Destined for demolition?

Monday 15 Apr 2013

Is the UK to lose a national treasure in the BDP-designed Preston Bus Station?

Could it possibly be worth fighting to save a humble bus station? Can a late-1960s municipal building have real architectural merit? The answers to these questions (yes and yes, just to set the tone) should be self-evident. But the likely fate of Preston Bus Station suggests otherwise. It faces demolition because it typifies something that we seem to be incapable of valuing. Brutalism remains so profoundly out of fashion that it faces being wiped out before we have a chance to look again.

The Save Preston Bus Station Facebook page recently reported that Preston was to be stripped of its recently-acquired City status because the demolition amounted to an 'act of civic vandalism'. It was just a good April Fool’s joke, but the gallows humour reflects the crassness of the policy. It also shines an embarrassing light on a key strategy for British urban regeneration in recent times: the use of fine words.

Preston, in North-West England, became Britain’s 50th city in 2002, the Queen’s 50th reigning year, and the news was greeted with a torrent of optimistic catchphrases. Alan Hackett, the mayor at the time, told the BBC that it was 'a wonderful achievement' that 'really puts Preston on the international map and will help to attract further investment and jobs'. Large-scale, multi-million pound regeneration was planned, with the Tithebarn, a huge open-air mall, as the centrepiece. This was all abandoned at the planning stage in 2011, as more austere times settled in and stakeholders pulled out.

The bus station, by contrast, made it to reality. It opened to the public in 1969 and has been fulfilling its original purpose ever since. Its blend of top-notch functionality and screamingly Brutalist credentials has given the place an increasingly painful problem: as a bus station and multi-storey car park, it works; yet as a huge publicly-funded building, it violently polarises opinion.

The monumental, curved sweep of its balconies is tremendously elegant and unmistakably late twentieth-century. The high quality of materials and construction inside and out, and the detailed attention given to integrated aspects like the original furniture and signage are widely acknowledged.

The architects, BDP, were founded in Preston in 1961. This key example of their output, on their home turf, made in the first decade of their existence, is the very definition of a Heritage Building. It ought to be an obvious focus for local, civic and national pride, and Preston City Council should be desperate to keep it.

But the Council have elected to ignore mounting public and professional disquiet and approve demolition. They voted definitively for it in December 2012, and seem blind to any heritage value. Their reasons boil down to the expense and inconvenience of maintaining the current building, rather than erecting a new one elsewhere in the city. These costs, and the whole strategy, are fiercely contested by opponents of demolition. In March, the Council rejected a final rescue attempt by local businessman Simon Rigby, who offered to buy the Bus Station for £1 and repurpose it as an artistic and cultural centre for the community.

Meanwhile, architectural commentators have written extensively and eloquently in its defence, the World Monuments Fund placed it on the 2012 Watch List of Endangered Sites, and the Twentieth Century Society’s application for Listed Building status is still pending. A thriving social media campaign and an active e-petition against demolition testify to plenty of local pride in the building, and there are many more signs of its growing place in the public imagination. In Easter 2012, the Bus Station was the backdrop for the Preston Passion, a nationally-televised retelling of the Easter story. This year, BBC coverage alone has included an appreciation on The Culture Show, an uncomfortable debate with the Minister for Culture on The Daily Politics, and a report on one enthusiast’s tremendous recreation of the complex in Lego.

Why not harness this attention to preserve and celebrate a 20th century icon that should be an obvious and lucrative source of pride?

Maybe one reason is its utterly normal municipal function: a big public transport hub with five floors of car parking on top. The sweeping space and fixture quality of the passenger lounge and the carefully-executed original signage may hint optimistically at the ambience of an airport or a major railway station, but the fact is that this is where you go to catch a bus. Travel by plane and train retains precious little cachet today, but going by bus has a specially grim status in the British imagination. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, it’s largely considered as transport for poor people.

On top of that, it dates from the late 1960s and boasts about its brutalist plainness. Concrete and simple tiles on the outside, moulded plastic seats within. We are willing to list and love Victorian and Edwardian railway architecture, and sense the aspects of the national folklore that they embody, but admiring a 20th century bus station? That appears to be a step too far.

It still seems extraordinary that Preston City Council are so keen to kill it off. There are no structural issues endangering the building - the council simply maintains that it is too costly to keep, and therefore proposes to flatten it. The most commonly-voiced issues for users of the place are poor maintenance and cleaning. These are causes for concern, but they are not logical reasons for demolishing a work of international stature.

So we are likely to lose a fully-functioning, iconic 1960s public building because it deserves more respect from its custodians, and needs looking after. General public taste is probably on the verge of embracing Brutalist architecture, just as it has come around to the modern styles of the 1930s and beyond. Yet many of the movement’s key moments (such as Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park and Portsmouth’s Tricorn shopping centre, both already gone) are vanishing too fast to be reassessed.

If Preston City Council hangs on, it will end up with another destination building to match James Hibbert’s Grade I listed Harris Museum elsewhere in the city. Knocking down the Bus Station before its fiftieth birthday would be scandalous. And if we are this casual about the survival of relatively recent and widely-admired buildings, any architect who takes pride in their current work should start worrying for it in the near future.

Matthew Freedman

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United Kingdom

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