Walking down Southend pier is truly memorable as it is the longest pleasure pier in the world. The experience gets even more interesting looking back into its history, which is actually equally long.(Read the Wikipedia article about it here) The foundations for the first pier were laid in 1829 but of course at that time it was much shorter, 180m to be exact.
Almost two centuries later and despite the turbulences in its history it measures 2158m. The reason for building it in the first place was that Southend’s coastline is laced with mudflats so even in full tide the sea is not deep enough for ships to come anywhere near it. Local authorities realised that the town would never be a successful seaside resort because of that and the solution would naturally be to build a pier so that ships would be able to reach it. The pier was initially wooden, then eventually made of iron, it has been used by the army during wars and has had pavilions, cafés and cultural centres built on it. Unfortunately most of the edifices erected there in the past were eventually burnt down. No one is sure what exactly caused the fires. Legend has it that there was some sort of curse placed on it. I am not sure of how plausible are the supernatural theories but having visited the place, I can attest there is an out-of-this-world quality to it.
Seeing it from the hill, it seems like its end is lost in the haze, deep into the sea. Getting closer to it, there is a plateau right at its beginning so it is possible to actually catch a view of the whole length of the pier from its side. It only makes sense, incredibly long as it is, that there would be some means of transportation for people who are unable to walk all the way to the end. Thus there is a train running on it which I did not take as I was determined to walk the walk. And what an experience that was! First of all the very fact that one walks so far away, into the sea. It goes without saying that the air feels and smells differently when one is in the sea in comparison to how it does on dry land. Then there is the silence.
Except for the train that anyway only runs twice per hour, it is remarkable how quiet it is walking down the pier. At the beginning the sea carries sounds as they are reflected on its surface but the further one gets from the shore the more they fade out into the soft whistle of the wind and the waves’ repetitiveness.
For me the walk was the most enjoyable experience as far as the pier is concerned. However there is a newly built cultural centre at the end of it, designed by Swedish architectural practice White Arkitekter, that opened its doors last July. First impression of the structure is that it attempts to make a statement but in a rather modest way. It seems light enough for a building placed on an existing structure that has been battered by sea and wind for a century.
To be honest, I did not exactly fall in love with the Cultural Centre without having something truly negative to say about it either. However I did appreciate it more after reading the architects’ statement where they explain how the building represents the balancing act of many conflicting factors. Salt corrosion, wave and wind loads, 100-year-old pier columns, flood prevention, even the protection of Turnstone birds from flying into its glass surfaces. Hence it was raised higher than the deck of the pier, it was built with special recyclable and waterproof materials, the overall geometry took into account the winds and glass panes change colour according the light so that birds do not fly into it. Still what was most impressive to me was that the whole building was built in Tilbury Docks and craned into place in one piece. Its frame was transported with a 400 tone marine sheer leg crane and the whole process was carefully choreographed to beat the low tide.
I was a bit disappointed to find out that the program of the competition that White Arkitekter won describes the building as a cultural centre and the brief required spaces for diverse functions. However it is more of a café than anything else. According the employees no cultural event has taken place yet and there are none scheduled for the near future either. The large room next to the café is mostly hired for private functions, weddings, conferences and such.
To conclude I do recommend the walk down Southend’s pier. The café is not exactly a must-see for the architectural enthusiast but it is interesting enough. A stop for a drink there is a pleasure even if it is mostly because of its location. Ultimately It would be wonderful if it was integrated more into the life of Southend’s inhabitants with the organisation of cultural events there, as it was initially planned. The idea of having an inviting creative hub in the middle of the sea sounds somehow very appealing.