The Saving of a Brutal Bus Behemoth (Preston Central Bus Station and Car Park, Preston, UK)

The “will they, won’t they?” saga of Preston Bus Station was finally resolved this week after statutory heritage organisation English Heritage granted it Grade II listed status. It brought to an end a long battle to have it demolished, or saved, depending which side of the debate your sympathies lay.

Preston Central Bus Station and Car Park (to give it its proper title) has become something of a cause célèbre amongst fans of British Brutalist architecture, who have fought hard for its retention. Its owner, Preston City Council, has been planning to demolish it since the turn of the century, suggesting it is too large, too expensive to maintain and lacking in facilities for users. Those who don’t like Brutalist architecture were also looking forward to seeing the back of it. As regular readers know, I’m no great fan of Brutalism. And yet…there’s something about Preston Bus Station that appeals even to me even I can’t claim to have the warm fuzzies for it. I’d go as far as to say it’s good Brutalism, at least on the outside. And once upon a time I never thought I’d hear myself say that.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, the first thing to understand is that although “Preston Bus Station” is generally used as the shorthand name for the building, it’s actually the car park above it that provides its most striking and well-recognised feature. The curved balconies (or parapets, depending on which source you’re reading) of the car park decks are formed from moulded concrete elements which are repeated across exceptionally long runs.

Curved elements form the balconies of the car park. By SomeDriftwood [ccc] via flickr
Curved elements form the balconies of the car park. By SomeDriftwood [CC BY-NC 2.0] via flickr

The strong horizontal effect of the decks, four on one side of the building and five on the other, is incredibly striking. Bands of light and dark stretch across the 170m length of the car park, as though a giant cat’s claw has raked across the fabric of the world itself, leaving behind a scar made solid.

Preston Bus Station and Car Park. By I Like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr
Preston Bus Station and Car Park in 2011. By I like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr

It’s the largest bus station in Britain (and for many years was the largest in Europe), with no less than 80 bus bays (40 on each side), while the car park was designed to hold 1,100 cars. But it’s those curves, so unusual on a Brutalist building, which really sell it. Projecting outwards over the bus station below, they also act as a canopy allowing passengers to embark/disembark from buses without getting wet when it is raining.

Projecting balconies on the car park act as a canopy for the bus station. By I like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr
Projecting balconies on the car park act as a canopy for the bus station. By I like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr
The ends of the building are clad in white tiles, unusually laid vertically. The tiling is repeated at locations throughout the building, tying together both the exterior and interior.

One of the ends of Preston bus station, with car park access ramp. By outofmytree [CC BY-ND 2.0] via flickr
One of the ends of Preston bus station, with car park access ramp. By outofmytree [CC BY-ND 2.0] via flickr

It was completed in 1969 to the design of Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of architecture practice Building Design Partnership, working alongside E H Staziker, the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, and with the assistance of Ove Arup and Partners as consulting structural engineers. It was Ove Arup which came up with the concept of the curved balconies (they were cheaper than finding an acceptable vertical finish, apparently, not to mention that they helped avoid car bumpers hitting the wall, according to architectural community website Architectuul).

English Heritage says it is an, “unusual blend of New Brutalist architecture mellowed by the curves of the roof and the sweeping ranks of the car park…combining rational modernity with expressive architectural forms.”

It was designed as a multi-modal transport hub, not only incorporating facilities for buses and cars, but taxis too. The taxi rank (no longer in use), at the south end of the building, features a round ended waiting platform and roof. It recalls the curved Art Deco waiting rooms of the London Underground, or the tram shelters in Brighton, though it’s rather more hefty. It is visually integrated with the rest of the bus station through repetition of the vertical white tiling.

Taxi rank at Preston Bus Station and Car Park. By xxx [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via flickr
Taxi rank at Preston Bus Station and Car Park. By JohnnyEnglish [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via flickr
While the outside is exciting and dramatic, the interior of the bus station is admirable but perhaps difficult to love. A double height waiting area has a ceiling of exposed concrete soffits. Horizontal beams of dark iroko wood from Africa, supported on steel legs, separate each bus bay from its neighbours. The exterior facades are fully glazed (windows at the higher level, sliding glass doors at the lower level). The clocks and signage, by the way, are original fittings – the survival of so much of the original 1960s design being one of the reasons English Heritage has listed the building.

Preston Bus Station. By I like [CC BY-SA-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr
Preston Bus Station. By I like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr

There are some neat curved iroko wood seats on concrete plinths, and the white tiling reappears to bring a bit of brightness to the internal walls. The black floor is made up of ribbed rubber tiles manufactured by Pirelli (which also makes Formula 1 tyres).

Curved seating at Preston Bus Station. By Ilike [CC BY- ] via flickr
Curved seating at Preston Bus Station, with vertical white tiling on the walls and rubber tiles on the floor. By I like [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via flickr

The white tiling reappears in the three pedestrian subways at the bus station. These are excluded from English Heritage’s listing, as “less successful elements of the structure”. Low-ceilinged, twisting and claustrophobic, it’s hard to disagree.

The interior of the bus station is not a cuddly or friendly environment in which to wait, though I don’t suppose for a moment that Building Design Practice intended it should be, and that of course is at the heart of many people’s issues with Brutalism. Brutalist buildings are machines for living in, which is fine if you’re a machine too, but not so welcome if you’re a living, breathing, irrational, emotional human who likes a few creature comforts. One can’t help but sympathise with those bus users who, like Preston Borough Council, would rather have seen the bus station demolished and replaced with something a bit more comfortable, and comforting.

Like so many concrete brutalist buildings, maintenance spending on the building has perhaps fallen somewhat behind the levels needed to keep it in tip-top condition. It’s a terrible error because as Preston Borough Council has found (like so many other owners of big brutalist buildings), once structural problems set in, fixing them later is very expensive. The Council reckons the bill for bringing the building up to modern standards will be around £17-23m, which is why they’d much rather have demolished it and replaced it with something new that would have had lower maintenance costs. The Council’s plans have notably been opposed by the local Save Preston Bus Station campaign, not to mention national interest groups such as the Twentieth Century Society.

It is a building which inspires strange passions amongst those who do love it. Check out, for instance, this webpage by textile artist Emma Shannon, who has created a Preston Bus Station tweed. Or this photo of a brutalist railway station made of Lego, inspired by Preston bus station.

Preston City Council is disappointed that it now has on its hands a building which it cannot demolish. The bus station’s friends are delighted. Both sides, however, face the same challenge; namely, how to find a sustainable continued use for the building.  It’s hard to argue that any town in England really needs an 80-bay bus station. The car park was designed for an age when cars were smaller, and it’s not ideally suited to today’s 4×4 monsters. A new use for the building might include a refurbished bus station, perhaps occupying a smaller part of the existing footprint, or something else entirely.

English Heritage says, “Listing will not prevent changes being made, provided that the architectural significance of the building is protected. We are aware that Preston City Council faces challenges in maintaining the structure and integrating it effectively with the city centre and that, as a result, it has decided that it wishes to demolish it. We will however continue to explore with the Council how these challenges can be addressed so that the building can once again play a key role in the life of the city.”

It will be fascinating to see what that role is.

References

Building Design Partnership’s project page for Preston Bus Station, here

Save Preston Bus Station’s “Facts About” page, here

English Heritage listing record, here

How to find Preston Central Bus Station and Car Park

The green arrow shows the location of the bus station

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