As a veteran of competitions to restore piers, Paul Finch looks to Hastings Council to recognise the town’s most famous structure
Piers are tricky. In my time as an architectural editor, I was heavily involved in two design competitions for piers, memories of which were revived this year. The first was for a replacement/upgrade of West Pier in Brighton in 1987, sponsored by British Steel Corporation as was and its formidable supporter of architecture, Bob Latter.
Our jury included Cedric Price, Nick Grimshaw and structural engineer Neil Thomas representing Tony Hunt. The very first proposal we saw was much admired and nothing else managed to knock it off its winning perch. The architect was Simon Allford, and the High-Techish design went on to represent the UK at an Australian expo the following year.
At the time, the West Pier Trust had high hopes of restoring the pier, and although it was a semi-ruin, there was enough structure surviving to make that look like a possibility. As things turned, others in Brighton were determined that this would not happen. The world of Brighton Rock was never far away, literally and metaphorically, and whenever hopes were raised of funding and construction, a mysterious accident always seemed to take place.
Piers are expensive to run and to maintain. That is why they have fallen into disrepair and disuse all around the coastline
The final one of these was a catastrophic fire (origins never fully explained) which ended any hope of reviving the magnificent listed pier. As things turned out, a brilliant replacement by Marks Barfield eventually came into being – brilliant not just because of design boldness and innovation, but because the project was firmly rooted in financial reality. Piers, whether horizontal or vertical or circular, are expensive to run and to maintain. That is why they have fallen into disrepair and sometimes disuse all around the coastline.
In the case of the i360, where the design team is the client/owner, the financial stability of the project informed the design process from the outset, and also involved innovative funding whereby the local authority, as well as the owner, makes a return from the project. I was thinking about this at the moving but also inspiring celebration of David Marks’ life in County Hall last weekend. His interest in finance and politics is an example of truly synthetic thinking. That Brighton landmark is his true memorial.
Hastings pier 1312 james robertshaw pressimage 5
Source: James Robertshaw
The other pier was at Hastings. I can no longer remember much about the details of the winning design, judged by a gang including Piers Gough and Nick Wates, but I have very clear recollection of a premiated scheme by one Fergus Henderson, then an AA graduate, but soon to find fame as founder of the world-famous St John restaurant in Smithfield.
Appropriately enough his design involved food. It also involved the same sort of strategy as dRMM’s Stirling Prize-winning project for the pier, inasmuch as it involved removing virtually all of the existing buildings.
Fergus had a simple diagram for his proposal: clear the decks, create a location for fishing at the end of the pier, and serve up the product in what was to be Europe’s finest small sushi bar built as close to the fishermen as practicable.
It was not entirely unexpected that the current owner of Hastings Pier, a charitable trust, has run into financial difficulties, because it has no source of commercial income and is therefore beholden to the public and the public sector for the finance to keep things in order. If I were Hastings Council, I would think seriously about ensuring the operational stability of the most famous structure in the town. It is not that the pier has put Hastings on the map, that task having been achieved in 1066, but it is the most prominent example of contemporary architecture in that part of the world, and should not be allowed to wither on the proverbial vine.