Seven years after the original structure was largely destroyed by fire, its replacement is poised to kickstart the seaside town’s regeneration, writes Jon Astbury.
Photography and film by Jim Stephenson
That two out of the six shortlisted projects this year have a historic seaside setting is indicative of an increasing coastal pull – one that estate agents are of course eager to exploit but one that has, and continues, to bear architectural fruit, be it in the considered Turner Contemporary or the bombastic British Airways i360. While these tales of creative transformation are often read as outside intervention – something of a ‘Shoreditchification’ – here the example is far more home-grown.
As dRMM’s Alex de Rijke states, ‘there are many creative people in Hastings – always have been – but there are now several initiatives for bottom-up regeneration projects happening, utilising the town’s stock of interesting neglected buildings’. And if it is tales of neglect you’re after, look no further than the town’s pier, itself located in White Rock, one of the town’s poorest neighbourhoods.
On its opening in 1872 it was the ‘Peerless Pier’ – among the first iron piers constructed purely as destinations. The original pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1917 and replaced in 1922 by The Ballroom, which became a gathering place for generations of pleasure-seekers and was where Syd Barrett played his last show with Pink Floyd in 1968. In many ways it was downhill from there: the pier’s place in legend was secured, but its place in Hastings began to look dubious.
The pier was well past its prime by the turn of the millennium but its abrupt closure in 2006 due to safety fears triggered a series of unsuccessful dealings with Ravenclaw Investments, the pier’s Panama-based owner. Stylus Sports, provider of many of the pier’s amusements, footed the repair bill, allowing the central section of the pier to be reopened, only for it to be closed again in 2007 after a storm sent chunks of the iron superstructure onto the beach below.
Ravenclaw made an attempt to sell the pier to Hasting’s (sic) Pier Ltd but the sale was blocked by the courts. Kerry and Michelle Michael, owners of Weston-super-Mare’s Grand Pier, briefly considered acquiring it but their engineers concluded gravely that the pier was ‘one good storm away from collapse’, and the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (established for the very purpose of saving the pier) had anyway secured a compulsory purchase order against Ravenclaw. On 4 October 2010, a call for proposals was put out to decide who would handle the restoration.
On the morning of the 5 October, however, 95 per cent of the pier was destroyed in a suspected arson attack. A previous study had suggested £3 million would make the pier safe. Now it would be £11 million.
Needless to say, the brief had changed. On assessing the entries, which included FAT, Níall McLaughlin and WilkinsonEyre, the trust praised winner dRMM’s simple proposal for its ‘flexibility, lateral thinking and value for money’. Most of the funding would come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with £2.5 million from other sources. But, most excitingly, £600,000 was raised through residents purchasing shares in the pier, making some 3,000 investors – many of them Hastingers – part-owners.
Phase 1 of dRMM’s design, which opened in April 2016, has three main elements: an entirely new West African ekki hardwood deck, the restored Victorian Western Pavilion with two new ‘pods’, and a visitor centre, with benches made from recovered decking. Compared with the spectacle of all those jostling, lightweight flights of Victorian and Art Deco fancy that once graced the pier, the new vista is in equal parts solemn and inspiring. Its starkness de Rijke describes as a ‘blank canvas’, a catalyst for creativity, but it doubles, on an empty, rainy day, as a reminder of what once was, with some crumbling supports still visible at the pier’s end.
‘What we have made,’ says de Rijke, ‘is an incredibly strong and beautiful pier deck that carries services: electricity, water, drainage and free Wi-Fi. You can plug in a market stall, erect a festival stage, or drive circus trucks on to it. The people who initially called it “the plank” have revised their opinions, having already seen a number of events come and go.’
At the time of visiting, a few carousels had set up shop and a bingo stall was being erected. Clichés, perhaps, but the pier will no doubt play host to more experimental events as the community becomes more comfortable with its new slice of public space. Should Phase 2 go ahead, a canopy traversing the entire length of the pier will provide cover for events, providing for those who cannot afford to set up a structure but still want to put on an event.
A central structure was required by the HLF to house some account of the pier’s history, but de Rijke wanted to avoid ‘a generic visitor centre as a museum of the pier’. The result was ‘The Deck’ a simple, rectangular structure, clad in recovered wood. For de Rijke it is ‘like a piece of furniture’, providing two flexible function spaces (the Memories Room and the Birch Room), a café and a shop. The interiors are simple and it is clearly a low-budget timber structure, but one speaking of flexibility, rather than cheapness. Large windows can be opened via hinged panels, and the showpiece is a concertina window in the Birch Room that looks out to the end of the pier.
Touch screens and exhibits on miniature, pier-like steel frames allow for an exploration of the pier’s turbulent past (all slightly unnerving while one is standing on it) as well as the opportunity for visitors to add to a ‘Digital Memory’ – an online oral and pictorial archive of the pier. At the pier’s edge, small panels on the balustrade continue this history-telling.
All of this instills a deep sense of pride in the pier, and also a determination to ensure it is never forgotten and left to the elements again. If the pier is to be the project that kickstarts Hastings’ regeneration, it would be difficult to set a better example. Is it the most architecturally exciting contender on the shortlist? Perhaps not. But the story of its struggle for rebirth is one that deserves recognition.
How we built it
The destruction by fire of Hastings Pier in 2010 was an opportunity to redefine what a pier could be in the 21st century; avoiding the shanty town of commercialism it had recently become. The fire cleared the way to creating a large public amenity space. After consultation with local residents and stakeholders the conclusion was that the pier would need to support many different scenarios.
Regeneration is a controversial and contested topic; this is the story of regeneration led by spirited locals. Hastings Pier was owned by an offshore company. It is now owned by more than 3,000 stakeholders from the local and wider community following a crowdsourcing campaign. dRMM was key to the whole process of consultation and development of the brief, imagining and presenting future scenarios, supporting the council, then the public/shareholder acquisition process, applying for the Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and finally delivering the build.
The majority of the lottery grant funded repairs below the deck, the combined result of destruction by fire, sea and storms. The new visitor centre used a small portion of the grant, together with the conversion of the remaining derelict Victorian pavilion.
Contrary to expectations, dRMM’s concept for the pier was not to create the predictable ‘iconic’ hero building at the end, but instead to provide open, serviced ‘empty’ space to allow free access and activity. The priority was creating a strong platform to support variety; from circuses to music, fishing to markets. Different users bring their own temporary architecture. Lorries can traverse the 280m deck to set up temporary structures for larger events; small local trading beach huts have arrived, examples for endless future possibilities.
Creative use of timber is at the heart of the transformed pier design. The new visitor centre is a CLT structure clad in the limited timber decking that survived the 2010 fire. The reclaimed timber was also used for deck furniture designed by dRMM with Hastings & Bexhill Wood Recycling as a local employment initiative. The visitor centre hosts an adaptable space for indoor events, exhibitions and local school activities, with an elevated belvedere on top. Here a glass-walled, open-air room enjoys views of town and coast and beyond, over the sea towards Europe.
The pier is once again an extension of Hastings Promenade but it is now a public, free and open space. The experience of being surrounded by sea and ‘walking on water’ is heightened visually by the louvred balustrade design and the quality of the timber deck. This completes the first phase. Future phases envisage a stair to a renewed landing jetty for sea access, and a large, mobile timber canopy to run the length of the pier.
Hastings Pier offers flexibility, material and social sustainability through a spectacular piece of public realm with a palpable sense of local ownership. The design incorporates local material; the rebuild used local firms and labour. A ‘Phoenix from the ashes’ transformation project, it is inspiring further regeneration locally and beyond.
Alex de Rijke, director, dRMM
Start on site January 2014
Completion June 2016
Gross floor area 11, 720m²
Form of contract Construction management, with Hastings Pier Charity as manager of different JCT Intermediate and minor works contracts
Construction cost per m2£1,211.60
Architect/executive architect dRMM
Client Hastings Pier Charity
Structural engineer Ramboll
M&E consultant Ramboll
Quantity surveyor PT Projects
Fire, marine & heritage consultant Ramboll
Project manager Hastings Pier Charity
CDM co-ordinator PT Projects and dRMM
Approved building inspector East Sussex Building Control
Main contractor Hastings Pier Charity
CAD software used Vectorworks and Rhino
Annual CO2 emissions 23.8kg/m2
This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue which includes a free colouring book