The Millbank Millennium Pier by the architecture practice of David Marks and Julia Barfield is the latest addition to the riverbus transport network serving the Thames River. London River Services (LRS) created a new route to provide a riverboat link between Millbank and the Millennium piers, effectively connecting both the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern by a convenient and tourist-friendly method of transportation. The route also includes a stopover at Waterloo pier, on the foot of the London Eye (also designed by Marks and Barfield), thus providing access to the Saatchi gallery, a third important gallery along the route.
London is a polycentric city that is spreading its economic and cultural assets throughout the metropolitan area, but traditionally the north side of the river has attracted plenty of wealth, power and prosperity while the south contained those services that no one wanted to see, like the power stations, warehouses, prisons or housing for the poorest of the poor. The river Thames is a cut that splits London into two, but the recent awareness of the river as a place of leisure, regeneration and in most cases gentrification is allowing both sides of the city to come closer. The Cross River Partnership, an alliance of local authorities from both sides of the river and key economic and political players, is using a program of pier renovation and building to further create conditions that will improve the river services and close gaps between north and south of the city. Since the year 2000 fiver piers have opened: Blackfriars Millennium Pier, Tower Millennium Pier, Waterloo Millennium Pier, Westminster Millennium Pier...and Millbank Millennium Pier in 2003 completes the series. Furthermore, the network of piers is of strategic relevance for the development of the city as it stands in the Transport Strategy document published by the Mayor in 2001. The ambition shown in this document is to go beyond the use of the riverbus for tourism by encouraging a commuter service for Londoners. To that effect, the signaling of Thames Piers on the London Underground and inclusion of the piers on walking maps has been completed.
Post-war London completely turned its back to the river because the relation between the two had been a purely functional one. Britain didn't depend on the Thames any longer as modern trade ship technology required a different kind of port than this river could provide. In this period, the architecture along the water was increasingly mediocre or, in the best of cases, purely functional. With the rediscovery of the river, a lot of these low-quality buildings still remain. But even with some of the best buildings””for example the Royal Festival Hall (RFH)””the relation to the riverbank is problematic; in most cases, relations to the water and between the buildings relies on individuals rather than being promoted by the architecture itself.
Until the year 2002, just over 50 years after the opening of the RFH, smart-dressed people attending events at the city's most important concert hall had to cross the river via a shabby side extension to a rail bridge, riddled with puddles and poor vistas. However, a London riverside architecture is slowly developing; we have new infrastructure like the pedestrian bridge designed by Norman Foster and the new Hungerford bridges. The piers remain rather anonymous though, which is a shame as they provide just the right scale for architectural experimentation and putting new ideas into the public consciousness. Fortunately, the latest pier challenges this situation.
The Millbank pier doesn't look like a pier in the sense that it doesn't look like a platform; instead, it looks like a boat or perhaps even better, Disney's version of the Nautilus. In fact, the building is a long strip that folds around itself to create different waiting areas and provide disabled access, but more on this later. A floating pontoon deck, two small 'radial arms' and an access bridge make up the structure of the pier. The arms and the bridge are extensions that hold the pontoon in place and deal with the problem of the tides, without the need of large piles or more extensive and expensive works in the embankment wall. Since the Thames is a tidal river, the bearings of the two radial arms had to withstand dry and submerged conditions, thus rubber was chosen, also providing virtually-maintenance free bearings. The bridge, as a third arm, serves to hold the pontoon in the proper longitudinal position. For this task, it is common (and cheaper) to use submerged cables fixing the pontoon, but because the Millbank pier is a permanent structure the bridge solution was adopted.
Obviously, the bridge also deals with the issue of access; this presented a particular challenge. The tidal range of the Thames is twenty feet (six meters); in order to achieve a one-in-twelve or minus gradient ramp for disabled access, the bridge had to measure 197 feet (60 meters), making it the second largest passenger pier brow on the Thames. However, the distance is not enough to achieve the required angle during low tide and a ramp had to be designed in the Pier itself to lengthen the path from street to boat. (For a detailed explanation about the engineering of the bearings, refer to milbankpier.co.uk)
The pontoon integrates the ramp, an open deck and a sheltered waiting area. David Marks explains that the technique of welding float plate steel, which is traditionally used for fabrication in naval industries, was married with polygon reduction (used by the electronic games industries) to generate the form of the pontoon, "maximizing the efficiency of the surface geometry and defining a continuous surface of plate steel forming a single folded skin."
If the outside of the volume created by the surface is sharp and gives the impression of toughness, the interior is, on the contrary, soft””thanks to the use of timber cladding. The thin strips of wood also provide a notion of scale to what is an abstract form. Not surprisingly, the timber-clad folding planes reminds of the Yokohama Ferry terminal by Foreign Office Architects. Besides, despite the differences in scale, both buildings basically serve to board some form of ship and wood is a material that we quickly associate with ships and other forms of marine infrastructure.
Last April the RIBA shortlisted the project for the 2004 RIBA Awards.
- text and photography by Ludwig Abache (0lll.com ), Discuss