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Hastings Pier’s troubles suggest these eccentric constructions are cursed

Catherine Slessor
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Against the odds, the seaside pier endures, but its long-term future is far from certain, says Catherine Slessor

Img 20160430 192313

Img 20160430 192313

I once walked along the length of Southend Pier. There’s not much to distract the casual promenader apart from a couple of windbreak shelters looking out towards London, some 40 miles upstream. In one, someone had painstakingly carved the epithet ‘nobhead’. But to be suspended above the Thames Estuary between sky and water was a distinctly otherwordly experience. On a boat there is always noise and movement. Yet on this slender umbilicus of iron and timber there was nothing – just an elemental sense of stillness and isolation, like a kind of estuarine spacewalk. 

At 1.3 miles long, Southend has the distinction of being the longest pleasure pier in the world. Originally opened in 1889 to accommodate trippers coming by boat from London, it is one of Britain’s 59 surviving piers. At the turn of the century, there were over 100. Though some still cut a plausible swagger, many are on the verge of extinction, victims of active arson or passive neglect, reduced to ruinous hulk, slowly slipping into the sea. 

dRMM’s socially minded approach effectively liberated Hastings from obsolescence and the gurning hucksterishness of end-of-the-pier shows

The recent award of the RIBA Stirling Prize to dRMM’s remodelled Hastings Pier has thrown this peculiarly English typology into momentary relief. Begat by social change and technological progress, piers were a definitively Victorian creation. Catalysed by the introduction of paid holidays following the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, their rise was apparently inexorable. Seaside resorts near industrial areas started attracting newly liberated holidaymakers, and piers became crucial crowd-pullers.

Consortiums of local businessmen would provide the finance while the Victorian penchant for prefabrication facilitated their steam-punk construction. The splendidly named Eugenius Birch, the most prolific of the great pier engineers, pioneered screw piling, in which more robust iron piles could be simply twisted down into the sand.

Invariably, the history of the pier is bound up with the history of class. A conspicuous cluster around England’s north-west coast served constituencies of mill and factory workers in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, all within reach by train. The sea became a commodity, and the pier’s lengthwise configuration conveniently allowed for the installation of pay kiosks at the landward end. Hence the pier and its amusements were effectively reserved for those who could pay, perpetuating social stratification, unlike the more publicly accessible American boardwalks, which ran parallel with the shoreline.

Invariably, the history of the pier is bound up with the history of class. A conspicuous cluster around England’s north-west coast served constituencies of mill and factory workers in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, all within reach by train. The sea became a commodity, and the pier’s lengthwise configuration conveniently allowed for the installation of pay kiosks at the landward end. Hence the pier and its amusements were effectively reserved for those who could pay, perpetuating social stratification, unlike the more publicly accessible American boardwalks, which ran parallel with the shoreline.

 

Emblematic of simpler pleasures in simpler times, the pleasure pier now finds itself adrift, a cultural, commercial and architectural anachronism. In the postwar era, Southend’s popularity peaked with over five million visitors annually. These days it struggles to attract 300,000. Expensive to maintain, not fitting an obvious business model and at the mercy of the British weather, the pier, and seaside resorts generally, must now contend with heightened consumer expectations and the lure of cheap flights to more reliable climes. 

Hastings demonstrated a thoughtful alternative strategy, its ageing pier reconceptualised as genuine public space, an armature for different activities, achieved through tactful, minimal architectural intervention. Focusing on process and connecting with the local community at all levels, dRMM’s socially minded approach effectively liberated Hastings from obsolescence and the gurning hucksterishness of end-of-the-pier shows.

So the news that the charity that acted as its client body has since gone into administration is dismaying; more proof, if it were needed, of how this eccentric building type seems cursed. It’s tempting to think that if piers were onshore, taking up tracts of valuable land, most would have been unsentimentally swept away by now. That they still endure, marooned in space and time, should compel new ways of thinking about them. 

This article was pubished in the AJ Architecture Awards issue

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