The pier, with an architectural style all of its own, has faded from a symbol of hedonism to one of melancholy

Architecture, wrote Bernard Tschumi, ’is useless, but radically so’. If so, the pleasure pier must count as one of the most radical of all building types. Aside from the fleeting joy of a win on the slot machines or a kiss on the pavilion dance-floor, they serve no particular purpose. They aren’t like bridges or boats that take us to another place and though they might have started off as glorified jetties they aren’t used for tying up boats.

Piers may lead us nowhere but, like a good night out, the journey is full of flashing lights and music and the promise of illicit thrills. The seaside brings out a sense of life lived in the moment, an escape – both literal and metaphorical – from reality. And it brings that out in the architecture too. The British seaside is the place to look for very un-British architecture, buildings freed from either a conservative fear of the new or simply too much insufferable good taste.

Piers are a holiday from the familiar. A Victorian pleasure pier is an architecture of signs, symbols and exuberant decoration: Brightly painted signage festooned with lightbulbs, flags, clocks and other embellishments. These come attached to timber pavilions topped by a riot of cupolas, towers and rotundas, all perched precariously on slender wrought-iron legs tottering out to sea.

If this sort of gaudy bling brings you out in a cold sweat there are the more pared-back piers too. There is the fabulously austere and municipal example in Deal, a post-war concrete structure that could pass as a piece of the M1 washed up on the east Kent coast. In Holland’s Scheveningen, the pier is more air-traffic control tower than jolly bandstand, a futuristic edifice that encloses the promenade as well as the activities along it.

It is these activities that are the point for most piers. Candy striped helter-skelters, miniature railways and fairground rides jostle for position, interspersed with stalls selling donuts, chips and candy-floss, this last a perfect metaphor for the fleeting sweetness of seaside holidays. The activities below the pier are in a way even more important, here teenagers (and some adults) can escape the moral strictures of ordinary life.

Despite the jollity and lack of decorum, there is a sadness to piers, just as there is a sadness to the seaside: the bleak melancholy of people and places out of season

The glory days of the pleasure pier are long gone. They are expensive to keep up, highly exposed, maintenance heavy and still suffering from the decimation of the British seaside holiday following the advent of cheap air travel. They tend to catch fire in mysterious circumstances. Some, like Margate’s, have completely disappeared while others such as Great Yarmouth’s Brittanie Pier survive in reduced circumstances. In recent years, the piers at both Hastings and Weston-Super-Mare have suffered devastating fires and Brighton’s West Pier has virtually disappeared after years of arson attacks and storm damage.

Despite the jollity and lack of decorum, there is a sadness to piers, just as there is a sadness to the seaside: the bleak melancholy of people and places out of season. The scene at the end of the film The Remains of The Day, where the characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson meet up, years after the moment when they might have found some happiness together is one of almost unbearable minor key misery. The pier end is the perfect setting because it both summons up how far removed the characters are from any sense of spontaneity or fun, and yet is 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 monuments to hope over reality, a futile gesture of extending ‘all the fun’ of the seaside out as far as it can go.

‘The pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier’, wrote Sir John Betjeman. Southend is one pier that did have a function, it is the longest pleasure pier in the world for a reason. Its 1.34 mile length allowed Victorian steam boats to dock in the wide and shallow Thames estuary. But they don’t stop there anymore, and the train named after Sir John that travels up and down Southend Pier does so just for the sheer hell of it. To misquote T S Eliot, it connects something with nothing, a trip – either fun-filled or tinged with melancholy – that ultimately leads nowhere but is all the sweeter for it.