Diving for Pearls

Hastings Pier – Photo George Sinclair

In 2016, the increasing number of cultural venues along the South East coast, was joined by the re-opened Hastings Pier. Compared to the other 'String of Pearls' regeneration projects along the coastline, the 'People's Pier' is a different creature, the outcome of a decade-long community battle to save the Pier. Designed by dRMM and receiving UK architecture's most prestigious award, the Stirling prize, this should have been a happy ending. But in the real world happy endings aren't necessarily so straight-forward.

They call it the "String of Pearls." While that's a stretch – this necklace's only real jewel dates from the 1930's – the phrase does catch something of how the urban acupuncture applied to Kent and East Sussex's South East corner of coastline, which only a few years ago felt atomised and separate, is gradually beginning to be known for an overlapping series of projects, which may not evoke a cohesive cultural identity, but have brought attention, tourists and money to this set of seaside towns. Late in 2017, the latest in this string, Hastings Pier by dRMM, won the Stirling award, the country's most prestigious architectural gong, propelling the 'string of pearls' into new territory.

Turner Contemporary, Margate – Photo Wikipedia

Hastings Pier, though, is only the most recent addition to a long line of projects. Used by marketing executives and ‘coastal communities’ policy types alike, the ‘pearls’ include David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary in Margate, (2011) the restored ‘30’s Modernist pavilion, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Cheymayeff’s Bexhill-on-Sea De La Warr Pavilion  (2005), and just along the shoreline, up against the rock promontory of Hastings east end, HAT's Jerwood Gallery (2012.) A fruit of the Blair years, with its characteristic mix of culture led regeneration underwritten by the period’s relative economic buoyancy, these are only the best-known instances of the kind of cultural regeneration that only twenty years ago didn’t exist. Where one pearl may not be enough of a draw, multiple arts venues make the trip feel worthwhile, and have been at the heart of the regional cultural strategy and a kind of three for the price of two, marketing angle.

What connects this ongoing cultural investment is that these towns are some of the most impoverished in Britain. If poverty is often considered shorthand for the North/South divide many of Southern England’s seaside town’s have told a different story. Time was when these seaside destinations were at the heart of the beginnings of Victorian era mass tourism, growing rich on Londoners wanting a day, a week, or a weekend by the seaside. Margate, Ramsgate, Folkestone, Dover, Broadstairs, Hastings and St Leonards, are all vivid examples of the slow motion decline of prosperous tourist honey-spots, once the great holidaying public began to look further afield to sunnier climes, Spain or Greece and, before too long, the whole wide world.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill and HAT Projects - Photo DLWP
Jerwood Gallery, Hastings - Photo Ioana Marinecu

Up to a point this coastal communities strategy seems to be working. Travel the South East coastline and other venues drawing the cultural pound down to the seaside town come art trail coastline. Hard by the topographic non-place of the channel tunnel Eurostarland, Folkestone is home to Alison Brooks Quarterhouse. The flagship project of the town’s private regeneration organisation, Creative Foundation who, as partners in the public-private enterprise to get Folkestone’s Creative Quarter up and running, the Foundation have also helped underwrite the international Arts Tri-ennial getting off the ground in 2008, which celebrated its fourth festival last year. Likewise, Eastbourne has invested in the culture ticket, with Rick Mather Architects rehousing the Towner Gallery designed museum, and in the process creating a sizeable, central arts venue.

The Towner is the exception in this basket of new cultural destinations. Eastbourne is wealthier compared to Hastings, Folkestone or Margate, reflecting the moneyed lawns, land and estates that discretely populates many parts of inland Sussex. No surprise then that another leg of the cultural policy is to draw coast and country together, outlined in ESCC’s cultural strategy 2013 – 2023. ESCC's cultural strategy officer Sally Staples, points out, is how separate this coastal story is to the various cultural hubs once inland. “We’ve been developing how both can work together,” she says. One early fruit is last years Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion exhibition, linked to seven Sussex cultural venues including the Towner and the Jerwood Gallery.

Hastings promenade 1903, looking east – Postcard picture from Hastings local historian Richard Pollard
Disappearing cultural infrastructure - ESCC's plans to close
Ore Library in Hastings has mobilised local attempts
to slow this particular instance of the national library
closures steamroller.

Yet if poverty reduction is a key aim it can feel like one step forward, two back. Late in 2015, the De La Warr Pavilion hosted In the Realms of Others, a remarkable exhibition, organised by the Hastings organisation project art works (PAW) showing a spectrum of paintings, drawn pieces and videos by artists with special needs. Yet, at the same time huge cuts were being announced in January 2016 by ESCC; £24 million from a budget of £369 million, which by the end of 2017 amounted to cuts of £133 million from annual budgets since 2010, and statements from ESCC of further cuts on the way. Community and Adult Social Care programmes bore the brunt, the very fields that the De La Warr Pavilion exhibition helped to highlight. Another key part of the regional cultural infrastructure, with seven out of the county’s twenty four libraries on the verge of disappearing, including one in Hastings, Ore Library.

Hastings, with its once grand Georgian crescents, its long beachside promenade, and its Victorian 19th century new town equivalent, St Leonards, as well as its umbilical link to one of the formative historical episodes, characterises the change in fortunes that seaside towns all over Britain have been challenged by.

Rainy day pleasure promenade – Hastings old town and
sea front – Pictures Academy of Urbanism

With a population of 90 000, the kind of problems which come with poverty are familiar and well known; sink estates, heroin and other hard drugs, unemployment and health issues, and other indicators, remain stubbornly intractable, Arguably because of the recession, the town dropped back from 20th to joint 13th most deprived English town, alongside Stoke on Trent, between 2010 and 2015. It remains the most deprived town in the South East.

St Leonards Norman Road, Kino and further up the hill

Early into the new millennium, however, Hastings, along with its sister town, St Leonard’s, began to experience a new kind of incomer; hipsters. A wave of thirty something’s, drawn by the faded grandeur, cheap housing, and the romance of the down at heal, seaside atmospheres, have been steadily migrating south, as east London’s property values gradually rose making affordable places to live and work, increasingly difficult to come by. If the disparity of London living has only increased, becoming a live wire issue in the last five years, the disappearance of artists, makers and other bohemian types from Dalston, Hackney or Bethnal Green, was well underway by the time the 2008 economic crash hit, and propelled further waves to pack their bags and head south. These days, the town is home to one of the liveliest regional creative scenes, top-heavy with artists and makers doing their thing. The epicentre is Norman Road in St Leonards, a Spitalfields type cornucopia of clothing, fashion, ceramics and other maker trades, along with the lovingly returned-to-former-glories Kino cinema and art gallery, including a speciality in Soviet era art. Psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair has been visiting for years, eulogising the town in several of his books. Walk up Norman Road and you might for a minute think you’re in Stoke Newington. Turn the corner and you realise, soon enough, that you’re not. How much this recent influx benefits the majority of the old Hastings inhabitants remains moot, although the classic incomer gentrification debate has become a big enough story to have received broadsheet profiles. Ask cultural bureaucracy types about how money feeding into the borough is helping the town and you’ll get different answers depending on who you’re putting the question to. Tourism post recession, “has held up well,” according Hastings Council’s cultural and arts officer, Polly Gifford.

Ore from above

Kate Adams, head of project art works, proffers a different take. “On the surface it has been successful. The fabric of the town has gradually improved and a ‘cafe culture’ has been established. This may or may not be helpful to many but it provides services for people visiting the town that weren't there before. However, I am unsure whether these improvements have positively impacted on people on the margins of the town and those who experience economic deprivation. The ‘visitor experience’ seems to have been the highest priority for regeneration objectives over the past decade or so.”

Away from the seafront, the large estates running up into the hills overlooking the shoreline town centre remain much the same. Ore, once a neighbouring village, has long been a sprawl of estates and private housing to the north east of the main town. In Ore Valley, as in other parts of the wider Hastings, you can uncover less prestigious projects looking to bolster the social fabric. A recent public-private partnership has resulted well-known Academy builders, FCBStudios completing Hastings Academy in 2013, while years ago BBM Sustainable Design used the Bridge Community Centre project, as the first setting for locally sourced sweet chestnut glu-laminated posts and beams. This was after a first master-plan for the seashore front by Barcelona's MBM resulted in a useful if under-inspiring new rail station concourse and higher education buildings, alongside a reworked street-scape down to the eastern Old Town. This would become the site for the privately financed Jerwood Gallery, referencing and sitting cheek by jowl next to the hotch-potch village of black tar fishing huts, which have intrigued and delighted many a weekend visitor. Yet, the coal black tiled Jerwood can still feel like an alien outsider, despite efforts to inspire community interest and engagement amidst the fish and chips, cheeky postcards, beach front jollity all around.

The Bridge Community Centre, up the hills of the Ore
Valley, was the first building to use sweet chestnut
structurally in glulam posts and beams
Hastings station frontage remodelled and remade

Add to this an obvious subtext, that despite the Jerwood attracting visitors, what goes on inside is definitely ‘culture,’ underlines the sorts of divides that parachuting high art venues into a one time low culture tourist town invariably played out against such a canvas. Some say that the hipster contingent have already moved on; Margate is the new Hastings, Thamesmead the new Margate. Gifford laughs at this battle for the Shoreditch by Sea title, before recalling a comedy sketch she heard, sending the whole idea up, evidence, perhaps of how this new hipsterville dispensation has become part of broader national conversations.

The Jerwood gallery amidst the old town fishing huts – Photo Ioana Marinescu
The empty deck – Photo George Sinclair

It’s amidst this backdrop canvas of Hastings pulling itself back from the edge that a particular chapter in the story, the battle of Hastings Pier, has been playing out. It’s a chapter that is still being written, despite a premature illusion that the storyline was complete, the chapters finished, and the book being able to be sent away for printing. Yet though Hastings Pier had long been part of the South East coast’s regeneration timetable, its story was somewhat different to the other big regeneration projects. The Pier had been ‘saved’ by Hastings own community after a decade of blood, sweat and tears and by the time it finally opened in April 2016 the ‘People’s Pier’ was as much an iconic symbol of Hasting’s community spirit as it was latest shoreline pearl, to be threaded into the longer necklace. On that opening day, there was, unsurprisingly, a boisterous atmosphere at the far sea end of the Pier’s long, open deck. But, as the local MP spoke, with a queue of rain splattered local dignitaries to follow her, gusts of wind blew in from the cold English Channel, and middle aged Teddy Boys jived and swung amidst a crowd of Hastings best vintage and retro day trippers, you couldn’t help think, that the question that was likely at the back of many people’s minds was, ‘is this going to work? What’s going to happen?’


Hastings Pier Charity

“Hastings Pier is an architecture of events, rather than an architecture of objects,” director, Alex de Rijke, the dR in fun loving subversives, dRMM’s initials. dRMM’s involvement – winning the 2011 open competition – is, however, only a later chapter in a story which reaches back a half-dozen years prior to an overnight fire destroyed much of the above deck pier in early October 2010.

In one way this part of this story stretches right back into the early history of the English pier, a very particular structure typology, and the wave of enthusiasm for building these long horizontal walkway fun palaces, in the middle of the Victorian 19th century. The original Hastings pier had been home to the kind of gaudy seaside entertainment, linking the early 21st century back to the 20th and its 1862 beginnings, fruit machines vying with dodgems and other fairground attractions, tea-rooms and ice-cream vendors. Already, prior to the fire, marine engineers were engaged in intensive remedial work on the Victorian era ironwork. Designed by Eugenius Birch, (who designed many of the Victorian era pier’s including Eastbourne, Margate, and Brighton’s West pier) the ironwork was in a bad way by the turn of the millennium, and had been closed by Ravenclaw, its Panama registered owners in 2006, left, it seemed, to slowly disintegrate.

The closure concentrated minds, although what followed, after the inevitable public meetings, was less anticipated; a burst of civic energy, and the setting up of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust with the aim of buying back the pier. To the surprise of many, the community group, along with the level of support it generated in the town, had staying power. Years of campaigning tussles with the council, including a big symbolic march in 2009 through the town in what became known as the Battle of Hastings Pier, would turn the campaign into a local cause célèbre. And through sheer stubbornness and not giving up, the Trust and its supporters eventually win through. All this time, one of the Trust members, Jess Steele wrote in email correspondence around the time of its opening, “the local community have contributed massively, including over 3000 community shareholders of Hastings Pier Charity who now own the pier, and hundreds adopted planks, … Local people have been fantastic as volunteers and activists at all stages.”

Launch day, April 2016 – Photo's Oliver Lowenstein

Photo – Oliver Lowenstein

 “The fire was a tragedy,” acknowledges de Rijke, “though also a useful editing process to re-envisage what the pier could be.” The passionate debate and the community’s stubborn determination to remake the pier as their own helped, both architect and Trust member, say, in re-imagining its future, in new, twenty first century form. The Hastings Pier Charity, which evolved out of the Trust, was set up to secure funding, eventually bringing in £14 million and managing the project. The re-envisioning process emerged out of many meetings, involving the Trust, a broad swathe of community groups and dRMM, a practice whose playful mix of low and high culture and materials and participatory reputation chimed well with the explicit community dimension. “We always saw it as less static, more dynamic,” noted Michael Spooner, the projects architect for several years, in a phone conversation. “It was to be a stable, sustainable platform for events of all kinds.” The result is a wide, open, and flexibly empty deck, designed to cater for quick turnarounds between circus big tops, films and gigs.

There had been a more recent golden age for the Pier. From the sixties through to the eighties, gigs by rock bands, from the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, to Madness and Sparks and a thousand lesser-known gods, had made the Pier something of a mythic South Coast venue. There didn’t seem to be credible arguments why, if handled smartly, this sort of popularity couldn’t be revived. Anticipating big end of the pier events, dRMM had developed a sliding events canopy, the architects pouring many hours on its engineered, folded shell design.

Model of dRMM's sliding events canopy - dRMM

 “Nobody was going to want a shanty town of huts at the end of the pier” de Rijke says, rather provocatively, of the sizeable, bare deck, underscored by the absence of the erstwhile highlight, the sliding events canopy. An expensive item, it disappeared in one of the rounds of budget cuts, with promises that it could return in a planned second phase. The deck is covered with Eke, one of the toughest African hard woods, often used on exposed marine environments. Two modestly scaled buildings, a restaurant and an educational room, plus an outdoor seating auditorium, sit small upon the deck.

Edge of the educational hub, looking east – Photo George Sinclair

The educational hub is a mix of dRMM’s signature material, CLT, and recycled wood rescued from the under deck. They’ve also been liberally upcycled, into tables for the pier’s restaurant, a local bar, and much else by another of the town’s lively arty-maker social enterprise scene, Harbor, Hastings and St Leonards ReCycling Wood. “And,” adds de Rijke, “you can be sure they’ve made their way into the patio’s of all sorts of places across town.” 

The educational remit aligns Hastings with Southend Pier, one of the few other early twenty first century piers, by Sweden’s largest studio, White Arkitektur, A key difference, as De Rijke is keen to point out, is that unlike Southend, there’s no building at the end of dRMM’s piers 270 m linear extension into the sea. As with Southend, though, there’s a sense the pier is thoroughly twenty first century, with its’ blurring of art, education, and entertainment, a whiff of Victorian improvement. Steele outlines HPC’s vision of ‘a 21st century pleasure pier.’ “We did a lot of research into other piers and felt they were all facing great challenges to progress from the old version… We had the chance, particularly after the fire destroyed almost all the old buildings, to leapfrog that phase and create something fit for future enjoyment. So yes, culture and education but also fun! It’s really important that piers are classless –  ‘flat, free and accessible to everyone’. This is not high-brow culture like the Jerwood, or stuck forever with bingo and chips.”

Through the first two summers those involved watched how the Pier was faring, not least from the ‘String of Pearls’ marketing and cultural strategy viewpoint. “The pier is very much part of the string of pearls,” said Gifford at the time. “It will also help pull people who don’t know it’s there, towards St Leonards.” de Rijke, however, not required to be a booster for the town, dryly noted, that the council had missed a trick siting the Jerwood where it had, “in the wrong place. There already were the fishing huts. It should have been at the other end of town.”

One of Harbor’s recycled wood projects – Photo Harbor
Photo George Sinclair

Steele was entirely upbeat “the opening of the pier brings this long and important story to a climax… it’s already had a big impact on how the town is perceived as ‘on the up.’” That was early 2016. Nearly two years later things are rather different, both positively and less so. In summer 2017, RIBA announced that the project was one of six finalists for the Stirling Award. In early October it received the people’s vote, and three weeks later the award itself. It must have been a sweet moment for both architects, and the town itself, given the long fight to keep the pier at all. Yet, within a month new, different disastrous headlines were in the air, the Hastings Pier Charity had gone bust, and was being put into administration.

The storyline has been turned upside down, the sense of new beginnings that came with the re-opening now leaves something of a bad taste. There’s a consensus for the reason for the Charity’s collapse; money. Needing £800 000 a year to keep afloat, to help underwrite higher than anticipated insurance and maintenance costs, the Great British Weather had conspired to make the 2017 summer a complete wash out. The knock-on consequence was that visitor numbers slumped dramatically. While helping to restore the immediate stretch of the Hastings sea front, tourists hadn’t been drawn in enough numbers away from the old town and fishing huts under the cliffs, along the sea front to the Pier. The types of events being promoted on the Pier hadn’t worked as well as envisaged, it seemed, neither today’s nor yesteryear’s Pink Floyd’s had thus far made it to the Pier. There was also competition from events in a large car park at the far eastern edge, just beyond the fishing huts, though in a subsequent conversation in December 2017, Gifford didn’t think this was such an issue. Events were organised to complement, not to compete. And, she noted, it took five years to ensure the De La Warr Pavilion’s long-term future.

The short term running of the Pier has been taken over by the Heritage Commission, the organisation, which had provided the bulk of the funds. Both ESCC and Hastings Council are deep in discussion about what happens next. “Yes, it’ll change how the Pier is,” said Gifford in the recent conversation. What had seemed like a triumphant final chapter has turned into a longer book. We might be close to an alternative ending, or only half way through. Vultures have been circling; since late December there has been talk that the owners of the two nearest piers, Eastbourne and Brighton, are competing to take it over, slot machines and all. If this is the course of its future, it will surely be a betrayal of the decades’ worth of energy and effort that the local community put into saving their ‘people’s’ pier, though also an instructive reminder of the perils of what can happen. As of early February 2018, however, it hasn’t happened yet. For the architectural world, despite the signal of support its most important prize conveyed, will likely not do much more than impotent wringing of hands. How things pan out for the ongoing regeneration of Hastings and St Leonards, will only be clear after a few further summer’s worth of South Coast English weather. As for the String of Pearls, if the full-blown commercial option happens, the ironies of a ‘people’s’ commercial fun palace emerging out of a community’s desire for a people’s pearl, disappearing beneath the waves, will be complete.

Photo George Sinclair