5. Polemic: Central Bus Station & Car Park, Preston (BDP, 1969)

Lancashire Evening Post, 1969

Lancashire Evening Post, 1969

The recent determination by the city of Preston that the Central Bus Station & Car Park (BDP, 1969) will be demolished is the unsurprising, but nonetheless disappointing, echo of an earlier, unfortunate episode in the architectural legacy of the city.

The majority of the people of Preston never grew to love the behemoth Bus Station, designed as it was to serve the Central Lancashire New Town, whose sprawl would have consumed the town (as it was then) and several surrounding settlements. This explains the curious presence of an eighty stand bus station, and eleven hundred space car park, in a city of fewer than 150,000 residents.

It is perhaps difficult to love an architecture which serves without fuss or adornment, whose ornament is to be found in composition, juxtaposition, rather than embellishment; these being the qualities of the bus station. A lack of appreciation for brutalism may be especially noted in contemporary culture, which has come to fetishize the Victorian, treasuring that which it once demolished in pursuit of the grandiose notion of expansion, or progress.

The loss of one particular building cuts deep in the collective memory of Preston, and offers an uncomfortable portent for the recent decision to demolish the Bus Station. Following a serious fire in 1947, the town authorities made the regrettable decision to demolish the gothic town hall (Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 1866), which presented a decorative edifice to the ensemble surrounding the historic market square. Known locally as the ‘flag market’, Scott’s hall complemented the miscellany of styles: the (former) Post Office in heavy ashlar, aside the baroque Crown Courts, next to the Greek Revival library and museum, opposite the remains of the market town streets Cheapside and Friargate.

Scott’s lost gothic hall, diminutive by comparison to Waterhouse’s Manchester Town Hall of 1877, is remembered with bitter fondness by the people of Preston, a symbol of municipal aloofness; an aesthetic crime and a civic wrong. The wound was doubly salted by the replacement mixed use building, a bulky office-over-retail slab structure whose 1990’s re-cladding did little to ease its weight problem.

It would be foolish to imagine that the citizens of Preston hold the austere, refined brutalism of the Bus Station in any regard comparable to that reserved for the fanciful, embellished gothic so familiar in a town of many churches (Priest-town, after all). Brutalism, an architectural idiom in which England excelled, never found great favour with English-folk. Too hard, too honest. Too sculptural. Too formal without the reassurance of classicism.

Though not beloved by the town, the Bus Station is seminal by any measure. In sheer scale, it is better described as a megastructure, a dignified presentation of civic infrastructure. High quality finishes, unforgiving perhaps in their austerity, have endured forty years’ use largely intact – indeed, until the last decade, the handsome original bathroom fittings survived, only to be replaced by a lesser quality installation; the familiar, spectacular short-term thinking so beloved of municipal authorities.

The slender ribs of the precast carpark decks, exposed in the grand departure halls, cantilevers to form the bus apron, curving deliciously to give a floating edge to the building. This megastructure wears its bulk with poise and grace. Regrettably, the municipal authorities deemed to paint the exposed concrete cantilevered elements in the late 1990s, creating a pointless ongoing maintenance problem which is now no doubt being cited as part of the justification for demolition.

The taxi rank is a tour de force, a curved cantilevered canopy over an elegant tiled ramp – and suffers only from an abdication of maintenance. Photographic evidence exists of a pylon bearing a neon “Go Bus” emblem over this part of the building: what wonder! One can but speculate on the reasons for its removal.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the building is exceptionally clean and expressly functional. This is largely due to the rigour exercised in the specification of material finishes. Throughout, a glazed white tile with dark grout is applied to the walls, together with a grooved sheet rubber tile to all floors. I challenge the municipal authorities to provide an alternative specification of similar durability, which may be so easily maintained. Access is a little diminished by the subway lighting, not itself a reason for demolition, and most significantly by the underwhelming adjoined shopping arcade within the Guild Hall complex. Would it be such a difficult task to reconfigure the access arrangements at surface level?

Arguments against the location of the building, sited as it is at the opposite end of the central business district from the railway station, fail to account for the lack of direct interchange actually needed between these two transport systems. If at all relevant, these could be overcome by the provision of a circular shuttle bus service, as is deployed successfully in Manchester (a city thriving on a distinct lack of connectivity between any of its infrastructural hubs).

The underlying lack of support for the building has, undoubtedly, aesthetic provenance. The Bus Station cannot easily be loved, and is therefore easily misunderstood. Its sculptural, epic exterior, its public, generous, daylight-filled interior – these spatial properties cannot soften the brutal aesthetic, nor engender familiarity in largely unadorned surfaces. But is the sentimental a measure by which we can effectively judge a building, or indeed override the noble criteria of veritas, firmitas and utilitas. Vetruvius’ maxim is surely served in exemplary fashion by Preston Bus Station.

If one may consider the building in terms other than aesthetic, returning to the notion of megastructure, it follows that strategies of reuse, retrofit and adaption may follow without sacrificing the essence of the architecture. From this perspective, it is frustrating to observe the apparent civic intent to destroy such a building of great architectural significance. It would appear no consideration of adaption or reuse strategies has been made, and a structure of such significance deserves this at least. Indeed, there is no immediate answer as to the replacement for the building, other than a commitment to build another, smaller, bus station.

It is perhaps here that the architectural profession can engage, and assist the city council to avoid the grave error of demolition. Voices in the debate are currently polarised, with preservation and demolition pitting aesthete against authority. The local authority must be shown that there is an alternative, that megastructure can be adapted, that the brutal can be made accessible, even desirable, as in the example of the Barbican Centre.

Writer and critic Hugh Pearman recently called for an architectural competition to challenge the authorities to reconsider the future for this building, with support from RIBA President Angela Brady and President Elect Stephen Hodder. It is imperative this campaign is supported, and that Preston City Council are supported and encouraged towards a more enlightened approach to its built environment legacy.

It must be regarded as an opportunity missed that the current, RIBA sponsored ‘Forgotten Spaces’ competition specifically excludes proposals for the Bus Station, given the awareness the competition will draw to the city. All is not lost, however, as Gate 81, an initiative developed by the Manchester School of Architecture, provides an open source 3D model of the building; a radical demonstration of effective activism from a University. In this way, interested groups may collaborate with designers to propose an alternative future for the building, offering perhaps a fresh perspective from the current discourse.

One cannot fail to see the opportunity to reconsider the built environment of this particular district, but it is surely nonsense to contend that the Bus Station must be sacrificed to deliver new development. As a megastructure, the Bus Station should be though of as an engaged, active matrix which the city may inhabit and adapt as market or civic requirements necessitate; a naturally sustainable perspective in favour of the old pattern of razing an area tabula rasa before the latest speculative wheeze is made manifest.

Can the municipal authorities exhibit clemency and a degree of enlightenment, and engage with the School and the architectural profession to research and develop sustainable alternatives for the future of this seminal building and its setting. One can only hope they do not proceed with their current intent to repeat the unfortunate example of Scott’s Town Hall, by demolishing in the Bus Station one of the finest modernist buildings in Europe.

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