Where the burnt out husk of Brighton’s West pier used to touch terra firma, a new landmark for the seaside town has risen from the long-dowsed ashes. London Eye-architect Marks Barfield has created a vertical pier - British Airways i360
Words: Travis Elborough
Photography: Paul Raftery
With a timing that seems propitious, British Airways i360, billed as a ‘vertical pier’, arrives 150 years since the now ruined West Pier first opened to the public on almost the same spot: the western end of Brighton’s seafront, on the border of always more stately and sedate Hove and opposite the stuccoed late-Georgian terraces of Regency Square, whose buildings are usually credited to the prolific local architects-cum-speculative builders, father-and- son team Amon Wilds and Amon Henry Wilds.
From a complex on the ground floor, the viewing pod rises into the sky over the beach
British Airways i360’s co-creators are the husband-and-wife team of Julia Barfield and David Marks, alumni of the Cedric Price and Keith Critchlow era, Architectural Association and Rogers’ and Foster’s practices. Their London Eye, as a thoroughly modern reboot of a Walter Bassett-style Big Wheel, succeeded in bringing the jollity of high-Victorian world fairs to London’s South Bank and the millennial celebrations. They confess that the i360’s opening date owes more to the 11-year battle to secure funding than anything else. But they are unavoidably taken with that synchronicity and see obvious parallels between the two structures. Both, they argue, will have been built using the latest techniques and materials of their ages, and for the express purpose of enhancing human pleasure.
Elevation drawing of the i360 in Brighton showing the size relationship to the pier
The viewing pod at ground level, ready to make one of its many daily ascents
Transportation is also something of a common theme. The West Pier, like most of the very first seaside piers, was once a point of arrival and departure for steam boats, while British Airways i360 offers a 20-minute journey, or perhaps more accurately a ride, up into the sky. In both instances the aim was, and is, to take the visitor some place else, physically and metaphorically. Though it is mildly ironic - or simply proof that the cultural tide of British coastal towns has well and truly turned in the wake of the Turner Contemporary and the reopened Dreamland in Margate, and the Jerwood at Hastings et al - that this latest addition to Brighton is sponsored by an airline. It was, after all, the appearance of cheap package deals to the Continent in the Sixties and Seventies that had such a devastating effect on seasonal seaside trade.
The i360 sits between the two Italianate portals to the old West Pier. They have been recreated with 24 tonnes of cast-iron decoration from mouldings, old plans and pictures.
Etymologically speaking, though, our word ‘pier’ comes from the French ‘pile’ (in Latin ‘pila’) for a ‘stone barrier’ and hence ‘pillar’ - the structure that the i360’s steel-mesh tower, already officially recognised by Guinness as ‘the world’s slenderest tower’, most resembles when its observation pod is at rest and out of view below the promenade. But equally, the homonym ‘peer’ meaning both to look (‘to peer out’) and an aristocrat (‘a peer of the realm’) rather neatly ties together two of the factors that led to the scrofulous fishing town of Brighthelmsea becoming the pre-eminent seaside resort of Brighton in the first place: royal visitors and the whole concept of a ‘sublime’ sea view.
The diaphanousness of jellyfish is cited as another influence on the i360 concept, says Marks Barfield
The West Pier, saluted by one reviewer in 1866 as ‘a kind of butterfly on the ocean’ and finally reduced to its present state as a deliquescing iron skeleton by arsonists 137 years later, was designed by Eugenius Birch, an engineer-architect who’d previously worked on the Calcutta-Delhi railway. Birch eventually created 14 seaside piers in total around Britain, including those at nearby Hastings and Eastbourne as well as the North Pier at Blackpool. The West Pier, however, was the one of his earliest and where he advanced the form both aesthetically and structurally; deploying relatively untested methods of construction to extend this 400m-long promontory out across the water on a series of threaded cast-iron columns screwed into the seabed. Among its much-touted original features was ‘ample and continuous seat accommodation’ for 2,000 people in the shape of twin, curved, cast-iron benches that ran along the sides of the pier.
The ultra modern i360, on the beach in the distance as viewed from the more traditional delights of the extant pier
These faced inwards to allow visitors to sit, rest, converse and observe each other as much as the prospect beyond. But by far and away its greatest selling point was what was billed as its ‘untrammelled panoramic views’ out to sea and along the coast, with the pier at Worthing to the far west at one end and the chalk cliffs of Newhaven in the other direction. The visitor’s gaze was further aided by ornamental cast-iron and plate-glass screens that helped shield them from the elements.
...And down, to eventually come to rest in the ground after the 20-minute trip
British Airways i360, ultimately, rests on a remarkably similar proposition, though it supplies the chance to observe the land and sea for miles around from a far loftier vantage point. It is one that renders the tip of the Isle of Wight just about visible and brings the green edge of the South Downs to the north so sharply into focus from above that it appears like an arm wrapped around the city, offering comfort or sympathy, maybe.
Victorian Italianate entrances to the old pier have been recreated and operate as a ticket office and gift shop
The observation pod, which if similar in appearance to the capsules on the London Eye is 10 times their size and capable of accommodating 200 people, is shaped not unlike a giant doughnut or rubber ring - fittingly enough given the ubiquity of both at beachfront kiosks. Constructed in 24 sections of double-laminated, curved, heat-strengthened glass, and steel, its interior has, as David Marks rightly phrases it, a certain ‘aqueous quality’ - and it does look as though it would be equally happy floating about on the water. Or even far beneath the waves. Julia Barfield cites the diaphanousness of jellyfish as another influence on the concept, which arguably also provides a further link to Eugenius Birch, who in 1869 gave Brighton its aquarium (much modified in the Twenties but extant today as the Sea Life Centre) where similarly beautiful, if often deadly, underwater creatures could be peered at in cast-iron and glass tanks.
Various views of the i360 as seen from the elegant Regency Square
Weighing around 90 tonnes with its chassis, the i360 is connected to an 80-tonne counterweight inside the tower by eight steel cables and raised to the top by a winch in the basement. As the pod with its passengers is heavier than the counterweight, it has been specifically geared to recharge around 40 to 50 per cent of the energy required to lift it during the descent. Like all the other moving parts on the i360, the huge steel bullwheels that spool the ropes and the motors that power this energy efficient operation are painted red - this colour-coding Marks jokingly blames on ‘lingering traces of the Rogers-aesthetic in their DNA’. These particular mechanisms, though, can be seen in motion from the street via a window in the basement ceiling, lending the whole thing a decidedly Heath Robinson or steam punk edge. For all of their modern sophistication, these great steel contraptions look so solidly metallic with cogs, teeth and gauges, and so magnificently Victorian you can easily picture them in the bowels of Tower Bridge.
The viewing pod, with heat-strengthened glass and steel, can carry up to 200 people in a 20-minute trip
Perhaps the most pleasing and recurring element of the design is the liberal use of reflective surfaces. Recalling the kind of fairground Hall of Mirrors Orson Welles favoured for the final shoot-out in The Lady From Shanghai, the base of the pod itself presents a distorting glass for the earth-bound of Brighton to stare up at as it climbs up and down the tower. Inside the pod there are other shiny fittings, including a semi-circular bar. Similarly the central room in the ground-floor complex that contains a seaward-facing restaurant and a series of modular function suites all subtly decked out in driftwood-like British white oak, is dominated by a mirrored round bar.
Twenty-four sections of double-laminated curved, strengthened glass, and steel in the pod gives the interior an ‘aqueous quality’
The mesh steel finish of the tower is much harder to love. But it, along with a sloshing damper system produced by the Sidney-based engineer Max Irvine and stocked with Australian rain-water, forms an integral part of British Airways i360’s defences against the wind. The mesh is purposely contrived to act as a diffuser, interrupting the flow of air and helping to prevent the tower being rocked in gales. Locally it has already been lumbered with the Gherkinesque sobriquet of The Lollipop, which admittedly does trip off the tongue more easily than British Airways i360. But perhaps, as this nickname suggests, this is an edifice where all the joy, the sweetness if you like, resides in its bulbous bit.
The i360 is a new icon for Brighton, replacing the West Pier which is unlikely now to ever make a phoenix-like rise
That said, with the pod recessed, the sight of the tower alone presiding over Regency Square does bring old engravings of Hooke’s Monument to the Great Fire of London (itself another viewing platform) briefly to mind. It was Thackeray who once maintained that Brighton was ‘a portion of the West End of London maritimised’.
The i360’s viewing pod reaches its highest point almost at the top of its 162m-high pole
And like the capital, the residents of this arguably most cosmopolitan of all English seaside towns voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. (By contrast their near Sussex seaside neighbours, Eastbourne, Hastings, Shoreham and Worthing, came out for leave.) In British Airways i360 it’s hard not to feel that the resort is genuinely gaining an attraction that perfectly mirrors its open and outward-looking nature. Especially as it’s the product of pan-national collaboration: Barfield lists Holland, Spain, Italy, Germany and Australia as sources of its various constituent parts and talks wistfully about the pod being assembled in a cornfield in France.
A circular mirrored bar is a feature of the ground-floor complex, into which the pod descends and departs from
But homegrown talent has been almost entirely responsible for another of this scheme’s most compelling details: the painstaking restoration of the West Pier’s two original Italianate toll booths, a job that involved the Banbury-based Swan Foundry meticulously recreating some 24 tonnes of cast-iron decoration from mouldings from old plans and pictures. Amusingly condemned by some locals for spoiling the sea view back in 1866, the booths now form the gateway to British Airways i360, one acting as a ticket booth and the other as a tea shop. Though this latter emporium will emphatically steer clear of selling overly familiar coastal comestibles such as sugary sticks of rock, thus avoiding adding to the nation’s obesity epidemic.
A drone’s eye view of Brighton’s new dramatically altered skyline. Image: British Airways i360 / Visual Air
And as an exemplary reflection of progressive contemporary Brighton, all of the toilets on site are unisex. Back in the day when seaside resorts were in their infancy, it was not uncommon for bathers to be segregated by sex with the local pier serving the dividing line, each gender restricted to the beaches on either side of it. Hove-born novelist Patrick Hamilton once maintained that the West Pier was ‘a battleship of sex’; British Airways i-360 meanwhile swings both ways in every sense, and what could be more apt for Brighton in the 21st century than that?
Watch a video of the i360 here: https://vimeo.com/180338092