Piers, generally, are meant to be fun. Buildings devoted entirely to pleasure are rare in architecture. Consequently piers tend to abandon the decorum and restraint of other buildings, lapsing happily into gaudy bad taste and excess. They are often a riot of decoration, ornamentation and whimsy.
Their pointlessness is part of the enjoyment. They aren’t bridges or boats, taking us somewhere or doing something useful. They lead, literally speaking, knowhere. But the journey is full of flashing lights and music and the promise of illicit thrills, like a good night out.
Deal Pier is different. It doesn’t look like a good night out, more like a bad morning after. Built in the 1950’s after the previous Victorian structure was demolished after being hit by a boat, it is a triumph of dry municipal integrity. It looks like a piece of the M1 that has washed up on the shores of East Kent. Inelegant concrete columns march pragmatically out to sea, leading to three tiers of timber slatted decking, although the lowest one remains terminally underwater due to a miscalculation of sea levels.
The entrance makes an attempt at cheeriness with a nautical sculpture and some restrained if slightly camp bits of decoration. Two shops sit either side of the entrance summoning up the general all round lack of cheap thrills on offer: a fishing tackle shop and a kiosk selling Toby Jug Collectibles. Once onto the pier a series of pre-cast concrete bays offer slightly desultory shelter. They look like so many suburban bus stops on a route to knowhere. Men in waterproof suits line the edges monitoring impressive batteries of expensive fishing rods and vast multi-tiered boxes of equipment, generally failing to catch anything.
At the end of the pier there used to be a café, a fabulously dispiriting place clad in nautical blue tiles and with a mock tudor interior. This café has just been demolished and a new one is being built, designed by Niall Maclaughlin. It looks a bit more fun than the old one it has to be said.
For all that I like Deal pier. There is something poignant about its commitment to fulfilling such an exuberant brief in such an earnestly joyless way. It seems to sum up a certain austere 1950’s commitment to doing the right thing. Fun on a ration book you might say.
There is a scene at the end of the film The Remains of The Day, set around the same time, where the characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson meet up, years after the moment when they might have started a relationship or found some happiness together. They take a walk along a windswept pier and sit in one of the shelters along its length to reminisce. It’s easy to laugh at this uptight, typically nostalgic bit of British filmaking, but actually it’s a scene of almost unbearable minor key misery.
The pier is the perfect setting for the scene because it both summons up how far removed the characters are from any sense of spontaneity or fun, and yet is somehow slightly desolate in itself. Piers claim to offer thrills and excitement but they are also flimsy, wind battered structures standing in choppy grey waters. They are triumphs of hope over reality, a futile gesture of extending ‘all the fun’ of the seaside out as far as it can go.
Bizarrely, Deal pier is exactly the same length as The Titanic, a fact commemorated by a notice nearby, which is appropriate given its slightly disastrous history. Today’s version is the third iteration to be built. All the others fell down. It is, apparently, the only functioning leisure pier in Kent. Mind you, its function has always been fairly tangential. It is an enjoyably pointless piece of infrastructure made more poignant by its adoption of a functionalist language; an oxymoronic example of no-nonsense whimsy.