Maws the Pity (Greyfriars bus station, Northampton, UK)

Brutalism is the point at which Modernism and I part company. I love a good Modernist building. I cannot love Brutalist buildings, though the style has its fans who are just as keen to celebrate and preserve its best examples as I am keen to celebrate and preserve many Modernist buildings.

Brutalism is all lines, blocks, harsh angles, slit windows, raw concrete finishes with poured board marking, aloofness, impregnability and it is not in any way friendly or cuddly. Brutalism cocks a snook at those who want their buildings to be attractive, warming, perhaps even pretty. Unnecessary prettification can be pretty dreadful, as a lot of Post-modernist architecture demonstrates all too well. But to set out to design a building which is essentially unlikeable is something I’ll never be able to get on board with. While I can’t get very enthusiastic about Brutalism, I can respect the views of others in celebrating it. Famous examples of Brutalism include London’s South Bank complex; Trellick Tower (also in London and visible from trains leaving Paddington station); Corbusier’s Legislative Assembly building in Chandigarh, India; and the Geisel Library at the University of California, USA.

There are some famous examples of transport Brutalism too. These include a now-demolished car park in Gateshead, UK (which appeared in the movie Get Carter); Preston bus station, UK (currently under threat of demolition); and the signal box at Birmingham New Street, also in the UK.

While none of the above really stir my soul, I can at least understand why some people find them appealing. But some Brutalism is just plain bad. And this week’s article celebrates a very bad transport facility indeed. It’s Greyfriars bus station in Northampton, UK.

This massive, ugly building is comprised of an office block atop a car park atop the bus station itself. The office block is comprised of a pair of three-storey glass-sided trapezoidal prism structures, placed side by side and running longitudinally, linked by three transverse glass-sided blocks.

Kokai [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Kokai [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the two hollows which are formed between the  between the longitudinal and transverse blocks are roof gardens; I kid you not, despite the fact that Arup Associates had designed a Brutalist building, they must have scared even themselves and decided that some greenery and ponds were needed to soften the effect (you can see the sad little gardens here, hemmed in on all sides by gigantically over-scale walls of glass, concrete and brick facing). The car park is underneath the office blocks, and the bus station is at the bottom, accessed by two large openings at either end of the building through which buses can enter or leave the bus station, travelling under exposed concrete trusses which form part of the building’s support structure. The building is faced by red bricks on the walls (unusual for a Brutalist building where raw concrete finishes are usually preferred), not that it does anything to make it look more handsome. The massive curtain walls along the length of the bus station are pierced by narrow slit-like windows, the end result being that very little natural light can penetrate the bus station even on a sunny day.

Bus passengers using Greyfriars bus station are forced to grope through what can only be described as Stygian darkness to reach their buses, viz:

Oast House Archive [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Oast House Archive [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The noise of the buses’ engines echoes off the hard surfaces, and there is little in the way of ventilation to dissipate exhaust fumes (bus engines these days are very much cleaner than they were when the bus station opened, so one can only imagine what it was like back then). The waiting room, despite some quite classy wooden benches which I rather like, has a claustrophobic low ceiling, little in the way of natural light, and the big picture windows provide a view into nothing more than the depressing gloom of the bus station. Plus there are massive bins between each set of benches. Nice.

Whohe! at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons
Whohe! at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

The word you encounter most frequently in research on Greyfriars bus station is “maw”. As in “gaping maw”, which seems to be the go-to description of the bus station’s massive entrance/exits for buses. Sometimes it’s “jaws of hell” though, and at others it’s “mouth of hell”. It’s fair to say that this is not a building which is loved by many. George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, called it “truly one of the worst bits of architecture in the country.” Cripes. It was placed third in the list of buildings that viewers of the Channel 4 series Demolition wanted to see razed to the ground.

Greyfriars bus station opened in 1976, two years late, and has been plagued by problems ever since. It cost £7.5m by the time it was finished (an eye-watering £70m+ in today’s money). The bus station is accessed via lifts and subways like these:

Whohe! at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons
Whohe! at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the lifts have frequently broken down over the years, leaving travellers with physical impairments describing the bus station as “useless”. The building has also been affected by an outbreak of “mineral stalactites” where water ingress through the structure has leached out minerals which then re-accrete on ceilings as the moisture is exposed to air again (rooftop gardens and ponds not such a good idea now, eh?). The car park had to be closed in 2007 because of concerns that the dripping mineral stalactites were damaging cars parked below, and although it reopened temporarily, the car park has since shut for good. Northampton Borough Council, which owns the bus station/carbuncle, was unwilling to spend the money to rectify the problems. I suspect that this is partly because by that point, the business model which was supposed to underpin the bus station (i.e. rental income from businesses occupying the office blocks on top would pay for the building’s upkeep) had been exposed as completely bust. Although several companies gave the offices a go, no-one wanted to stay for long and the office blocks were vacant for many more years than they were occupied. I can’t think why…

To add insult to injury, recent years have seen occasional closures of the bus station due to leaks of raw sewage, providing a rare example of a situation in which raw sewage has actually provided a benefit to bus passengers.

So, what to do with a largely derided, vilely ugly, Brutalist behemoth in the middle of your otherwise quite promising historical town? While Greyfriars bus station does have its supporters (as you can see here), Northampton Borough Council has decided on the obvious course of action, which is to demolish it and replace it with a new £6.5m bus station. It sounds quite expensive, but it’s rather less than than the £22.3m Northampton Borough Council says (in this report here) would be the cost of a proper refurbishment of Greyfriars bus station to rectify lack of maintenance, weatherproof the building and meet Health and Safety Executive requirements. And all that would achieve would be the safe continuation of the gloomy and depressing experience that current users have to put up with. Refurbishing the car park and office blocks above the bus station so that they could be used as well would cost some £65.7m. That’s about the same as building the Thames Cable Car, and while the precise transport benefits of that scheme are a little difficult to discern, at least it looks pretty and gives you a nice view of your urban surroundings, neither of which can be said of Greyfriars bus station.

Demolition is due to start in 2014. Hooray!

Oddly, the twin office blocks with their sloping sides remind me in their massing of another pair of slope-sided structures not too far away from Northampton, of which I am much more fond. Next week, we’ll have a look at those, shall we?

postscript 17 March 2015

Well, it took until March 2015 to do it, but Greyfriars bus station was brought down safely in a controlled explosion on Sunday 15 March 2015. You can see it imploding in some videos on the BBC News website, here. My appreciation of the building hasn’t changed in the time I wrote the original blog post, so good riddance to it.

references / further reading

I absolutely couldn’t have written this entry without this invaluable article from the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on the building’s embarrassing history. There’s a splendid black-and-white picture at the top of the article too, proving that Greyfriars bus station didn’t even look nice when it was newly built.

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