Vaulting Ambition (Stockwell Bus Garage, London, UK)

Stockwell bus garage is one of the finest transport buildings in London. No, it’s one of the finest transport buildings in the UK. Actually, it’s probably one of the finest Modernist buildings in the UK, transport or otherwise. Opened in 1952, it is every bit the equal of the pre-war Modernist/Art Deco stations on London Underground. Its vast, soaring roof is a twentieth century match for the nineteenth century trainshed roof at St Pancras, London (UK). Seldom has concrete been so artfully employed, equalling and perhaps even surpassing such gems as Cockfosters Underground station.

Stockwell Bus Garage interior, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

However, Stockwell Bus Garage is to most people completely unknown; this is where it differs from the other buildings mentioned above. Bus stations, bus shelters and bus garages have always played second fiddle in the popularity stakes to railway architecture. It’s (just about) acceptable to express admiration for a piece of railway architecture. Railways are aspirational, used even by the wealthy on occasion. They take bankers to work in the City of London, and get to do glamorous things like run at high speed under the English Channel, linking capital cities far more efficiently than aeroplanes or road transport ever could. Buses are, well, the poor relation. They’re perceived as being for the financially challenged, the socially excluded, those for whom no other transport options are available. (And I say that as a proud bus user myself. I’ve just got a smart card ticket for my local bus network, and I’m excited beyond reasonable measure…)

So if a building is not just part of the bus network, but it’s also a bus garage into which there is usually no public admittance, it’s perhaps no surprise that it will get overlooked by the wider world.

This, however, does Stockwell Bus Garage a grave injustice. In a move which has hopefully redressed some of the ignorance surrounding it, the garage held an open day the weekend before last. The public got a rare chance to see inside this extraordinary building, and it’s on the inside where the ambition and quality that went into its design can best be appreciated.

To stand in its cavernous interior, underneath its enormous undulating roof, is to look onto the billows of a rolling cloud lit by a low sun. What must be hundreds and hundreds of tonnes (perhaps thousands? I must ask a quantity surveyor) of concrete is miraculously transformed into the rippling surface of a huge marquee in a stiff breeze. With concrete as its chief structural component, in the hands of lesser designers Stockwell Bus Garage could very well have been a lumpen deadweight. Instead, its massive roof all but floats above its walls, touching down only at 20 tiny junctions between glass arch windows. It’s an early version of the trick that Zaha Hadid later perfected at locations like her Hungerburgbahn stations.

Stockwell Bus Garage is the ideal the beauty of transport building. It is not only quite sensational to behold, but it also performs its job perfectly. It is absolute proof that looking good and working well are not mutually exclusive, that engineering success can be complemented by life-enhancing design; that form and function can co-exist in absolute harmony. When constructed, Stockwell Bus Garage had the largest unsupported area under a single roof in Europe¹. With no intervening pillars, there was a massive floorspace to store buses in a sheltered environment, and easily manouevre them around too. It was also a building appropriate to its era. Its sculptural concrete form was a response to a post-war shortage of steel, a disadvantage which architects Adie, Button and Partners, and A E Beer as engineer, turned splendidly to their advantage in what seems to be the practice’s only transport building. There’s plenty of steel in there, reinforcing the concrete structure, but a lot less than would have been needed to make a traditional building with vertical walls and a pitched roof held together by steel trusses.

Sydney has its Opera House, its concrete shell roofs an instantly recognisable landmark the world over. London has Stockwell bus garage, its repeating concrete vaults leaping across the buses underneath like a pod of dolphins racing across the sea (not my words, those of the Twentieth Century Society).

By Ben Christian [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
By Ben Christian [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

With its repeating curved elements, it has much more in common with the inter-war Modernist aesthetic than with the post-war Modernist architecture that seemed to forget curved forms. From the outside, it is an unusual looking building, nothing like a traditional bus garage. Along its short ends, within the structural concrete arch, vast segmental windows take up much of the higher parts of the wall while brick infill completes the lower parts.

Stockwell Bus Garage, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Stockwell Bus Garage, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Along its long sides, nine bays are divided by 10 outward leaning butresses, and each bay has a segmental curve upper section, with glazed windows and a central louvre. The garage is symmetrical in design along its north side and has three doors for buses to drive in and out of, one at each end and one in the middle. The three bays between each door have glazed lower sections too. On the south side there is a brick-built range of buildings housing offices and inspection pits for the buses, so there is not the same unbroken facade (see here).

Stockwell Bus Garage, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Stockwell Bus Garage north side panorama, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Inside, the roof is comprised of nine barrel vaults. Each barrel is curved in two directions; across its own width (otherwise it wouldn’t be a barrel vault) but also along its length, as it crosses the building on a long, shallow arch. Skylights running along the top of the barrel vaults let in extraordinary amounts of light, as the photos in this entry illustrate.

Stockwell Bus Garage interior, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Across the skylight openings the barrel vaults are reinforced by concrete ribs to give extra strength, particularly important when snow collects on top of the roof (which doesn’t happen very often in London, but when it does it creates a real engineering challenge for a roof of this size supported only at its edges).

Stuffed full of vintage buses and large numbers of people for the open day, it’s not easy to get across a sense of the scale of the building, although this image gives some idea:

Stockwell Bus Garage, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set
Stockwell Bus Garage interior, June 2014. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

If you want a really impressive show of the enormous size of the garage (it can hold 200 buses under cover), then this early photo from the collection of London’s Transport Museum does the job admirably.

There are many small details which enhance the design but which are not immediately obvious. The arched ribs between each barrel vault narrow slightly at their tops, flaring out again at their ends. This is one of the keys to making the roof look very light, in combination with the fact that the arches are themselves shallow. The shuttered concrete finish is exquisitely done, but not necessarily apparent at first glance. H-beams run the length of the garage along its long sides, just under the glazed arch windows, hiding services which would otherwise distract the eye.

Though not a well-known building, Stockwell Bus Garage has attracted attention nonetheless. It has a celebrity supporter in the form of author Will Self, who is a fan of both its ambitious architecture and the fact that it is employed at a building which is part of London’s functional life, rather than at a gallery or office development². Statutory heritage body English Heritage has meanwhile given it a Grade II* listing³, the second-highest level of protection which can be conferred.

Stockwell Bus Garage is also important because it marks the conclusion of London’s first great experiment with cutting edge transport architecture. During the inter-war years, London Transport had a proud tradition of commissioning exceptional Modernist architecture for its transport facilities under the visionary leadership of its chief executive Frank Pick. This included the famous Underground stations of Charles Holden (and others) and less famous buildings like the country area bus stations of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. But Pick left London Transport in 1940, and none of his successors seemed to grasp the importance of excellence in design like he did. Post-war austerity led to Holden’s pre-war designs for the eastern Central Line extension stations being de-scoped, and they make a melancholy contrast with his pre-war stations. Along with Oliver Hill’s Newbury Park bus station (also designed under Pick’s aegis in 1937 but opened in 1949, and only a small part of the originally planned scheme), Stockwell Bus Garage was the last hurrah for good Modernist transport design in London. Declining passenger numbers, a precarious financial situation, and managerial timidity left London’s transport network cowed and mean in the latter half of the twentieth century. The Victoria Line opened in 1968 with drab and uninspiring design (take a look at the architectural non-entity which is Stockwell tube station, here). It wasn’t until the Jubilee Line Extension of 1999 that superb design returned with a vengeance to London’s transport system.

So Stockwell Bus Garage was the end of an era. But what an end. Better to go out with a bang, than a whimper.

how to find Stockwell Bus Garage

follow this link to the beauty of transport‘s Map of Beauty

references and further reading

¹ The Transport Trust’s entry for Stockwell Bus Garage, here

² Author Will Self’s paean to Stockwell Bus Garage, here

³ The National Heritage List for England, citation for Stockwell Bus Garage, here


6 thoughts on “Vaulting Ambition (Stockwell Bus Garage, London, UK)

  1. Amazing blog. I work at Stockwell (SW) driving night buses and always enjoy the calm cathedral-like atmosphere the roof brings when getting ready to serve ones public through the small wee hours. I’m still hoping they won’t demolish Vauxhall Bus Station! We’ve gained some pieces of ‘art’ in the form of New Routemaster buses which replicate the impracticalities of the old RM and the lawlessness of the bendy due to their open boarding. Sadly my lovely route, the 88, is being converted a day before my 22nd birthday! Boo!

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