A dance floor and a zip line

The third divergent workshop involved working with a group of trustees in charge of the restoration of Birnbeck Pier and Island, a Victorian pleasure pier in North Somerset. The Pier which is celebrating its 150th birthday in 2017 and has lain in ruin since the early 1990s. It is currently at a critical point where it needs to be restored or left to its fate, the 14m tidal range of the Bristol channel which visits it twice a day.


The pier and island have generated significant historical and cultural memories over the last 150 years which include the song of Welsh mining families who would journey to it on paddle steamers during the prohibition of alcohol on Sundays (1881-1961). During its hay day the island amassed a large range of Victorian attractions including an airship chairoplane, helter-skelter, hurrey scurry, switchback railway and water splash.

Many of the current trustees have strong memories of what it was like to experience the pier and island. These memories have come to generate a number of ideas of how the attraction might be redeveloped. However, these memories have not been able to create a coherent strategy for how the attraction might be redeveloped in the 21st century.

Previous attempts to develop a strategy have seen an international RIBA competition held in 2007 which resulted in some useful ideas but mostly a series of unrealistic propositions. These included an airport on top of a tower and a series of floating gardens. A series of complex issues with ownership of the island and raising funds has subsequently left the attraction to decay for another decade.


In 2017 I ran a yearlong Master of Architecture studio to develop plans for a contemporary film institute on the island, alongside a secondary programmatic use that the students would establish and develop with the trustees. Here the brief of the film institution became a way for students to have some fixed programme at the outset, which would allow them to start investigating and testing the site. The second programme allowed for students to start engaging more with the trust and the surrounding community. The studio produced proposals for, the reintroduction of an RNLI lifeboat station, a steam punk theme park, a cathartic retreat and a new jetty for Bristol Channel ferries. The ambition of this student project was that it would generate a greater understanding of the site and its potential future use.

The results were mixed with some students really engaging with the geographical and social complexity and others simply skirting around it and producing similarly unrealistic propositions to the earlier architectural competition. During this time the trustees continued to fixate on their own individual ambitions and remained unable to produce a coherent vision for the future. This was not surprising due to the sheer complexity of the project.


Within the context of the divergent workshop the studio output provided a useful set of drawings to start a discussion on the Pier and islands future. Following the discussion, the workshop started by getting the trustees to produce a new narrative which drew on both their memories and future ambitions. The decision to get the trustees to generate the divergent material differed significantly from previous workshops where this had been performed by the designers.

One of the key objectives of this workshop was to understand if the divergent processes that had previously helped designers think around creative blocks could also be used to help a client overcome issues associated with formulating a brief.

The divergent exercise chosen for this ‘fold-in’, is a derivative of the ‘cut-up’ and similarly focuses on the divergent mining of written narratives. Where it differs from the ‘cut-up’ is that it allows for the collaborative production and mining of text, folding multiple participants’ narratives into one another. Compared to other divergent techniques used within the wider research ‘fold-in’ provides a means for those unfamiliar with designing to access and inform the design process. It therefore does not require the tacit knowledge including drawing and modelling skills. ‘Fold-in’ was also selected because of its ability to help individuals to stop fixating on an individual idea and, instead, to draw out a new vision through the random assemblage of text.

Before the ‘Fold-in’ narrative writing started we presented the trustees with a range of past proposals along a wider set of architectural precedents for projects of a similar scale and typology. These helped the trustees to focus and discuss what they did and did not like.


The narrative writing workshop began with us giving each trustee a squared piece of lined paper with a vertical mark down the middle. We then asked the trustees to take five minutes to write out a narrative, based on a given scenario. This process was repeated four times, drawing from the following scenarios:

“You are a young child, it is half term and you are visiting the island via a boat for the first time. Describe what you are most excited about seeing?”

“You are a student in a wheelchair studying at University Centre Weston; you take time out to visit the pier on a rainy day describe your experience?”

“The island is open to the public and the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) have returned. As a member of the local community describe the interaction between the visitors and the lifeboat”

“You are a Birnbeck Trustee and its 2037. You arrive for an evening meeting. Just before the meeting starts you look out the window what do you see?”

The scenarios were designed to get the trustees to shift away from their own ambitions for the island and think about the future of the attraction. On completion, the narratives were chopped rather than folded down the centre so that we would have more text to work with. The columns of text were then stacked and shuffled before being randomly re-assembled into a new patchwork sheet. We then invited the trustees to examine this new patchwork of text and highlight the passages that they found interesting. From this emerged a series of short sentences that helped them discuss the project and its potential programme and form further.

“from over the coffee I see the causeway”

“something is still moving on the island”

“the contemporary intervention rises up over steepholm”

“the last facade peers”

“the joy of solidity whilst the backwind whistles through the timber shuttering”

“the original reveals how the islands architecture starts to open further”

Interestingly, the sentences highlighted had certain characteristics in common. Firstly, they all related to a context. Secondly, they all hinted at how architecture might intervene within the island: suggesting the framing of views, the interventions’ profile against the island, the sound that the intervention might make, how the existing might reveal the new.

Following the narrative workshop, further mining of the scenarios took place resulting in the production of a physical text and media-based model. An 1886 survey of the island and pier in their heyday as a Victorian attraction formed the basis for this modelling not of the island but of the text.

As an object, the model re-introduces the text into the spatial context of the island whilst continuing to look for new juxtapositions between the various sentences. During the making and composing of the model clues were taken from the text to help situate it as close to its topographical location as possible, forging spatial associations between the narrative and the physical context of the island as described in the drawing.
On walking around the model, the folded text and images continued to collage and juxtapose creating new sentences, which restarted the search for new narratives and clues towards a potential architectural form within the viewer’s mind.

The final model can then perhaps be seen as a ‘installation/drawing’ as defined by Sophia Banou: a situated spatial practice that although installed in three-dimensional space operates in a representational rather than simulative mode. By means of its spatial allocation the text, which stands vertically from the map surface, can be read in multiple configurations depending on the view-point. Its instrumentality however relies both on its spatial and its textual/linguistic qualities. Combined then with the poetic nature of the text the model can also be considered as a three-dimensional ‘concrete poem’: an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. The spatial unfolding of the text through its ‘modelling’ proposes a three-dimensional exploration akin to French poet’s Stéphane Mallarmé technique, which played with the tension between words and the way that they were displayed on the page.

What emerges from the model is not simply an iteration of the Fold-in technique, nor a three-dimensional manifestation of ‘concrete poetry’ or even a ‘installation/drawing’ but instead a hybrid medium. This hybrid medium which models three-dimensionally using text starts a wider enquiry into the value of text based divergent architectural thinking that will be explored further within the PhD.