The solid depiction of the liquid in the Southend Pier Cultural Centre’s architecture and the transformation unfolding around the world’s longest pleasure pier

by Gina S.

It is a matter of nature’s will that the countries enclosed by waters excel when it comes to seafront architecture, just as each territory is shaped by the conscious or unconscious human attempts to mirror the surrounding landforms into edifices by reason of appliance. In the 1900’s Britain numbered already 80 resorts exhibiting various types of architecture infrastructure. These recreation spaces became gradually so widespread during the 20th century that one could not tell the difference between a resort and an average city in terms of population, with Brighton, Southend, Bournemouth and Blackpool making the greatest instances. For the now we will focus on Southend which includes the longest pleasure pier in the world, given its rich history and the spectacular transformations unfolded around in the latest years.

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Not only that the Southend Pier survived two world wars, various fires and further changes, but it was even targeted by sea-worms before all these, the so-called naval shipworms which belong to a species of marine mollusc showing no mercy for any wooden structure, whether it’s a pier or a boat. From 1829 when the first foundation stone was laid till today, the Southend Pier took various forms of evolution. The idea of opening a cultural centre there came in 2007 under the decision of the Southend Borough Council to run a contest in order to restore the existing structure. Two years later a winning firm was announced, namely the Swedish White Arkitekter which designed the structure in collaboration with the UK-based company Sprunt, and the new pavilion opened in 2012 and then got the name The Royal Pavilion. This is an obvious reminder of the Brighton’s construction bearing the same name, although the resemblance doesn’t go beyond words, since the exotic oriental style of the latter would make the Southend Centre appear like an alien structure due to its edgy shapes and a modern architectural expression displaying a curious aesthetic openness.

By definition, a pavilion is meant to reflect the technological evolution of the age in which is erected, therefore, one of the most important principles in building the cultural center at Southend was the achievement of sustainability according to the contemporary means. The whole structure is made of durable, low-maintenance materials and the fact that is placed at a certain distance from the sea increases their conservation, being well-known that the salty environment damages the building materials down the ages. The Fiberline facade panels made of fibre-reinforced plastic and the rain-screen wall panels are also appropriate for such conditions being resistant to the sea environment, not to mention their aesthetic roles owing to the translucent proprieties, which make these elements adapt to natural light changes. This translucence works really well with the opaque illusion offered by the sea. Another relevant issue of these days regarding buildings relates to the usage of energy and how it affects the environment and ecology, thus the Southend Pier Cultural Centre uses renewable energies such as wind power while the heating system is based on sea water, ensuring a carbon-neutral environment.

The big windows adorning the front wall of the Southend Pier Cultural Centre allow great views for the visitors highlighting the purpose of the centre that is to offer leisure spent at the sea. They also ensure a harmonious aspect of the whole building. Being that the architecture relies on a steel structure, smaller windows would have made it appear inappropriate for the wooden stairs at the base due to a forced association of very different materials. In this form, the steel comes almost unnoticeable.

We could go as far as conveying a poetic explanation for the criteria involved in the construction of the Royal Pavilion and take the sea as the paradoxical foundation of this structure. While the usability of this building is strictly subordinated to the sea and its resources, the style is no less. It’s like the human expression reached a solid depiction of the liquid state and there would not have been any novelty if we were speaking of drawing physics and not an actual building. The outer design was inspired by the sea-wave patterns and the wind effects which were adapted to a seemingly minimalistic building. Even our photographic illustrations render the subject through marine hues and emphasize the transformation of the curvy waves into sharp patterns. 

Seen from a distance, the Royal Pavilion may look like an extension of the sea due to its flat lines and the sense of wideness which the viewer gets. This is how it conveys a close link between nature and society, although the purpose of the building doesn’t involve practical activities, i.e. working with natural resources which would be a contradiction to the pavilion’s purpose. The Asian architecture established such structures as resting places, spaces from where people could observe the landscapes and spend their spare moments. Later on, this type of building came to reflect the cultural climate of a certain place across the world since it was used for entertaining the masses, being closely connected with the national identity by reason of architectural innovation.

Regarding the purpose, the latest transformations at the Southend Pier consist in the development of the touristic attractions and the readjustment to the current tendencies. This place was meant for holidaymakers almost from its inception and other factors such as sea traffic and naval control seemed to be secondary, although the pier offered access to the sea during both low and high tide for one century. The Royal Pavilion’s aim was the increase of tourism in the area and like the case of all cultural spaces of these days, this is believed to be achieved through multi-functionality, so besides the main hall, which can fit various events from exhibitions to conferences, the pavilion includes art studios, a café, while the outdoor area comes with a terrace and a theatre. The very long pier nearby has been representing both a mark of the static contemplation and a platform which sets things in motion. The present days may transform it into a mere background for usual entertaining and business meetings, which can simultaneously be neglected by those focused solely on interactions or in search of permanent validation, and appreciated by the daydreamers who gaze the vastness of the sea without feeling its dangers. Others saw it since long before as a consequence of a collective fatigue, “a product of the half-cultivated public of the moment being too tired, mentally, physically and emotionally, to entertain themselves,” (Designing the sea, p. 61) along Blackpool and Margate Piers.

The architects’ undertaking of catching the dynamics of a liquid form, the sea water, into a stable dimension, may bring different interpretations if we start dissecting the meaning by drawing parallels with concepts shaped by thinkers such as Umberto Eco and his “liquid society”, which defines the constant social changes affecting today’s human interactions and social systems. On the one hand, Southend’s Royal Pavilion has a steady appearance compared to its fluid inspiration and one can translate this as a brave attempt to discover a certain pattern within the fluid mass confusion, but on the other hand, if we look from a certain perspective, the pavilion looks like it is about to be swept and get caught in a swirl because of the irregular angles in the roof’s surface, which were meant to express the wind’s presence. Thus, the sense of permanence vanishes again and we deal not only with a liquid society which cannot keep itself together, but with an on-the-wind dimension threaten of being irretrievably spread across the universe.  

 

References

-, “Southend Pier Cultural Centre”, white arkitekter, November 14, 2013, at teamwhitearkitekter.wordpress.com.

-, “The Royal Pavilion and the world’s longest pier”, Fiberline Composites, at fiberline.com.

Bridgette Meinhold, “Prefabricated Southend Pier Cultural Centre Sits At the End of the World’s Longest Pleasure Pier”, Inhabitat, September 25, 2012, at inhabitat.com.

E.W. Gilbert, “The growth of inland and seaside health resorts in England”, Scottish Geographical Magazine, 55, pp. 16-35, 1939.

Fred Gray, “Representing the Edge”, in Designing the Seaside, London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006.

Thomas Allen Britton, “On the Means of Preservation of Wooden Bridges, Jetties, Piles, Harbour Works, &c., from the Ravages of the Teredo navalis and other Sea-worms”, in A Treatise on the Origin, Progress, Prevention and Cure of Dry Rot in Timber, London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1875.

Umberto Eco, Chronicles of a Liquid Society, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.