Stepping on to Hastings Pier provides a sublime immersion in that liminal world between land, sea and sky. Under a canopy of sulking cloud, the eau de nil, blue, and grey palettes of the English Channel can feel like being enveloped within a sea view painting. The sense of vast stretching space evokes a sense of reverence, awe and respect, not only of the sea, but lifts imagination to the world beyond our own shores.
In acknowledgement of one of the finest public driven architecture projects of our time, London based architecture firm dRMM were awarded the 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize for their stunning contemporary design of the traditional English seaside pier. It’s a design which captures the original intentional essence of piers – that of standing on the deck of a ship surrounded by sea.
Yet mere weeks after receiving this accolade came the devastating news that Hastings Pier Charity has fallen into administration. The charity which runs the pier failed to secure backing from its key stakeholders – Heritage Lottery Fund, Hastings Borough Council and East Sussex County Council – for its three-year business plan. The Heritage Lottery Fund have agreed to provide interim financial support next year, while the future of the pier is decided. The fortunes of Hastings Pier prove a poignant reminder of the vicissitudes of Britain’s seaside towns – their rise to glory in an age of great optimism and engineering, and their subsequent spiral into decline, right through to their ongoing struggles for survival, with aspirations of regeneration and renewal.
When fire ripped its way through Hastings Pier in 2010, sending flames sky high, crowds gathered to watch the spectacle – many literally weeping - as they watched the fire crews struggle hard through the night to contain the blaze. They were unable to save the pier, which was largely destroyed.
But its historical and symbolic importance to the town was highlighted by a determination to restore the pier, and the local community was galvanised, uniting behind a five-year restoration project. Some £600,000 was raised through community shares to bolster the £11.4m of Heritage Lottery Fund and £2.5m of private funding. The pier reopened in April 2016.
The beauty of dRMM’s reinterpretation of Hastings Pier is in its elegance and simplicity. It’s devoid of all the usual clutter, with any traditional attractions such as a funfair-style carousel, stalls and cafe occupy the shore end of the pier.
Around halfway along, walls featuring a zigzag pattern lift a mezzanine deck with windows that mirror the shimmering sea, sky, and people strolling by. The platform is accessed via a sweep of raked steps that double as seating overlooking a space substantial enough to host performances – and has served an ongoing series of live gigs and film events.
Beyond, it opens out to a vast expansive deck. Peering over the far railings, barnacled remnants of the original ironwork structure have been left like defiant battle scars from fire trauma.
Piers were originally built as landing stages for mooring boats in deeper water, both to offload goods and people and create easy access to resorts from pleasure steamers. The first such pier, in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and Brighton’s Chain Pier, became major landing points for European travelers and goods. In an age when shipping, travel and tales of faraway places captured the public’s imagination, they were quickly recognised for their walking and promenading pleasures: walking out over and above the sea itself as if on some ocean deck held enormous appeal.
The seaside architectural historian Fred Gray perceived piers as places that offered solitary, introspective pleasures alongside the noisier social activities and attractions. The pier is a “platform from which to view the horizon, allowed people to reflect upon themselves, other places and other times”. This contrast between the hurly burly and the quiet, restorative nature of the sea reflects an ongoing tension and expectations of what constitutes a good seaside town and its offer.
Delve a bit further into history, and the layers of class and taste slide distinctly into play. Still resonant today in towns like Hastings, the pier has provided a platform for these tensions to be played out. Some locals complained vehemently that the pier was empty, missing the usual seaside attractions of arcades and fairs, and felt it had been designed for the cappuccino-drinking middle classes.
The first resorts – Scarborough, Brighton, Eastbourne – were mainly frequented by affluent classes seeking the healthy benefits of the salty sea air. But as train travel took over as the main transport to coastal towns, resorts opened up to a much wider demographic. Thanks to the new holiday and work regulations in the mid-19th century, seaside towns expanded rapidly to accommodate the traditional holiday escape from the cities and industrial towns.
Piers became an increasingly fashionable part of the seaside fabric, resulting in the numbers growing – in parallel with the popularity of resorts – from around a dozen to around 80 between 1850 and 1900. Some resorts, like Brighton, even had two or three along their foreshores.
The most noted pier architect and engineer was Eugenius Birch, who designed and built the original Hastings Pier. Previously specialising in railways, he turned his attention to a series of seaside architecture commissions, to reflect the zeitgeist.
He designed and built the first screw pile pier in Margate, which allowed the deep structural stability that piers needed to withstand time and tide, and went on to build 14 around the UK, including Eastbourne, Brighton’s West Pier, and the North Pier in Blackpool.
The seaside has always been as much about the side as the sea. These piers were often crammed with side attractions: stalls, salons, reading rooms and libraries, games, and telescopes. More recently, amusements, cafes, ice cream parlours, and confectionary outlets have arrived.
John K. Walton, the doyen of British seaside historians, also distinguished this contrasting view between the reflective, romantic and sometimes solitary pleasures of resorts, with the more communal and noisy activities of seaside associated with bawdy pleasure. Away from the everyday of work and home, authority seems diluted, constraints of behaviour suspended, and pleasure impulses given free rein.
Indeed, seaside towns still remain characterised by conflicting attitudes of respectability and licentious behaviour. The tension between the genteel, twee view of the seaside, and the tacky, over-sexed, boozy weekend getaways is reflected in how particular resorts have become associated with class and taste. Think how perceptions of Southwold, Whitstable and St. Ives – all stylish and desirable destinations to middle classes – contrast with ideas of Blackpool, Clacton and Skegness as traditional working class destinations, down-at-heel in their fortunes.
The Victorian penchant for landscaping means that seaside towns often still have some of the most substantial public space, including Esplanades, oriental gardens, seafront promenades, not to forget the beach itself. Notions that the public space of the seaside brought people together from all walks of life, rubbing easily along together, proved idealistic and erased over class tensions.
Piers often had admission fees, turnstiles, and toll gates – architecture that established entrances as markers of separate delineated space, intent on keeping ‘the lower sort’ and riff-raff out. The very notion of public space at the seaside is questionable and complex. A form of a kind of ‘municipal capitalism’ encouraged by seaside town councils emerged – a mix of public and private enterprise, where investments by local councils in design worked alongside entrepreneurial business.
From the 1970s British seaside resorts’ fortunes spiraled downwards as holidaying overseas in sunnier climes became more affordable, accessible and appealing. Seaside towns were used to seasonal feast and famine, but with the decline of traditional fishing, manufacturing and local industries, the short burst of summer employment simply wasn’t enough to sustain a thriving year-round economy. Although government bodies launched a £45m programme for seaside town regeneration in 2007, in 2013, a damning report from the Centre for Social Justice identified that 7 out of the top 20 most deprived areas in Britain were coastal towns, including Blackpool, Margate, Rhyl and Clacton-on-Sea.
Like many seaside towns, Hastings became associated with poverty, rife with unemployment, drug problems, and high benefits dependency. This more rough-and-ready boozy, sometimes brawling seaside town culture has always sat alongside, and intertwined with, a thriving creative and artistic community with a more Bohemian outlook – and is part of its appeal.
Government investment into programmes such as Sea Change is also indicative of anticipation that seaside regeneration programmes look to culture and cultural assets for substantial reinvigoration. Folkestone Triennial attracts visitors out of the usual season and invites visitors to discover the town via commissioned artworks by notable artists. Margate’s appeal as a new cultural hotspot was kick-started with the arrival of the Turner Contemporary gallery and the renovation of the Dreamland amusement park, and solidified by a hub of new creative businesses.
The ambitious plans for Hastings tried to move beyond simply recreating seaside nostalgia and look to helping economic revival, by investing in projects that will make the town more attractive to visitors who will spend money. Yet when the Jerwood Gallery was built to house a contemporary art collection in the heart of The Stade, the still-working fishing quarter in 2012, it was met by mass protest. Many local commentators have cited many possible reasons for the Pier’s business failure – but one noticeable conflict is in a similar narrative around class, taste, and the all-important questions about who regeneration projects actually benefit.
With the enlivening potential that regeneration offers, there’s also a real danger that big cultural asset projects come to be seen as a fix-all, and ongoing arguments attest to the uncomfortable acknowledgement that cultural regeneration can leave behind the poorer communities most marginalised in small towns. There’s little doubt that lasting economic and social change needs a much broader base than just arts and culture to build on, and must benefit the wider communities who live in seaside towns. Rather than dampen the possibilities and vitality that new projects can inject, it needs to be a vital part of regeneration conversation and thinking.
Hastings Pier is emblematic of a regeneration project that has emerged from the still beating heart of a town caught between the weight of its past – with all its knowing, dismantled nostalgia – and the need to be future and outward looking. The rebuilt pier is still a major asset to Hastings in need of a new workable business model. Many local people are calling for Hastings Council to invest further in the pier’s future – but given its claim that it has already invested what it can, some fear it may be returned to private enterprise.
Culture led regeneration plans need to have real benefits for local communities, and with that requires long term public and private investment. We also need to stay bold with ideas and ideals to allow strong visions for the future. Hastings Pier pushes us to its furthest reach, encouraging us to look to the horizon, the aspirations of what might be, and beyond. Let’s hope that view and optimism don’t fade.