Winning the Stirling Prize is like receiving the best picture Oscar, so excuse me while I do the important bit first: thank you, Hastings, for giving us the chance to work on what is a career-defining project, and for being such a wonderful, resourceful and interesting client – or in this instance, clients. It’s 23 years since Alex de Rijke, Philip Marsh and I founded dRMM, and it feels like the pier is the culmination of a principle we have held to throughout: to prioritise environment and people when making places, rather than our own architectural desires. This principle developed from a deeply held belief in the ability of good design to transform and inspire people’s lives, not just through aesthetics, but the equally important ability to solve problems.
Chief among the problems for the design of Hastings Pier was the moment during the competition when a fire devastated most of the pier’s deck and buildings – gutting not just the structure but the town’s hopes for its most famous landmark. However, instead of causing the people of Hastings to give up, the fire galvanised them into a resilient, highly motivated and organised collective, led by a handful of inspired individuals. They formed the Hastings Pier and White Rock Charity and took a massive risk, buying the burnt-out skeleton of the Pier for £1 from the council. We won the competition, and so began a seven-year collaboration.
Our immediate focus was to consult stakeholders and define what their vision for the pier was. From this, we helped to coordinate and launch a crowdfunding campaign, with 3000 shareholders raising £590,000 of the £14.2m cost, the rest coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The loan may only have been a fraction of the overall budget, but this local investment has given Hastings residents a real sense of ownership, earning the pier the title “the people’s pier”.
How do you build a building to satisfy a client made up of 3000 people? The answer, it turned out, is not to build one at all. It is almost impossible for an enclosed space to fulfil all the needs of a community with an ambitious brief and very little money. From rock concerts to circuses, community choirs to fishing, Hastings Pier has to be all things to all people, so we decided to spend most of the available money on shoring up the structure, allowing anything to be placed upon it. By servicing it with power, light and water, we helped to create an enormous, free, public platform over the sea. Accessible and sustainable, it frames a spectacular seascape and offers unlimited variations for relaxation, contemplation and play. The redesign is completed by a visitor centre clad in wooden boards from the fire and a grand external staircase that doubles as a performance space.
Affectionately nicknamed “the plank” by locals, the new pier has risen, phoenix-like, from its all too real ashes, thanks in large part to local craft and ingenuity. Much of the painstaking restoration and new building was completed by local contractors and business, including the furniture, built by a local organisation set up to help the unemployed get back to work. Councils across the country can take inspiration from Hastings Pier, and open their minds to the endless possibilities that can be created when the local community becomes so whole-heartedly involved.
Our job as architects was to help bring together ideas and people, to analyse, question, create and communicate a vision – one that the public can appreciate and get behind. This project serves as a profound signal as to what to what can be achieved through the willingness to take risks and to believe in the community. We listened and learned from each other; critiqued, respected and enjoyed each other’s opinions (through good times and bad). Ultimately, we were stronger than the sum of our parts. Perhaps, in an increasingly cash-strapped, risk-averse and mistrusting society, this is something we can all learn from.
So please give a big round of applause, not just for one very proud architectural practice, but for a whole, wonderful, vibrant town. And whatever you do, go there and see it for yourself. Whether it’s for a live music concert, a circus or simply a walk by the sea, it is sure to lift your spirits.
This article first appeared in the Evening Standard on 8 November 2017