The Ribbon that Came out of the Pod (Bus Station, Vauxhall Cross, London, UK / lost beauty #5: Vauxhall Pod)

Vauxhall Cross in south London is not the best place to be a pedestrian. But before 2005 it was even worse. Trust me, I used to work there, at a company that described itself as being located on “London’s South Bank”. Which it was, albeit not the bit of the South Bank that everyone thinks of, with the Festival Hall and everything. This particular stretch of the south bank was further upstream, and was rather shabby and dominated by road traffic. Walking under the railway at Vauxhall Cross was a hair-raising, eardrum-bursting experience. I can’t imagine what it would have been like on a bicycle trying to negotiate the gyratory, which is straddled by the railway in the shape of two large, dark, bridges. The mainline railway’s Vauxhall station, London Underground’s separate Vauxhall tube station, and London buses were all in close proximity, but not well-integrated, and walking from one to any of the others could be a cold and wet experience.

Pressure grew through the 1990s for an improvement, largely driven by local authority Lambeth Council. Thanks to the subsequent efforts of the first Mayor of London Ken Livingstone to promote public transport and improve interchange, and make life easier for pedestrians and cyclists, by the early 2000s momentum had built up sufficiently for something to be done.

From this process came a reworking of the road layout with more cycle lanes and better pedestrian crossings, and a new public transport interchange promoted by Lambeth Council: the Pod. It’s one of London’s lost transport beauties.

Designed by Rolfe Judd, the pod was an oval building, two stories high, topped by two 50m tall masts. It would have been located on the west side of the railway tracks, in a ‘bus island’ the road layout changes created. It would have adjoined the western entrance of the mainline railway station, and sat on top of an entrance to Vauxhall tube station. Running to the south would have been a long row of bus stops. Pedestrian bridges would have linked the upper level of the pod to nearby roads, carrying foot traffic safely over the busy roads. The Pod was to be Teflon coated on top, with a curving glass facade running all the way round. The tall masts would not only have been a local landmark, but were intended to support the Pod itself, helping avoid the need for deep foundations; there’s an Underground line underneath, remember. The cost was expected to be some £16m.

Unfortunately, as time went on, cost estimates for the Pod rose higher than its twin masts, and Lambeth Council eventually realised it couldn’t afford the scheme in its planned configuration (as neighbouring local authority Wandsworth Borough Council ruefully noted in a 2002 committee paper (here, para 11)).

Like an out-of-favour member of the Politburo airbrushed from later Soviet history, the Pod has all but disappeared. At times, it feels like a strange dream that never happened, so little proof is left that the proposal ever existed. A few brief details are given in a news story on the Architects’ Journal website (here). But you will find no direct reference to the project on Pod architects Rolfe Judd’s website, just passing references buried in profiles of staff, confirming that they worked on the elusive project. A search of Lambeth Council’s website reveals no mention of the Pod – perhaps they’re still embarrassed by the whole thing. Of Pod images on the internet, you will find none. The only two images of the Pod I know of are in a book¹, and I can’t just scan them in for copyright reasons. So, for the first (and what I sincerely hope will be the last) time, you’ll have to get a sense of the Pod’s appearance from a quick sketch. By me.

Sketch of the unrealised Vauxhall Pod. By Daniel Wright
Sketch of the unrealised Vauxhall Pod, looking east towards the railway station. By Daniel Wright

OK, so I think we can agree that I won’t be troubling a computer-aided architectural graphics package any time soon. The Pod was intended to be somewhat more elegant than I’ve managed to show it, and if Rolfe Judd think I’ve misrepresented their design I’ll be only too happy to replace the above with one of their actual visualisations if they’d like to send me one. What even my very rough sketch demonstrates though, is the sheer incongruity and drama the Pod would have brought to Vauxhall station. It would have been great fun, but it wasn’t to be.

So, although the Pod was ruled out on affordability grounds, the revised road layout was still considered worthwhile in providing better pedestrian and cycle facilities. The desire for improved interchange between buses, the Tube and the railway station also remained. The search was on to find a lower cost alternative. TfL found the solution in design and engineering firm Arup Associates. At £4.5m, the revised plan wasn’t exactly cheap, but it was a sight more affordable than the Pod.

Opened in 2005, Arup’s building was a 200m-long bus station fitting onto the bus island that had originally been dreamt up for the Pod. And while this actual Vauxhall bus station might be somewhat less ostentatiously flashy than the Pod, it’s nevertheless a rather wonderful addition to London’s public transport. National newspaper The Guardian described it as London’s best bus building since Stockwell bus garage in the 1950s (here).

Vauxhall bus station in 2012. By A.Salisz [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page
Vauxhall Bus Station in 2012. By A.Salisz [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

The UK has a very patchy record when it comes to bus stations. There are some good examples, like the smart and modern facilities at Horsham (small) or Barnsley (large). But too many of our bus stations are dirty / depressing / dark/ neglected / leaky / very cold or some combination of the foregoing (Guildford, Northampton, Ryde). So to see a well-done new bus station is something of a cause for celebration.

Vauxhall Bus Station takes the form of an elevated ribbon of stainless steel, 12m wide. The roof undulates slightly but regularly over its length, with the middle section dipping up and down from roof height to the ground over the course of its length.

Vauxhall Bus Station in 2012. By A.Salisz [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page
Vauxhall Bus Station in 2012. By A.Salisz [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Where it runs along the ground, seating for bus passengers is provided, with skylights in the roof above:

Seating at Vauxhall Bus Station. By A.Salisz [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Seating at Vauxhall Bus Station. By A.Salisz [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Where it runs at the top, level with the outer two strips, it supports them. The layered ribbon is said by Arup to recall London’s tube and bus route maps.

The overall effect is a sheltered but open structure, an important consideration given concerns over antisocial behaviour in the area. At night a sensitive lighting design promotes security, but does away with the obvious and crude solution of harsh flourescent lighting. The height of the roof is such that it is a little higher than the top deck of a double-decker bus. This adds to security too – passengers on the upper deck can see down into the bus station, rather than looking down onto the top of a roof and having no idea what is going on beneath.

At the bus station’s north end, the focus of the railway/tube/bus interchange, a two storey office and toilet block nestles under the roof. Clad in corrugated stainless steel with small angular windows, it is a parallelogram at its side elevation, but is irresistibly reminiscent of an American Airstream caravan. At this point the  bus station’s roof springs exuberantly heavenward as two large cantilevers. These are not just for show. They add to the landmark status of the bus station and give a subtle indication that this is the real business end of the interchange. They are also covered with photovoltaic cells which generate electricity for the bus station.

Office building at Vauxhall Bus Station. By StefZ [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Office building at Vauxhall Bus Station. By StefZ [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The entrance to the Underground station is now under the shelter of the bus station’s roof, though the walk between the railway station and the bus station is still unprotected. A planned canopy connecting the two, which can be seen in an artist’s impression at the bottom of Arup’s project page for the bus station, was never built. And the drawback of an open structure is that even though it’s dry underneath the roof, it can still be very breezy. Arup does note that the emphasis of the building is on movement, rather than occupation.

Despite the niggles, Vauxhall Bus Station still represents a quantum leap in bus station design, and bus passengers at the majority of the UK’s other bus stations would, I’m sure, swap their own for something like the one at Vauxhall.

Yet now, bizarrely, this dramatic and exciting bus station (not a phrase you’ll see very often) faces demolition, a mere eight years after its construction.

Vauxhall Cross is still congested and hard to navigate on foot. So Lambeth Borough Council (yes, them again) has decided that the way forward could be to demolish the bus station, dispersing the bus stops across various local streets, and replacing the bus station with a civic square. One can only conclude that whoever thought up this idea isn’t a regular bus user, nor someone who enjoys the easy interchange between bus and tube/rail that the current bus station provides. Perhaps it is revenge for the loss of the Pod. Or just bus station envy perhaps?

Locals are already gathering to form the Friends of Vauxhall Bus Station to save it (after all it worked, eventually, for Preston Bus Station). The council and its supporters claim this is all premature because they haven’t made a firm decision on the future of the bus station, and anyway they probably only want to remove its roof. Given that the bus station essentially is its roof, this sounds like the same thing to me.

Under threat? The roof of Vauxhall Bus Station. By Vincent Pollard [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Under threat? The roof of Vauxhall Bus Station. By Vincent Pollard [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

There’s no point hoping that English Heritage can step in at the last minute either and list the bus station, like it did for Preston Bus Station. Buildings have to be at least 10 years old before they can be listed, and for such a young building to be listed it has to be truly exceptional. It might be as well to visit it while you still can.

how to find Vauxhall Bus Station

The green arrow marks the location.

references and further reading

¹ Taylor, Sheila, 2001. The Moving Metropolis, A History of London’s Transport since 1800. London, Laurence King Publishing.

Arup Associates Vauxhall Cross bus station project briefing document, here

GLA paper on the replacement of the Pod with the revised Vauxhall bus station design, here

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