The burning pier is a rite of the British seaside, occasional, unscheduled but persistent, whereby bored teenage arsonists or seekers-after-insurance-claims or pure accidents spark conflagrations of teetering Victorian structures which, despite being made of iron and placed over the sea, burn merrily. It turns out that the wooden shack-like buildings on top, plus timber decking, are enough to fuel the blaze; conventionally equipped fire brigades can’t get to the end to put it out. So residents and consumers of news are treated to the pagan spectacle of fire over water on a grand scale.
Sometimes they burn more than once – for example Hastings Pier in 1917 and 2010, and the West Pier in Brighton in March and May 2003. Then follows the less exciting sight of attempts at resurrection. The 19th-century business models that got them built no longer work. The damaged historic metalwork can be astoundingly expensive to restore. The ownership might be opaque. What’s left rots. It becomes a handy symbol of bygone halcyon days.
Hastings and the West Pier were both works of the master of such things, Eugenius Birch, and this summer both have staged different kinds of revival. Together these projects are the best things to have happened to piers in a long time, but their approaches are almost opposite. Both owe a debt to the great architect and architectural thinker Cedric Price, who fought against the idea that buildings should be rigid, po-faced monuments, but in divergent ways. The Brighton example arrives via the hi-tech tradition that loves ambitious engineering and detail; the Hastings one follows Price’s belief that it’s often better to do less than more.
In Hastings the first miracle is that the pier has been revived at all. Even before it burned, nearly six years ago, campaigners for its wellbeing had a hard job contacting its mysterious Panama-registered owners, Ravenclaw Investments. It was little easier afterwards, but eventually the Labour-run council compulsorily purchased it for £1 and put it into the care of the Hastings Pier Charity, a community benefit society that aims to run it as a “People’s Pier” for residents and visitors. With the help of £12m of lottery money and the sale of shares to more than 3,000 people, they are doing just that. Crowdfunding is still going on.
A design competition was held, won by the architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan, who chose not to reinstate what Alex de Rijke calls the “shanty town of commercialism” – the candyfloss stalls and games arcades – that used to crowd it. DRMM also wanted to avoid “a big hero building at the end of the pier, but to welcome what the fire did, which was to edit out all the stuff that was there before”. They wanted to restore the pier to its essence, a big deck over water.
This doesn’t mean they wanted to abolish fun, but that the pier would be a “canvas where people brought the colour”. It is strong enough and well enough supplied with electricity and other services that temporary structures can be erected for concerts (Hendrix, the Stones and Pink Floyd performed here long ago). Carousels, bouncy castles and vending stalls can and do appear. But it also enables you, undistracted by clutter, to inhale the experience – the view, the light, the air.
DRMM’s simple designs at first met with doubt in the town. It was called “the Plank” in a none-too friendly way, but Hastings has never looked better, in the long sweep of its front towards Beachy Head in one direction or to its castle-topped cliffs in the other, than it does now from the end of the pier.
Nor is the design just about decking. A somewhat castellar pavilion, clad in timber from the old pier, pops up in the middle, to house cafe, shop and exhibition space. On one side it descends in large steps, to provide seating for possible performances. Connoisseurs of 1930s architecture might see it as a less elitist version of a villa that the writer and political troublemaker Curzio Malaparte built for himself in Capri in 1937, but you don’t have to get the reference to enjoy it. Details add playfulness – zigzags in the cladding, changing rhythms in the balustrade, curvy purpose-designed furniture.
The British Airways i360, a 162-metre high structure in Brighton costing nearly £50m, is the brainchild of the architects David Marks and Julia Barfield, and is a reprise of the bold entrepreneurial formula that made them famous when they created the London Eye. Like the Eye, it is a self-sustaining business proposition, whereby a profit will be turned for the company that built and runs it, in which Marks and Barfield are major shareholders. Brighton and Hove city council expect to earn more than £1m a year from it, and contributions will also be made to the trust that is still hoping to renew the West Pier. It benefits from a loan from the little-known but useful Public Works Loan Board, but no public subsidy is required.
It stands at the point where the West Pier once joined the land, on axis with the disintegrating metal island that is most of what remains of the old construction. Rather than add to its history of failed attempts at rebuilding, the i360 offers something new, a “vertical pier” in which you can “walk on air” rather than water. It is a stick carrying a glass-walled sliding pod, a giant lollipop on which the sucky bit moves up and down. Rather than the multiple capsules of the London Eye it offers a single large one, big enough for 200 people, from which at its highest point you can see up to 26 miles.
Like the Eye, it is a funfair ride given dignity and respectability by careful detailing and good quality materials, and its scale makes it into a landmark for its city. A convex mirrored underside creates distorted shifting reflections of the surroundings as it rises, again in a tasteful-fairground spirit. Pavilions that flanked the entrance to the original pier have been restored. It is a work of international co-operation, a reverse Babel in which manufacturers from Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Australia found a common language in the making of the i360 out of the cladding, machinery, structure, dampers, pods, glazing and other elements they variously supplied.
Both the Brighton and Hastings structures are machines for enjoying the view, but one offers a quick, memorable, well-managed buzz, at £15 for a full-priced ticket, and the other an open-ended exploration, of lower intensity and free of charge. One is a singular object that stands apart from its surroundings, the other an outgrowth of its place and time. My temperament prefers the latter – and i360 gets a bit awkward when it has to connect with its less-shiny surroundings – but both play Lazarus with locations that seemed doomed, and both are magnificent achievements.
- Hastings Pier is open now. The i360 in Brighton opens on 4 August