Architecture practice Marks Barfield Architects’ most famous building is the London Eye, a gigantic observation wheel on the south bank of the River Thames in London. Completed in 2000, it has been giving visitors a bird’s eye view of the city ever since, becoming an integral part of London’s skyline, its silhouette reproduced endlessly in countless graphical locations. Marks Barfield, however, had not finished making its mark on the Thames.
The Eye was a project which marked the turn of the millennium. So was Marks Barfield’s next Thames building, Millbank Millennium Pier. The pier was one of five constructed thanks to part funding from the Millennium Commission, a public body set up to fund worthy projects to mark the new millennium. Not all the projects it funded were completed in 2000 (or indeed 2001, for the benefit of those who enjoy pointing out that the Millennium begins in the year with a 1 at the end). Millbank Millennium Pier opened in 2003. It was worth the wait, because it is one of the most interesting and distinctive stops on London’s developing Riverbus network.
The Riverbus is London’s secret transport service. Running every 20 minutes, a fleet of high speed catamarans carry passengers east-west along the Thames, stopping at various piers along the way. Amongst those in the know, it has a loyal and dedicated following. It has also proved its worth on days when the London Underground has been hit by strike action. But it’s always had a somewhat peculiar place in London’s transport mix, and local transport authority Transport for London (TfL) has never seemed entirely comfortable with it. The service really got going in the late 1990s with small trimarans and has been expanding gradually ever since. The boats have been replaced by larger ones, and they run more frequently. The number of piers served has grown too, thanks not least to the Millennium Commission part-funding five new piers in the early 2000s including the one at Millbank.
Unlike most transport in London, the Riverbus is not under TfL’s direct control. TfL operates some, but not all, of the piers the Riverbus uses. The river itself is the responsibility of the Port of London Authority. The Riverbus is a mostly commercial operation, though TfL contributes some funding. It operates outside the London Travelcard and Oyster smartcard regimes, though discounts are available for the holders of such.
The ultimate illustration of TfL’s ambiguous relationship with the Riverbus is that while the ridiculous tourist-attraction-posing-as-public-transport which is the Thames Cable Car features on the London Underground map, the Riverbus does not. There are symbols for Underground stations which are close to piers, but no indication of how the Riverbus connects those piers together. If I had control of the Underground map for a day, I’d spend it adding the Riverbus.
Most of the piers on the Riverbus network are perfectly serviceable, but not particularly architecturally exciting. Millbank pier is different, and better. Inspired by stealth aircraft and ships, Millbank pier is a steel-clad, angular structure, with multiple surface planes jostling up against one another. It too might be invisible to radar, though I’m not sure if anyone has ever checked it out. At a stroke, the design completely redefined what a river pier could look like.
It’s highly visible at night, thanks to a artistic lighting scheme by Angela Bulloch called “Flash and Tidal” which shows it off to best advantage (more here).
The “brow” (the walkway that connects the pier to the riverbank) meets the pier at its upper level, with a staircase down to the lower level where Riverbuses dock, as well as a ramped walkway which cuts switchback style down through the pier’s structure. The arrangement allows the pier to drop to the level of low tides without the brow becoming too steep to use comfortably.
The structure of the pier wraps over itself, providing shelter underneath, with internal surfaces lined with wood. It’s simple and effective, and is appropriately maritime in spirit.
At the brow’s landfall, not only can the TfL roundel be found in flag form, which is a rare and rather delightful sight, but there is a small round plaque which records the fact that the pier won an award in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 2004 Regional Awards.
One of the major challenges with a pier on a tidal river like the Thames is holding it securely in place. The typical solution is to attach a pier to what Marks Barfield calls “monopoles”. I’m no expert on marine engineering, but I think these are better known as the ruddy great metal posts which stick up out of the water at the extreme ends of other Thames piers, thus:
Millbank pier uses radial arms, metal beams which connect the pier to concrete stub piles, with joints at each end of the arms to allow the pier to hold steady against the movements of river flow and tidal range. It’s a more complicated, but much more pleasing solution, and prevents the pier’s design being marred by unsightly monopoles.
Why Millbank? Millbank Pier serves Tate Britain, a gallery which holds one of the largest collections of British art in the world. The opening of Millbank Pier afforded the opportunity of introducing a “Tate to Tate” river service, linking Tate Britain to Tate Modern, the modern art gallery a few miles downstream, housed in what was once Bankside power station. A dramatic piece of architecture was therefore quite in order.
The Tate to Tate service employed a boat which represented another transport and art crossover. It was decorated inside and out by contemporary British artist Damien Hirst, who employed the spot design he has featured in several of his paintings (as well as on the ill-fated Beagle 2 Mars lander).
There aren’t enough examples of world class artists designing transport liveries. Let’s face it, many transport operators can’t even be bothered to employ the specialist transport visual identity designers who do such brilliant work day in and day out, to little of the recognition afforded to someone like Damien Hirst. So when a Riverbus livery is designed by Hirst, it’s a noteworthy event. Unfortunately, it wasn’t noteworthy enough for TfL to add the Riverbus to the Underground map. Perhaps it’s because the Riverbus runs every 20 minutes (which can lead to long waits if you turn up to a busy pier and the first Riverbus which comes along fills up before you can board). The basic frequency of the London Overground, which does appear on the Underground map, is every 15 minutes.
If TfL spent more money boosting the frequency of the Riverbus, and a bit less on vanity projects of doubtful transport utility (like the New Routemaster and the Thames Cable Car), as well as adding the Riverbus to the Tube map, where it belongs, more passengers would realise what a useful service it was. They would also have greater opportunity to enjoy the architecture of Millbank Pier. In the meantime, we can enjoy being amongst the select number who appreciate this lovely floating building.
see more pictures
A Flickr set of Millbank Pier photos can be found here.
how to find Millbank Millennium Pier
further reading and bibliography
Marks Barfield Architects’ project page on Millbank Millennium Pier, here
A contemporary newspaper on Damien Hirst’s contribution to the Tate to Tate ferry service, as well as the lighting installation on Millbank Pier, here