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Creator of Brighton Icons - Eugenius Birch

It seems rather strange and unlikely that the same architect, Eugenius Birch, designed both the Brighton Aquarium and the West Pier. However, the similarities between the projects include them both needing to withstand the ravages of water and both being innovative tourist attractions that needed to look appealing as well as being functional. They are also both iconic Brighton landmarks which is enough of an achievement to make Birch a notable architect but he was also responsible for the design of pleasure piers as we know them today.


Early Life and Inspiration


Born the son of an architect and surveyor, Eugenius Birch took an early interest in civil engineering and construction to the point where he played truant from school to help with local projects in London. He went on to be educated in Brighton before winning some prestigious prices for his work designing various machines including a marine steam engine. As the railway boom was taking off at the time, Birch and his brother began working on railway structures such as bridges and viaducts. It is possible that working with all that steel inspired him to make the revolutionary change to how piers were constructed that would be his legacy.


A Revolution in Piers


Before Birch came along, piers and jetties were constructed of wood or used chain suspension like Brighton’s Chain Pier which Birch would have been familiar with. Birch didn’t use this design for his first pier, the Margate Jetty, as he had seen a better method created by Alexander Mitchell to construct offshore lighthouses. The screw-pile technique drove iron columns into the seabed and allowed structures such as piers and jetties to be built on top and withstand the ravages of the sea. Despite the innovation that went into Margate Jetty, it essentially looked a lot like a railway bridge and was considered to be quite ugly. However, using iron rather than wood meant that Birch’s designs could be far more elegant and light in appearance than previous piers and he first demonstrated this in his design for Blackpool’s pier. Here, he created a true leisure pier with kiosks and built in seating along the railings.


We might be biased in saying that he really excelled himself when it came to his design for Brighton’s West Pier. The West Pier was the first pier to have a large open space at the end which Birch used for lounging and refreshment rooms. He also designed wind breaks down the centre of the pier with glass screens and back to back seating so visitors could sit away from the wind but still enjoy the view. It was his design of Hastings Pier that really started something though as he made an even bigger space at the end and installed the first ‘palace’ on a pier which was a large grand structure which could hold up to 2,000 people.


Brighton Aquarium


When it came to designing Brighton Aquarium, Birch was faced with a whole new set of challenges as he wanted to make the display tanks as large and impressive as possible but that brought about the problem of water pressure and needing very thick glass to cope with it. This didn’t stop Birch from getting rather ‘extra’ though as he added grand archways, detailed stonework and columns influenced by Gothic and Pompeian design. He even added statues made from Bath stone, red Edinburgh granite and green marble. The cost of building the Aquarium was around £133,000 which would be the equivalent of about £5.5million today. Sadly, the new attraction didn’t do as well as anticipated and was bought by the Brighton Corporation. It got extensive modernisation in 1927 so many of Birch’s original design features were lost.


Due to the West Pier’s unfortunate demise by fire in 2003, we can now get a good look at Eugenius Birch’s innovative steel work and it’s wonderful that the aquarium he designed is now the oldest working aquarium in the world. What an amazing legacy. For help with far more down to earth projects and any surveying work you need, please get in touch with Marc on 01273 281624 or email info@tatesurveyingservices.co.uk.

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