When tasked with regenerating a neglected seaside pleasure pier, London-based architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan resisted the temptation to build an iconic structure.
Af Benjamin Wells
Instead, dRMM worked closely with the local community to craft a vast and undefined public platform, able to support a multitude of activities. This process, along with the architects’ imaginative response to the brief, earned Hastings Pier the prestigious Stirling Prize for the best new building in the UK.
In 2010, Hastings Pier joined a long list of English seaside piers that have succumbed to fire, leaving a mass of charred timber but also an opportunity to redefine the pier for the 21st century. dRMM won an open design competition, initiating a seven-year collaboration between architect, engaged local residents and various stakeholders. Whilst the Heritage Lottery Fund provided most of the £14.2m reconstruction budget, a crowdfunding campaign raised an additional £590,000, instilling a crucial sense of local ownership and investment.
dRMM’s role has been utterly pivotal in realizing this masterpiece of subtle, effortless design. They have driven this project through to completion: campaigning, galvanizing and organizing local support throughout each aspect of the funding stage. They went above and beyond what most people think of as the role of the architect – and then they kept going.
— Judges of the Stirling Prize
Pleasure piers emerged in the Victorian era in response to the increasing number of tourists visiting seaside resorts, allowing holidaymakers to promenade over and alongside the sea regardless of whether the tide was high or low. This quintessentially English typology became synonymous with excess and enchantment, delighting visitors with bright lights, extravagant performances, and elaborate structures. But in the era of budget flights and package holidays many of these piers, and indeed their host towns, became increasingly neglected.
The project’s architectural ingenuity, and possibly its long-term viability, lies in its resistance to the temptation of a grand gesture – some kind of nostalgic icon at the end of the pier that aims to draw visitors along its length. In its place is a vast, stark timber platform, apparently unprogrammed, allowing for an abundance of activities without predefining them. This deck aims to prevent the accumulation of low-quality, semi-permanent commercial booths; it is fully serviced and connected in order to host a lively and ever-changing lineup of performances, concerts, markets, and funfairs, but is also able to serve as an open, undefined public space that articulates the meeting of land and sea.
This space offered more potential than an ‘iconic’ building on the end of the pier, and demonstrates the evolving role of the architect as an agent for change.
— Alex de Rijke, co-founder of dRMM
A surviving Victorian pavilion at the start of the pier was revitalized into an open-plan glazed cafe, offering a hint to the pier’s former character, but the only other permanent object is a low timber pavilion rising from the center of the deck, containing a flexible event space and visitor center. This space accommodates indoor events, exhibitions, and educational activities, whilst framing a panoramic view of the pier and the open sea beyond. A grand staircase – doubling as seating for outdoor performances – leads up to a rooftop belvedere, from where visitors can survey the expanse of decking and whatever activities it might be hosting.
This pavilion does not aspire to make an architectural statement, rather dissolving into the timber deck and leaving the pier itself open to the masses. The creative use of timber is central to the project’s character; the visitor center is a cross-laminated timber structure, clad in timber decking that survived the 2010 fire. This reclaimed timber was also used to make the furniture on the deck, designed by dRMM and a local wood recycling company as part of an employment initiative.
It is a project that has evolved the idea of what architecture is – and what architects should do.
— Judges of the Stirling Prize
Hastings Pier is an extension of the promenade from which it projects, as an open, public and undefined space. This is striking in its modesty, especially considering the very idea of a pleasure pier – an entirely man-made structure that rejects the natural limits of the coastline and boldly ventures out to sea. Whilst this may tempt a statement of achievement and showmanship, dRMM has instead stripped the pier to its basic components, creating a genuinely public space that is owned by locals. There are future plans, including constructing a large mobile timber canopy that can traverse the entire 280-meters length of the pier, and the strength of Hastings Pier is that it is now equipped to embrace this and whatever else its community of users can imagine.