The past few decades have been a dark era for British piers. Many of these elegant examples of Victorian engineering have crumbled under the relentless assault of the waves and the long-term neglect that came with the downturn in the British seaside holiday. But the seaside renaissance is well and truly underway, and with it a renewed interest in piers.
Southend's pier is the longest in the world, a Grade II listed structure that was originally opened in 1830. At 1.34 miles long, the pier juts out into the Thames Estuary, complete with its own train line and lifeboat station. In 2005 an accidental fire wiped out much of the pier's infrastructure and its timber decking, leaving the iron structure in a parlous state.
Following a design competition in 2009, a new Cultural Centre by Scandinavian studio White Arkitekter was approved. Working alongside engineers Price & Myers and UK-based Sprunt Architects, the new building has taken shape on the pierhead.
There were many factors to consider, not least the need for a lightweight building in a windy, tough environment. Construction involved using barges and cranes, taking the 170-tonne steel frame down the Estuary and up onto the cast iron piles that support the pier. Clad in a combination of GRP and marine plywood, the new structure has a specially-designed roof to aid its bird-friendly credentials (the pier is an important roosting spot).
The pier is also more of a landscape intervention, rather than the typical seaside haven for gaudy postcards, slot machines and soggy chips, and the Cultural Centre looks to capitalise on this, adding space for exhibitions, performances and even weddings to the new café space, terrace, and events area. The Thames Estuary is sweeping and romantic, in a rather bleak kind of way, and this spectacular piece of architecture sits in a watery no-mans land, high above the waves.