usual foundation supporters, Alexopoulos and Badgett sought and gained the backing of skate-equipment and -apparel distributors like California’s Girl Distribution and the midwest-based AHW.

With help from Walker and others in the local skating and arts communities, Badgett and his Simparch colleague Matt Lynch built the piece in six weeks in a studio space on West Grand. Badgett calls the process “incredibly stressful,” particularly the demanding work of figuring the correct grade for the sides of the bowl, which required extensive technical assistance from University of Chicago physicist Peter Eng. The bowl was brought in pieces to the center and reassembled there.

The finished product is a kidney-shaped basin with steeply curved walls, custom fitted to fill the gallery space. It takes no expertise in the technicalities of skateboarding to appreciate the exhibit–the bowl’s scale and refinement, the skaters’ feats, even the rhythmic hum of urethane wheels on well-sanded wood.

Badgett, who moved back to Chicago when the project was getting under way, says Free Basin wouldn’t exist without “the great spirit of the skate faction in Chicago.” He’d like to see the piece remain in the community after its current run concludes, and Alexopoulos says she’s talked to the Chicago Park District about incorporating the bowl into the skate park the city is planning for the lakefront at 31st Street.

“It has a kind of bravado,” Badgett says. “In a way, it became our own public-works project.”

Free Basin is at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park Blvd., through June 24. On Sunday at 3, Illinois Institute of Technology professor Ben Nicholson hosts a discussion on “Skateboarding and Urbanism” with former pro skater Steven Snyder (aka Steve Dread), architect Doug Garofalo, and Hamza Walker. Next Thursday, June 8, at 8 tabletop guitarist Kevin Drumm will improvise to the actions of skaters. Admission to the center and to all events is free. Call 773-324-5520. –Anders Smith-Lindall

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.