You remember a few weeks ago we were looking at bus station design, and I was being depressed by bus stations which are little more than a collection of basic shelters in close proximity to one another? Things like this:
That was Blackburn Boulevard bus station. If I was after a no-frills greenhouse for my tomatoes, those shelters might be just the thing if fitted with some additional glazing panels, but they certainly wouldn’t be my first choice as key features in a major bus interchange. Well, here’s the thing. Blackburn Boulevard bus station closed in September 2013, not so that its bus stops could be scattered all around the surrounding streets as has happened in so many British towns, but so that it could be replaced by a proper new bus station; one of the best designed examples in the last few years.
In May this year, Blackburn’s new £4m bus station threw open its doors, which include those giving access to its 14 bus bays. Its single concourse building eschews the recent trend for rounded structures in favour of a clean, sharp-edged exterior.
But it’s inside – the bit that passengers experience the most – where the qualities of this building become very evident.
This is no anonymous structure which could have been plonked in any town. Designed by Altaf Master of Capita Symonds, it responds directly to the history of the local area. A series of slots have been cut into the roof of the bus station, and below these hang loops of white-painted steel of varying sizes. The largest ones, weighing six tonnes a piece, are 5.4m tall and touch the floor of the building. It’s these six loops that actually support the roof of the bus station. The other loops are arranged in a repeating pattern which breaks up the interior space of the building and gives a sense of scale and rhythm to the internal space. It’s a big space too, 10.5m wide and 90m long.
Why loops at all, though? Because they reflect the cotton weaving looms which dominated the area surrounding Blackburn during and after the industrial revolution. It’s a really neat touch, and one that is missing from a lot of new transport infrastructure which, while often impressive, doesn’t seek to involve itself in the traditions or history of the local area.
The slots in the bus station roof are glazed, and allow natural light in from above. Along with the frameless curtain glazed walls it means the bus station requires very little artificial lighting during the daytime. At night, a sensitive uplighting scheme emphasises the steel hoops and bounces light off the shiny underside of the roof. Some of the uplighters are cleverly hidden on top of information screen housings, while others are in neat housings in the floor.
The quality of the materials is a step up from that of many bus stations. The floor is made of large stone slabs; no cheap floor tiles here. Wooden slatted benches are placed on top of stone plinths, and there are some charming additional seats at the bottom of the full height steel loops, again in slatted wood, following the curve of the loop. I really admire the attention to detail in areas like this.
There’s a full height two-storey building at one end of the bus station, the upper storey of which provides an unexpected splash of colour, being finished in lime green. At ground level this building has an open-plan travel information centre desk, staffed for the entire time buses are operating. It also contains bus crew and passenger welfare facilities. Along the side of the building, wide sliding doors give access to the bus stands, and keep the weather out for the rest of the time. There are, of course, live electronic information screens over each bus bay door, and dotted around the building.
The new bus station has been delivered as part of the £40m Pennine Reach project, which is upgrading bus services between Blackburn and Accrington with a new bus station in each town and bus priority works between the two. At the other end of the route, the new Accrington bus station, due to open in July, will be very nice but lacks a little in character compared to Blackburn’s.
As with many (most?) interesting new buildings, Blackburn bus station of course opened late and after some degree of controversy. It was originally supposed to open in December 2014/January 2015, but work took longer than planned, then the original building contractor was sacked in summer 2015 over safety concerns. At that point executive member for regeneration, councillor Phil Riley hoped the new bus station would be open by Christmas. Politicians really oughtn’t to use the phrase, “It will all be over by Christmas,” or any derivative, as it comes with a rather unfortunate history. True to form, Christmas 2015 came and went, and the bus station eventually opened in 2016.
But you know what? Give it a year or two and no-one will even care. Who will remember the original construction schedule? Users will simply be impressed by this wonderful building, which has already achieved the remarkable in terms of new transport infrastructure by attracting virtually no snide comments about its appearance or function.
As you know, I like to find examples of amusing residents’ comments from local newspapers about new transport infrastructure (like the new Slough bus station that was described as “too new”). In the case of Blackburn bus station, that’s proved nearly impossible. Oh, I can find you a fair few complaints about the Pennine Reach project and the disruption the associated roadworks have caused (see here, for instance), and the management qualities of the council (plus ça change). But about the bus station itself the best summation I can find you is this: “Looks excellent, a great design, well done Blackburn.” Even the negative comments aren’t to do with the building, vis: “It’s [a] nice design, just in the wrong place IMHO” (both quotes from Place North West, here).
Given the grumpiness of the British public about modern architecture, I really don’t think there’s any higher compliment than that. Well done Blackburn, indeed.
Hear About Blackburn Bus Station From its Architect!
Regeneration community interest company Placeshakers is running a five week programme called Urban Room Blackburn which launched on 20th June. As part of the programme Blackburn bus station architect Altaf Master will give a talk about the project and some of his other work. The event takes place at the bus station itself on 19 July 2016 at 6:00pm. More details via this page
Further Reading and Bibliography
Architects Capita’s webpage about the bus station project, here
…and anything linked to in the article above.
The only reason you’re reading this article is because I contacted Blackburn with Darwen Council’s press team to ask for a photo of Blackburn bus station for an earlier article. Not only did they send me several good photos, but also so much background information about the building I was able to write a whole article. It only goes to show the coverage a good press officer will get you. Thank you for the assistance Faye.