Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Preston, Lancashire

Listed and classified

It was announced this week that the bus station at Preston, built in 1969 to designs by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of Building Design Partnership, has been listed, making demolition or major alteration much less likely.

This has been a controversial building. It has been called an 'eyesore' and the local council have pressed for its demolition (that pressure was all the stronger when there were plans to build a large shopping mall on the site, plans that fell through when the recession hit). But in a survey, eighty per cent of local residents said that they felt attached to it and organizations such as English Heritage have campaigned for its preservation. I am on the side of the preservers here. I like the way the building combines the double-eight space for buses and passengers on the ground floor with the floors for parking above. The curving balconies of the parking floors are stunning, making a kind of sculptural impact that is head and shoulders above most multi-storey car parks, or most modern buildings for that matter. Inside the bus station, the public areas are well designed and retain many of their original features – white tiled walls, dark hardwood fittings, modernist clocks.

One of the interesting things, architecturally, about the bus station is that it's usually referred to as a Brutalist building. But Brutalism, the bête noire of haters of modern architecture, is actually rather hard to define. Penguin's Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, for example, defines it primarily in relation to the architects that influenced it and pioneered it – late Le Corbusier, the Smithsons, Stirling and Gowan. It goes on to say, 'Brutalism nearly always uses concrete exposed at its roughest (béton brut) and handled with overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.' Preston Bus Station hardly matches this description. The concrete's curves are the opposite of rough and the elements don't collide, they are combined with care and flair. The building seems to me to embody a kind of softened modernism that is very British. But Preston Bus Station is very big, and built from concrete: it gets tarred with Brutalism's broad brush.* 

Like it or not, then, it's listed, but that's just the beginning of the story. A building like this comes with huge challenges. Maintaining it, adapting it so that it's properly integrated with the city centre, even keeping those uriniferous stairwells clean – all this costs money and requires determination. I hope English Heritage will support the council in finding ways to meet these challenges.

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* Gothic, the name of a barbarian tribe; Baroque, an imperfect pearl; Brutalism; we do beat ourselves up, rather, with our designations for architectural styles.

Thanks to Jack Meacher for permission to use his photographs.


Anonymous said...

Much ncer looking than many of the car parks in canada and the usa! I hope it is kept up! an example to us all.

Anonymous said...

It is rather sad that many people hear "Brutalist" and hear the English "brutal" (cruel, savage) and not the French "brut" (rough, raw) from "béton brut" (meaning "raw concrete"). Yes, there are plenty of bad concrete buildings, but there are also some very good ones too. Sadly both sorts often suffer from poor maintenance.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, the confusion between "brutal" and "béton brut" is unfortunate. It has got to the stage, now, where a lot of people just use the term "Brutalist" to refer to concrete buildings that they don't like. One of the problems is that we need a really good book on the architecture of this period, which both defines the terms and looks at the buildings with a dispassionate eye that combines the approaches of the architectural and the social historian. I'm hoping that Elain Harwood's Space, Hope and Brutalism (forthcoming next year from Yale University Press) will be that book.