White Arkitekter’s cultural centre on the end of Southend pier – the longest pier in the world – has opened to the public
The Swedish practice worked with London’s Sprunt Architects on the 350m² structure, won in an international competition held in 2009 (AJ 15.09.2009).
Source: Luke Hayes
The architect’s view
Originally constructed in the Victorian era, the pier has survived fires, boat crashes, two world wars and economic decline, as well as undergoing a series of design alterations and amendments since it opened in 1830. The cultural centre is the first structure added to the pier head since 2000 when a new lifeboat station was built and it is hoped that the centre will revitalise the historic pier’s fortunes following the fire that devastated it in 2005.
Unlike most British piers, which are populated by amusement arcades and rides, the new cultural centre aims to reinstate Southend’s most famous landmark as a continuation of the seafront town onto the water by creating a vibrant public space on the pier from which to enjoy the landscape of the Thames Estuary.
The building’s sweeping geometric form and harmonising palette of materials celebrate the topography of the windswept site integrating it into the scenic landscape. The dynamic roof shape, which measures up to 9 metres from floor level, houses a large multi-purpose events space with floor to ceiling glazed elevations. Orientated South facing, the entrance façade is set back beneath the roof forming a sheltered entrance and café terrace from which to enjoy views out onto the water.
The building has sloping walls and a twisting hyperbolic paraboloid roof form. Modeled in 3D using Catia, software more commonly used in the design of planes or cars, the geometry of the structure gives the building its signature sweeping profile. The complex modular arrangement of triangular frames makes efficient use of material. A system of supporting trusses gives the building the stiffness it needs to spread its weight evenly over the pier’s 100-year old cast iron piles.
Due to the challenging conditions of the site, contractors Kier fabricated the building off site at Tilbury Docks and craned it into place in one piece. The 170 tonnes steel frame structure was transported from the docks on a barge along the Thames Estuary and craned in at high tide using a 400-tonne marine sheer leg crane. The structure itself was strong enough to be hung from only four points without twisting or damaging itself in the exercise, which required careful planning and precision and was successfully achieved in just 24 hours.
Salt corrosion, wind and wave loads are some of the elements that combine to make the pier head a hostile environment for building. Durable materials have been specified throughout to help achieve a long expected lifespan under these conditions. The roof and wall panels are built of insulated marine plywood decking covered with a waterproof membrane. The walls are clad with Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) panels, while the roof is treated with a non-slip textured top coat which is colour matched to the GRP walls to give the building a unified expression.
Working in consultation with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) the team has specified a roof surface treatment to sustain the Turnstone birds that roost on Southend Pier. Similarly the facade glazing is tinted green to discourage the birds from flying into it.
In terms of sustainability, the superstructure is built of recyclable steel; the building envelope achieves a high level of insulation and air tightness; and the building achieves 10 per cent renewable energy with the provision of air source heat pump technology, mechanical ventilation and a heat recovery system.
Flood proofing strategies include raising the building 1.5 m from the deck of the pier. Reclaimed decking from underneath the building provides a datum at the base of the building and a ramped timber walkway made of the same FSC-certified tropical wood provides access.
The main space, with its dynamic waveform ceiling, has been designed to accommodate a range of cultural activities and events programmed by Southend Council, including art exhibitions, theatre and music performances, film screenings and private events such as weddings. The triangular panels of roof, which anchor to the long wall of the building create unexpected oblique views out. Floor-to-ceiling glazing on the North and South elevations gives a clear view through the entire building and frames a panoramic view back to the shoreline.
Adjoining the main space is a 40 sq m artist’s studio, a café which opens onto the entrance terrace, public toilets, a kitchen and store.
During the day the GRP cladding has a translucent quality which changes tone, appearing white in bright sunlight and greenish grey when the sky is overcast. At night luminaires delineate the building’s sculptural profile.
Southend Pier is a landmark structure closely associated with the town and particularly to the typology of Southend’s shoreline. The new Cultural Centre brings new life to the promenade and reclaims the pier as the town’s main attraction for both the town’s residents and tourists.