With Quadrophenia in mind, I have headed South to Brighton this Bank Holiday. But far from marauding Mods and Rockers fighting for parkas v leather and motorbike grease v Lambretta mirrors on Madeira Drive, all I found were the comatose Historic Commercial Vehicle Society enthusing about liveries over the tinny public address system.
All that trivia was too much for me and so I loped (Westward Hove!) towards the shipwreck ruins of the West Pier.
Its designer Eugenius Birch, was growing up in London’s East End when Victorian industrialisation was gathering momentum. Joining the stampede of innovation, he became an architect, a draughtsman (and artist), building bridges, viaducts, harbours, docks and among others, the Calcutta-Delhi railway. But with more of an instinct for marine design he also tucked away 14 seaside piers into his portfolio and around our coasts, all using his screw-pile method – literally twisting the iron piles into the sea bed making them far sturdier than the wooden posts that till then were the norm. So sturdy were the foundations that his first pier at Margate survived 120 years before succumbing to the ravages of storm.
Completed in 1866 the West Pier became for Birch, like Brunel’s GWR, his jewel. The pier to end all piers. Mimicking the Regency Pavilion, there were Oriental octagonal kiosks, grand archways, elaborate Bath stonework, a magnificent theatre and later, a bandstand. ‘Taking the air’ in the Victorian sense culturally translated to ‘saucy postcards’ in the Fifties and British cinema was lent its most enduring film locations for Brighton Rock (1947),’Oh What a Lovely War’ (1969), unmentionable Carry-On disasters but more lasting perhaps, are the images of pitch battles between disenfranchised youth emulating Marlon Brando.
The 1920s saw the pier’s heyday but what remains, perhaps morally too, are the frames of mountain bikes pathetically locked to rusty railings and of Birch’s Empire-inspired Gothic structure, a Grade 1 skeletal hulk. To take its place, the people of Brighton and Hove will be blessed with the i360 – a 183 metre-high observation needle being drawn up by architects David Marks and Julia Barfield whose London Eye concept is the most visited paid-for attraction in the country with over 20 million visitors to date. “Our philosophy is to provide an architecture that is humane, accessible and a pleasure to experience,” they say in their practice’s statement.
An appropriate premise too, I would say, for a master pier-builder.
Filed under: England, history, Photography | 3 Comments
Tags: architecture, Brighton, piers