Failing The Grade? (Vauxhall Bus Station, London, UK)

We keeping losing transport buildings, and it’s beginning to look like the options for ensuring that Vauxhall Bus Station doesn’t join that regrettable group are running out. The building has recently failed to gain admission to the National Heritage List for England and with it, official protection. The reasons it failed to gain listed status explain some of the difficulties in deciding which modern transport buildings are worthy of protection, so I make no apologies for returning to Vauxhall again.

Opened in 2004, Vauxhall Bus Station is facing demolition thanks to a scheme promoted by local authority Lambeth Council, which wants to build some retail units in the immediate area of the current bus station (see the previous two instalments of this story here and here). None of the options in a consultation exercise which finished on 2 January saw a choice in which the current bus station would be retained.

However, since the last time we visited the saga of Vauxhall Bus Station, there seems to have been a (slightly grudging?) move towards accepting that a central bus facility is needed. It’s not absolutely clear that this will actually serve all the routes that currently use Vauxhall Bus Station, however, or that the bus stops will be as well organised as now. Rather intriguingly, the artist’s impression of the proposed street scene post-redevelopment shows a wavy metal and glass canopy spreading over these central stops, some kind of bus station building, and the entrance to Vauxhall tube station, rather as the current bus station does today, which makes it all the more puzzling that an option in which the retail units were built around the existing bus station hasn’t been developed. Road layout changes are part of the Vauxhall development plans, and these cut across the current footprint of the bus station. However, no-one has yet produced a really convincing argument that the outcomes of those road layout changes couldn’t be delivered by a different road layout which accommodates the existing bus station.

Underneath what might be Vauxhall Bus Station, if the current bus station is demolished. Image from TfL's consultation page here
Underneath what might be Vauxhall Bus Station, if the current bus station is demolished. Image from TfL’s consultation page here

In any case, you can’t rely on artists’ impressions without detailed designs and a commitment to install a single, large, weather-proofed canopy. You might end up with small bus shelters serving each bus stop, and no way to get from one to the other without getting wet on rainy days. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of the bus passengers in countless towns around Britain who saw their bus stations sold off in the 1990s and 2000s, to be replaced by motley collections of on-street bus shelters.

The current Vauxhall Bus Station is a great transport building. It is a rare example of an architecturally ambitious bus-related building which also serves the needs of passengers in a manner appropriate to local circumstances. It is as much a part of the story of London’s bus and coach transport as Victoria Coach Station, Stockwell Bus Garage and Newbury Park Bus Station (all of which are already listed, by the way), and a chapter in the recent history of bus transport of which Preston Bus Station (also recently listed) is a precursor. Whether it is a great building is more difficult to tell, which is where the bus station has run into difficulty.

Given that Lambeth Council seems dead set upon Vauxhall Bus Station’s demolition, local civic consultative group The Vauxhall Society took it upon itself to submit an application to England Heritage (the statutory heritage organisation for England) for the bus station to be granted listed status, conferring protection upon it from easy demolition. Unfortunately, The Vauxhall Society recently heard back from English Heritage that its application had been denied. The reasoning given by English Heritage is quite illuminating in illustrating the difficulties of getting a modern transport building listed.

English Heritage noted the building’s qualities, describing it as a “thoughtful if uncompromising (in terms of aesthetics) response” to the original design brief. I’m not sure why ‘uncompromising’ is the qualifier here. After all, most significant buildings are uncompromising. They wouldn’t be significant otherwise, but would instead fade into the background. English Heritage went on to add that Vauxhall Bus Station’s “streamlined curves, modular construction, and use of a single material (stainless steel) all give the impression of a self-contained ‘object building’”.

An 'object' building [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
An ‘object’ building: official. English Heritage says so. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

However, English Heritage also drew attention to the fact that the building’s “prominence and visual impact is compromised…by poor visual integration with its immediate surroundings”. It also said that “the external hard landscaping, designed by others, is utilitarian and relates poorly to the architecture.” This has affected its ability to act as “a catalyst for regeneration” says English Heritage, something TfL suggested the bus station would do when it originally opened.

These problems, however, are hardly the fault of the bus station. The poor landscaping around the building is the fault of Lambeth Council and TfL, as this is a public area adjacent to a trunk road. It of course suits Lambeth Council to ensure this situation continues, as it furthers the argument for demolishing the bus station, which is what it gives every impression of wanting to do anyway.

The fact that Vauxhall Bus Station hasn’t acted as a catalyst for regeneration is again hardly its own fault. No building can regenerate an area of its accord, without the local authority using that building as a focus for regeneration efforts. In the absence of such efforts, a building will remain a landmark in a run-down area, and in retrospect it was quite ridiculous of TfL to claim regeneration benefits on behalf of the bus station when it opened.

A recent article in British newspaper The Times (30 December 2014) about development areas in London amusingly provided an artist’s impression of the future of the Vauxhall area (or Nine Elms, as a recent rebranding effort would have it) showing the numerous skyscrapers proposed to be built there. It didn’t take too long to find the original image that The Times had used, on the website of the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership:

The future of Vauxhall/Nine Elms? Via this page at the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership
The future of Vauxhall/Nine Elms? Via this page at the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership

Why amusing? Because right in the middle of this vision for the future of “Vanhattan” (as The Times called it) sits the current Vauxhall Bus Station, blending in beautifully with these high-tech surroundings, and demonstrating that it would relate very well to its surrounding area if only someone would put the same architectural effort into those surroundings as architects Arup put into the bus station. In fact, given the number of proposed skyscrapers for the Vauxhall area, doesn’t that prove that the bus station is, in fact, already acting as a catalyst for regeneration? Even better, you’ll never guess which organisation is a member of the public/private Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership…yes, you’ve got it in one, Lambeth Council.

Most damningly for Vauxhall Bus Station survival prospects in the real world, however, is the fact that English Heritage’s policy is that buildings less than 30 years old must be really exceptional to be listed, in other words that they must meet the criteria for listing at Grade II* (the middle rank of the three categories of listing), rather than the more common Grade II. Most transport buildings are listed at Grade II, rather than Grade II* or Grade I. Of the listed bus buildings I mentioned earlier, only Stockwell Bus Garage is listed at Grade II*. All the rest are Grade II listed buildings. With a relatively new building, it can be very difficult to ascertain its inherent qualities which might only become apparent decades later. It’s worth remembering that even St Pancras station in London was divisive when built and went through a stage when it so unpopular that it was nearly demolished. Current opinions – for instance that Vauxhall Bus Station isn’t truly exceptional – are no guide to future appreciation. That said, I’m inclined to agree with the current opinion of the Twentieth Century Society which named Vauxhall Bus Station as the building to represent 2005 in its recent 100 Buildings 100 Years exhibition and book.

The Vauxhall Society wrote to the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (which ultimately oversees the work of English Heritage) appealing the decision on the grounds that the current low-quality surroundings didn’t affect the inherent quality of the bus station, and that the green credentials of Vauxhall Bus Station had been overlooked by English Heritage. It was an early example of a building with solar photovoltaic cells fully integrated into its design rather than installed afterwards, adding to its importance.

It wasn’t enough though, and the Department still refused listing status. At less than 30 years of age, it can be hard to determine a building’s historical and architectural interest, and that’s why a building less than 30 years old needs to meet the criteria for Grade I or II* listing, said the Department. The Department also said that the immediate surroundings were a material consideration. In a brilliant piece of circular logic, the kind that the UK government has long specialised in, the Department proceeded to catch Vauxhall Bus Station in a trap. Noting that the bus station was supposed to act as a catalyst for regeneration, the Department said it had failed in this objective and that the proof of this was that Lambeth Council wanted to demolish it to regenerate the immediate area. In other words, Lambeth Council wanting to demolish the bus station is proof that the bus station deserves to be demolished. D’oh…

All this moves us ever closer to the situation in which this rare modern high-quality bus facility could be demolished only a few years after being built, simply to make way for some shops. The latter certainly aren’t rare and I’m yet to be convinced that they will be notably high quality.

This blog has looked at too many lost transport buildings already. From the palatial Penn Station in New York City (replaced by an Escher-like subterranean nightmare) to the stylish Modernism of Glasgow Renfrew Airport Terminal (replaced by a new airport and terminal of little or no architectural merit) via the Art Deco wonderland which was Southampton Ocean Terminal Station (demolished and eventually replaced by a competent but thoroughly unexciting building), the common factor linking all these buildings is that their loss remains keenly felt to this day. We wish they hadn’t been demolished knowing what we know now. As far as I know, no-one has ever felt as fond towards a retail development of the sort proposed in Vauxhall as they have of these lost transport buildings. You’ll miss a good railway or bus station when it goes before its time. A Little Waitrose, however convenient it may be, is unlikely to gain the same place in the soul of a city.

In the last two blog entries we looked at London’s Country Bus garages and bus stations. All but one have been demolished, and all the ones with bus stations attached have gone. In every case, the replacement passenger waiting facilities were worse than ones which were demolished. It’s a stark warning of what happens when money trumps the interests of public transport passengers. Beware the financial whizz-kids at transport operators or local authorities who know the cost of everything, the untapped revenue potential of land on which a transport facility stands, yet cannot grasp the value of that facility.

The Vauxhall Society and local campaign group We Love Vauxhall Bus Station will no doubt continue their stirling efforts to ensure the bus station’s survival, drawing attention to its threatened demolition across various media, by lobbying politicians, and by responding to consultations on the future of the bus station. They deserve the best of luck, but it’s beginning to look like a bit of a David and Goliath battle. I’m crossing my fingers for a similar giant-killing result.

9 thoughts on “Failing The Grade? (Vauxhall Bus Station, London, UK)

  1. Really interesting article but as a Vauxhall resident, I would be more than happy to see the Vauxhall Bus Station gone! although very convenient and I use it on a daily basis, I would prefer to see a public square and even some shops; reconfiguration of the area is also needed for the Vauxhall one-way system, which is one of the worse in central London, very intimidating and dangerous.

    Vauxhall is currently a dump and I hope that with the arrival of the US and Dutch Embassy, we will start to see changes in the area; which we have already, although still a very long way to go. At the moment, there is no reason why somewhere from a different part of London would put a foot in Vauxhall, other than using it as an interchange, so why do people want to keep it in the same way? that is something I really don’t understand.

    1. That’s a fair comment. As an enthusiast for public transport design it’s no surprise that I’d like to retain the bus station. I used to work in Vauxhall so I’m well aware the area needs regenerating and I certainly don’t want to retain the status quo. What I’d really like is a scheme that retains the bus station (which I think is great), gets rid of the gyratory, and surrounds the bus station by a much improved urban environment and nice new shops. I just don’t understand why Lambeth Council and TfL can’t manage to develop a scheme that retains the current bus station and improves the area, rather than it being an either/or situation as it seems to be being presented at the moment.

  2. I agree with you; that would be the ideal scenario – retaining bus station, getting rid of the gyratory system, some nice public open space and nice shops/restaurants around the bus station.

  3. I never liked the bus station and the passage of 9 odd years hasn’t changed my view. Windy, cold, hard grey colour & surfaces, The ski jump/wave cover give minimal protection from the elements to passengers and I think its a horrible hard utilitarian thing. The amount of solar panels on top of the thing are minimal compared to what COULD have been achieved- they’re only on the ski-jump bit. I would like something much more along the lines of the new West Croydon bus station- proper low brick buildings that SHELTER you and with solar panels ALL over the top of them. And a DECENT sized complex of staff accomodation- toilets, mess rooms, offices and more for our long suffering bus drivers and managers. DECENT sized free public toliets too please. Some shops would be nice too and even some flats over them. With some of them independant shops retail units please not yet more big chain store PLC/private equity ones ONLY please. But not a BIG flats development- not yet more of those in Vauxhall please.
    I’d be very glad to see the old bus station go.
    Tony Harvey (Wandsworth Rd Resident (3-4 months per year)

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