The West Pier Trust and their quest to preserve the iconic pier’s legacy
The West Pier is arguably the most iconic piece of Brighton’s history. Designed and engineered by Eugenius Birch it opened in 1866 with the vision of attracting visitors to Brighton and being able to withstand the throes of a hostile seafront. Unfortunately as the years went on, it wasn’t just the stormy seas that posed a threat to the beautiful structure. Abandonment, two arson attacks and lack of funding meant that it was left to rot for many years. The West Pier Trust was set up in 1978 and is a charity and limited company which own the pier and the rights that attach to it. They want to re-instate the prom next to the i360 with one of the kiosks saved from the Grade-1 listed pier as well as hold exhibitions and events to celebrate the history and elongate the legacy of one of Britain’s most beautiful structures. The trust is fully responsible for the remains of the pier and the admin of the site which includes being the landlord of the i360. By owning the land the trust can guarantee a firm foundation and positive relationship with those running the new attraction. It also enables them to manage the near-shore wreckage, which has increased due to grueling winter conditions over the last few years. The storms in 2016 damaged the pier very severely so there is much more debris in the water. The wider goal as indicated on their website sets up the idea of “a new contemporary West Pier for Brighton which compliments and enhances the character of the city”. They will oversee the proposals put forward for a “financially viable new structure” as well as “consultation[s] with the people of Brighton” on their future plans.
In 1998 the trust was awarded £14.2 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the restoration of the pier. The plan was to fully restore it back to its former glory but it was met with complication after complication when it took several years for the developers, the West Pier Trust, private sector partners and the Heritage Lottery Fund to complete negotiations. They were also met with aggressive and sustained opposition by the owners of Brighton Palace Pier. In 2003, five years after the money was initially granted the pier was hit with two completely devastating arson attacks. There has been speculation for years that the owners of the opposing pier were to blame but nothing ever surfaced to implicate them, or anyone else, in the attacks. English Heritage was commissioned for a report after the damage was done on the viability of restoration. They concluded that since there was a wealth of salvageable materials and due to the large amount of public and private photographic and video archive, the pier could be repaired but the Heritage Lottery Fund withdrew their funding. With no public funds, the pier had it’s concert hall removed in 2010 and was left as the structure we all know today. It’s “desolate beauty” is a clinching factor to the pride that is felt across the city for the sublime piece of architecture. It has become one with the sea and one with the people and acts a reminder of why conservation is so important for the innovative pieces of old architecture across the country. The Trust have said they have “no intention of removing the remains unless overwhelming safety issues arise. But now beyond repair, they will inevitably degenerate and be reclaimed by nature.” Since the build of the i360, the Trust hope that “there will be new interest in developing the pier itself. It would be a contemporary interpretation of the West Pier, like the British Airways i360, reflecting the high standards of design and advanced technology used by the designer of the pier, Eugenius Birch.”
As previously mentioned the pier is Grade-1 listed and is the only pier in the UK to hold the prestigious listing. The Trust say that the iconic West Pier was “seaside architecture at its finest, designed to attract and entertain holiday-makers with all the pomp and frippery that is the essence of the English seaside resort. The pier was unique in being largely unaltered since that time, its proportions and style were unrivaled and its concert hall and theatre were two of the best Victorian and Edwardian seaside entertainment buildings”. Whilst we can no longer walk down the wooden boardwalk or admire the incredible concert hall, the new premises the Trust have in Kings Arches means that more Brightonians and visitors alike can learn the history of the skeletal dome that’s left. The centre on the ‘Piazza’ is an office, information point, shop and gallery that often has archive photography exhibitions to encourage the community to use it as a valuable resource of history. Located just at the front of the shop is the Golden Spiral, 24 original West Pier columns which aim to commemorate the West Pier and it’s architect. The project was funded by the council’s income from the i360 and was put in place by the West Pier Trust. The columns were all fully restored and set into a cast iron bases and form a perfect ‘Fibonacci’ spiral illuminated at night by white/golden light. The spiral is “found in nature and used to achieve balance and harmony in architecture, art and design…the geometric and mathematical origins of the spiral reflect the masterful engineering of the West Pier”.
The West Pier Trust is needed in Brighton & Hove. It’s needed to maintain one of the most heartbreaking declines of Victorian architecture and serves as an educator for visitors and new residents of the city. You can become a member, even if you don’t live in the UK, which costs only ten pounds. There’s offers for the i360 but any money they get is put back into the upkeep the West Pier so dearly needs. Alternatively to support the efforts, the West Pier Trust is fundraising to restore an original 1866 kiosk which was rescued in the 90’s. They are embarking on the first stages of the project now and any penny they get will go towards the “exquisite and important element of the original pier”.