The saddest thing about returning to Brighton recently was seeing the effects of the official vandalism of the West Pier. Back in February the bulldozers were sent in to remove the wreckage nearest to the shore. The first I learned of this was when my Dad joined me in India. He'd been given the day's Times newspaper on the flight. Inside was a photograph of the demolition, which currently appears on the West Pier Trust site, a page crowing Removal of the Concert Hall Attracts Media Interest.
Richard Willis recently wrote a good post on the West Pier,
listing some of the reasons why this demolition was a travesty. He argues about the
beauty of the ruins; their iconic status; nostalgia; and their place in English
culture. It's a good, passionate piece of writing.
I personally thought the ruins were beautiful. At low tide it was
possible to stand inside the ruined dome. It was a strange, sad space, the wreckage draped with seaweed. Being inside this structure, normally submerged by the tides, was a powerful experience. This has now been denied to everyone.
Rachel Clark, chief executive of the West Pier Trust was quoted in the Argus (West-pier clean-up operation begins, 2nd Feb 2010) as saying: "For the last couple of years the concert hall has been resting on the sea bed and it has been quite dangerous. People could climb on it and we would be liable if they got hurt." I'm not sure why this had suddenly become an issue, when the ruins had been in their current position for years. I certainly never saw anyone
trying to climb the wreckage. I also wonder if another solution could have been found rather than removing the remains of the concert hall.
In the West Pier Trust statement on the demolition on January 31st, the Trust was "pleased to announce that the collapsed remains of the Concert Hall will be removed during the next two weeks", and that this demolition was "a requirement of the i360 planning permission and has the full support of Brighton & Hove City Council and English Heritage". The implication being that the old West Pier is being exchanged for the new i360.
What's interesting is that while the West Pier remains were being removed, the i360's problems were continuing. A BBC website article on problems with the Brighton O and i360 (4th February 2010) announced that "The i360 viewing tower, due to be built near the remains of the West Pier, still needs a sponsor." David Marks, representing Marks-Barfield architects, said that the project was short of cash: "We have got most of the money in place. We have made the significant investment in the project and this year, now that we are coming to the end of the recession, we are hoping to finalise the funding and get on with it."
Which makes you wonder why the demolition work was done now. The i360 is a troubled project. Take this Argus article from July 2008, when the project hit an early delay, with a Marks-Barfield spokesperson saying "We remain very optimistic it will be open by Spring 2010." In November 2008, the Argus reported that Marks-Barfield "haven’t quite got the full funding together but they are ready to go as soon as they can". I have several projects ready to go, except for the money, but it doesn't mean they're likely to happen.
The original planning permission was granted for three years. According to the Argus in October 2009, "In June the company admitted it needed another £20million. Planning permission for the i360 is due to expire on October 25 so work will need to start before that date. Geoff Lockwood, deputy chairman of the West Pier Trust, said: “Planning permission won't expire as next week they're starting to do the piling work." A statement from David Marks, from Marks Barfield, said: "This is a short piece of preparatory work."
All we have to show for the project that replaces the West Pier ruins is a "a short piece of preparatory work". According to an October 2009 article in SkyScraperNews.com, Prep-Work Begins On i360, "Once
construction work does start on site, the issue of renewing planning
permission becomes moot whilst there are few rules on how quickly they
have to build the scheme meaning that they can do work at the speed the
lack of full funding allows."
So the work for the i360 is progressing slowly, just quick enough to maintain the planning permission. The current aim is that the i360 will open in time for the 2012 London Olympics. Arriseme on the Argus comments quipped: "I look forward to attending the opening of the i360 in 2012. I shall, of course, be arriving via the seafront monorail that by then will link the Black Rock mini-stadium with the Gehry Towers."
While I prefer to now-demolished ruins of the pier to the i360, I'm not against the i360. In a Telegraph interview with the architects (August 2006), Marks-Barfield make a strong case for the construction of the tower. They speak about their inspirations, which include a Victorian account of a hot-air balloon ride over London (reminiscent of the tethered hot-air balloon that used to be in St Anne's Well gardens, commemorated in this postcard).
The i360 is described as a "vertical pier". In addition, "As part of the plans for the new tower, the old Victorian toll booths will be restored, the beach will be cleaned up and a heritage museum put in place. The trust might also have enough left over to help fund new planning applications and funding bids to build a new West Pier, after years of disappointments."
The i360 won't save the West Pier, but it may evoke some of its charm. But if I had to choose between the ruins of the West Pier and the i360, I'd choose the ruins. There was a unique charm to those, and it's a shame to remove them for a project that looks like it will never happen.