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Typology: Pier

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Devised by pleasure-seeking Victorians but now undermined by social change and physical neglect, does the building that defined the seaside have a future?

In an island nation as small as Britain, you are never very far from the sea. The Derbyshire village of Coton-in-the-Elms, population around 700, has the distinction of being furthest from it, a distance of a mere 70 miles. Proximity breeds intimacy and the British have developed a close and curiously sentimental relationship with the seaside, despite the latter-day bleakness of many coastal towns, casually eviscerated by government austerity programmes. 

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Morecambe, 1869, Typology: Pier

The pier at Morecambe, 1869, a beguiling, Victorian pleasure pavilion. Image courtesy of Richard Grange / Alamy

Before the era of low-cost foreign travel, British leisure time was spent in a coastal reverie, on the beach and on the pier, a building type created in the image of the seaside, where social rituals and sticky pleasures exultantly coalesced. Taking flight in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the pier and its myriad distractions proved an infinitely adaptable backdrop to holiday disinhibition. Loftily elevated above the sea, it tamed its churning depths with engineering heft below and jolly japes above, alternately terrifying and larky, a kind of kiss-me-quick version of the sublime.

Brighton’s famous Chain Pier of 1823, immortalised in limpid panoramas by Turner, who had a thing for the seaside, featured a regimental band, camera obscura, saloon, reading room, souvenir shops, kiosks, telescopes, a silhouettist, weighing machine, shower baths, fireworks displays and ‘meteorological prognostications’. Patronised by William IV, who enjoyed healthful promenades along its length, revelling in the supposedly curative effects of sea air, it set the pace and tone of pier development during the first half of the 19th century.

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Brighton chain pier, by Turner, c1828. Typology: Pier

A romanticised painting of Brighton’s Chain Pier c1828 by Turner, who had a thing for seaside panoramas

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Low tide at Southport, Victorian piling. Typology: Pier

Low tide at Southport reveals the intricacies of the Victorian iron piling system. Image by Simon Roberts, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

At one time, it might have seemed that the pier would be a perpetual and immutable part of the British cultural landscape, undaunted by convulsive social change and the insidious effects of teredo navalis, the naval shipworm. In the postwar era, the popularity of Southend Pier, at 2.16 kilometres the world’s longest, peaked with more than 5 million visitors annually. Poised on the relatively tranquil Thames Estuary, where river turns to sea, the town and its pier acted as a release valve for Londoners, who could be easily conveyed downstream on pleasure cruisers, away from the gloom and privation of the bomb-wracked metropolis. 

What goes up, however, must come down. As a British, or more specifically, English conceit, the pier is a chimeric reflection of class anxieties, political connivance, huckstering entrepreneurship, technical chutzpah, coastal geography and fickle weather, bound together by a spirit of masochism and seasoned with a soupçon of smut. Like candy floss or Blackpool rock, pier history mines a particularly sugary and glutinous seam of national identity, that now finds itself all played out.

Emblematic of simpler pleasures in simpler times, the pier is now a cultural, commercial and architectural anachronism. At the turn of the 20th century, there were over 100 dotted around the British coastline. Today, there are just over half that number. Though some still cut a plausible swagger, many are on the verge of extinction, victims of active arson or passive neglect, reduced to carious hulks blotting seaside panoramas. Slowly slipping below the waves, their undermining and disintegration is a grimly apposite metaphor for the state of Britain as it stands poised on the precipice of Brexit.

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Brighton Rock. Typology: Pier

The 1948 film Brighton Rock also mined the seedier side of life in seaside towns. Image courtesy of Studiocanal Films Ltd.

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Quadrophenia, 1979, Bank Holiday battles on Brighton Beach. Typology: Pier

A still from the film Quadrophenia, 1979, restaging Bank Holiday battles between Mods and Rockers on Brighton Beach. Image courtesy of Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

Brighton’s Chain Pier is long gone, destroyed in a storm. Its West Pier, opened in 1866 and one of the finest examples of the genre, is now a fire-gutted wreck, a wedding cake left out too long in the rain. Palace Pier, dating from 1899, still soldiers on, stalwart of wholesome family entertainment but also a setting for films such as Brighton Rock and Quadrophenia that dipped into the darker currents of seaside life. From its postwar apogee, Southend now struggles to attract 300,000 paying customers, despite repeated reinventions. The latest was in 2013 by Swedish practice White Arkitekter, which added an events pavilion resembling a crumpled concertina to the pier end.

In other London-proxinmate seaside towns there has been a minor vogue for pier remodelling, as demographics shift and gentrification moves into gear. Winner of the Stirling Prize in 2017, dRMM’s scheme for Hastings showed how its tottering pier could be rationalised and reborn as a genuine public space. Yet the charity which acted as the original client body has since gone into administration, and the pier’s new owner is currently at loggerheads with locals, accused of cheapening the historic Victorian structure with plans for an amusement arcade and the installation of fibreglass animals – including, quelle horreur, a gold hippopotamus. Proof, if it were needed, of how this eccentric building type seems perennially and peculiarly cursed. 

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Margate Pier, with boats docking. Typology: Pier

Margate Pier showing steamers docking and decanting holidaymakers

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Nice Palais de la Jetée, Belle Époque. Typology: Pier

Nice’s Palais de la Jetée, a Belle Époque version of the English pier. Image courtesy of Chronicle / Alamy

Though the pleasure pier is a brash child of the 19th century and would not necessarily recoil at the prospect of a gold hippo, it has its origins in more archaic and elemental stone structures. Some, like the Cobb at Lyme Regis, described by Jane Austen in Persuasion, began as harbour infrastructure and then assumed a more civic role as public promenades, for seeing and being seen. ‘Sallied out for a walk on the Pier – beauteous dames and gentlemen with reputable calves to their legs’, runs an anonymous account of a stroll on Margate Pier in 1823. 

‘Pier history mines a particularly sugary and glutinous seam of national identity’

The development of the proboscis-like iron and timber pier was originally driven by practical and commercial considerations, as the most expedient means of decanting shipborne trippers into seaside resorts, who had hitherto been obliged to endure the damp indignities of being rowed ashore. Suspended between sea and sky, this new, indeterminate terrain was then energetically transformed into an armature for entertainment of all scales and all kinds, from the flea circus to the Ferris wheel. Copious lighting served to enhance its spangling, shoreline presence.

With the commercialisation of leisure, the sea became a commodity, and the pier’s configuration enabled the installation of turnstiles and pay kiosks at the landward end. This ‘innovation’ was greeted by riots when introduced at Margate’s newly rebuilt pier in 1812 and a toll gatherer nearly ended up in the sea. But the history of the pier is intrinsically bound up with the history of class, and came to reinforce the social stratification of the time, its attractions reserved for those who could pay, unlike the more egalitarian American boardwalks.

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Weston-super-Mare Pier with toll gates. Typology: Pier

The pier at Weston-super-Mare with toll gates at its landward end. Image from 19th era / Alamy

Exuding a classic steampunk splicing of muscularity and intricacy, piers were conceived by engineers rather than architects, motivated by solving the technical problems of building in coastal waters. Eugenius Birch was the undisputed imperator of Victorian pier engineering with 14 to his name, including Brighton’s West Pier. Birch pioneered a revolutionary system of screw piling employing iron piles, which were less vulnerable to maritime degradation than timber. For all their blowsy grandeur, piers were essentially kits-of-parts, variations on set themes made possible by mass-produced prefabricated components. Stylistically, escapism was all, with ornament assiduously furnished from elaborate confections of ironwork plucked from foundry catalogues.

Catalysed by the introduction of paid holidays following the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, the pier’s rise was apparently unstoppable. Seaside resorts near industrial areas started to attract newly liberated holidaymakers and a pier came to be seen as a crucial crowd-puller, with consortiums of local businessmen clubbing together to provide financial backing. A cluster around England’s north-west coast served constituencies of mill and factory workers in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands, facilitated by the expanding train network.

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Brigton’s West Pier burned out. Typology: Pier

Sunseekers blithely oblivious to the carious, burnt-out shell of Brighton’s West Pier. Image courtesy of Andy Newman / Alamy

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Southend’s mangled pier. Typology: Pier

The wreckage of Southend Pier following a collision with a ship

In the modern era, as the world shifted around it, the pier lost its charm. Expensive to maintain, not fitting an obvious business model and at the mercy of the unreliable British climate, piers and seaside resorts had to contend with heightened consumer expectations and the lure of cheap flights to more exotic holiday locales. Ebbing out of fashion, the pier had much in common with music halls or early cinemas as a faintly quaint place to take you out of yourself, contingent on the impact of overblown artifice, and therefore sniffily considered not quite architecture. ‘Pasteboard Taj Mahals’, pronounced Malcolm Muggeridge, as the ’60s backlash against schmaltzy Victoriana started to draw real blood. 

Yet beyond the emergence of doughty preservation societies, the pier had its proselytisers. Its shonky, kit-of-parts allure and jokey salaciousness were embraced by the angry young men of Archigram, whose Zip-a-Toned innuendos and imaginings owed as much to Clacton as they did to Cape Canaveral. Reyner Banham apparently had an epiphany about the potential of megastructures while contemplating piers in Santa Monica. Modernist versions are rare but one can be found at Scheveningen on the Dutch coast by Hugh Maskaant and Dick Apon, based on a cluster of linked podia.

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Archigram inspired by the Pier. Typology: Pier

Archigram’s innuendo-laden fantasies were partly inspired by the pleasure pier. Image courtesy of Archigram

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Foreign Office 2002 Yokohama. Typology: Pier

Foreign Office’s 2002 cruise liner terminal in Yokohama reframes the pier’s function as a docking and landing stage while activating a new, topographic public realm. Image courtesy of David Parker / Alamy

In 2002, Foreign Office Architects unveiled Osanbashi Pier in the port of Yokohama, an audacious, topographical landscape of canted boardwalks that reconceptualised the pier’s original role as infrastructure for receiving cruise liners, while also activating a new public realm. For the Swiss Expo of the same year, Diller Scofidio + Renfro attempted to metaphorically ‘erase’ the pier, with the Blur Building in Lake Neuchâtel, enrobed in a diaphanous cloud of mist generated by thousands of nozzles. In theory, it was an ephemeral mechanism to reframe how space was seen and perceived. In practice, each visitor was furnished with a plastic raincoat to prevent getting sodden, which added to the surreal, suggestive nature of the enterprise.

As a unique social and architectural ecosystem rooted in an island mentality, the English pleasure pier did not travel well. The Palais de la Jetée in Nice, which opened in 1891, is one conspicuous exception. Channelling the faux orientalism of Nash’s Brighton Pavilion, it was a Belle Époque fantasia, with shops, gaming rooms, casino, theatre and restaurants, calculated to beguile English visitors on the Côte d’Azur. Described in some quarters as a ‘monstrous jellyfish’, its heyday was relatively short-lived. Falling prey to Nazi occupation, it was closed in 1942 and anything of value looted by the German army. The Vichy government then ordered its destruction and its remains were left to rot in a watery Mediterranean grave.

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Scheveningen, 1959. Typology: Pier

The pier at Scheveningen on the Dutch coast, 1959, a rare Modernist example. Image courtesy of Yuliya Mykolaïvna Heikens / Alamy

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Blur Building, Lake Neuchâtel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro. 2002 Swiss Expo. Typology: Pier

Perpetually enrobed in mist, the Blur Building on Lake Neuchâtel by Diller Scofidio + Renfro was designed for the 2002 Swiss Expo. Image courtesy of Beat Widmer

The war was also hard on its British counterparts. Most piers were closed and deliberately breached, with sections removed, though the idea of the Wehrmacht invading via the pleasure promenades of Eastbourne or Weston-super-Mare now seems preposterous. Ultimately, such sabotage only served to hasten their decline.

Had piers been land-based structures clogging up valuable real estate, many more would have been swept away by now. But physical survival is no guarantee of a future, as arson and weather continue to take their toll. The spectacle of once puissant piers inexplicably ablaze has become a regular, crowd-pleasing occurrence, like an English version of Viking longboat funerals with dead warriors immolated and consigned to some seaside Valhalla. Perhaps this might be the most symbolically fitting fate and all remaining British piers should be ceremonially torched on Brexit eve in a destructive, pessimistic inverse of hopeful beacon lighting. That they still endure, stuck in space and time, should compel new ways of thinking about them, but the world has long moved on, leaving the pier marooned, like Miss Havisham in her decaying boudoir, longing for salvation that never comes.

Cruise Terminal in Salerno, Italy, by Zaha Hadid Architects, 2016

Pleasure piers were originally mooring jetties for ships bringing trippers to seaside resorts, evolving into more complex organisms over time. The first building to be completed after her death in 2016, Zaha Hadid’s cruise terminal in Salerno reframes the role of pier as indeterminate terrain, mediating between land, sea and sky. Its elongated, ship-like structure flows and warps along the waterfront, penetrated by a network of ramps and canted floor planes conveying passengers from dockside to liner.

Like all Hadid’s work, it is conspicuously an object-building, calculated to draw attention to itself and Salerno, with the aim of reviving the port’s fortunes. Yet wrapped in a rippling manta ray roof, the building makes perfect sense in the context, extemporising on existing dockside types and designed on the basis of people flowing through it, which gives it a curious dynamism. 

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Zaha Hadid Architects Cruise Terminal in Salerno, Italy. Typology: Pier

Photograph by Hélène Binet

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Zaha Hadid Architects Cruise Terminal in Salerno, Italy. Typology: Pier

Photograph by Hélène Binet

Zha salerno

Zha salerno

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Pier 2, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco, USA, by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, 2017

Decommissioned in 1972, Fort Mason on San Francisco’s waterfront is a former military port. The pier contained an army warehouse, a simple industrial structure with concrete walls and steel trusses supporting a timber roof. The site is now managed by a not-for-profit organisation and existing structures colonised to accommodate an array of tenants and functions. The most recent development is the remodelling of Pier 2, a finger pier dating from 1912, to house studios, galleries and workshops for the San Francisco Art Institute. Combining drama and intimacy, the building lends itself surprisingly well to its new role. A new mezzanine structure defines cellular studio and gallery spaces on each side of a long, nave-like volume. The revitalised ensemble conjures a sense of the heroic while admitting abundant natural light and acting as an adaptable setting for student life.

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Pier 2, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, USA Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects 2017

Image by Bruce Damonte

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Pier 2, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, USA Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects 2017

Image by Bruce Damonte

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Pier 2, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, USA Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects 2017

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Harbour Bath in Aarhus, Denmark, by Bjarke Ingels Group, 2018

Many piers originally provided bathing facilities, as salt water was regarded as a curative and swimming also had therapeutic benefits. At the baths, which opened last year in Aarhus harbour, BIG collaborated with urban designer Jan Gehl to recast the pier’s healthful, sportif functions in a sybaritic melange of bathing pools, sun decks, promenades and saunas. Yoked together in a vaguely nautical, multi-level timber structure, it effectively extends the public realm into the water, revitalising a former industrial area. It also has a generosity of scale, use and corporeality, exhibiting that refreshing Nordic disinhibition around the comportment and public display of bodies. Lying on the same latitude as Edinburgh, Aarhus demonstrates that the myriad pleasures of al fresco bathing need not be confined to warmer climes. 

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Harbour Bath, Aarhus, Denmark Bjarke Ingels Group 2018

Image by Rasmus Hjortshoj

Big harbor bath

Big harbor bath

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Remodelling of St Pete Pier in St Petersburg, USA, by ASD Architects and Rogers Partners, 2019

There has been a pier in the Florida resort of St Petersburg since 1889, initially as a railway trestle for the delivery of goods into the city from Tampa Bay, then as a railway-accessible attraction for locals and tourists. In 1926 the ‘Million Dollar Pier’ opened, featuring a huge pleasure pavilion. This was demolished in 1973 to make way for a five-storey inverted pyramid – a rare example of a purpose-designed structure from the modern era. Due to be completed later this year, the latest chapter in its history sees the pyramid demolished and the pier comprehensively remodelled, extended and landscaped. The proposed mixed-use project will feature restaurants, cafés and fishing decks along with boating, bathing and shopping facilities. Unlike previous incarnations, which could accommodate trains or cars, the pier will be pedestrianised, creating a new kind of seafront realm that re-envisages and reinvigorates the traditional pier archetype.

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Remodelling of St Pete Pier, St Petersburg, USA ASD Architects and Rogers Partners 2019

Courtesy of the architect

Pier looking east no lounge

Remodelling of St Pete Pier, St Petersburg, USA ASD Architects and Rogers Partners 2019

Courtesy of the architect

St pete pier

St pete pier

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Lead image: the immolation of Eugenius Birch’s West Pier in Brighton

This piece is featured in the AR April 2019 issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today

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