My partner’s family are Portsmouth Football Club supporters. And I mean proper supporters, not just followers. They go to matches and everything. I know next to nothing about football, but it hasn’t escaped even my notice that supporting Portsmouth is something of a rollercoaster ride. I have lived through the joy and the anguish of my in-laws as Portsmouth narrowly avoided relegation several times, then made their way up to the Premier League (that’s the top one), wining the FA Cup in 2008, only to go into administration less than two years later and start a slide down the divisions that left them in League Two (that’s the fourth one) by 2013. The club is currently in League One (that’s the third one), having won promotion last season.
I mention this not to garner sympathy (although, you know…) but to help explain why Portsmouth’s seafront has a smart new bus station at The Hard rather than – as could have been the case – an enormous football stadium. Here it is.
The Hard is on the seafront of Portsmouth Harbour, and is the location of Portmouth Harbour railway station, a bus station, the pier for Wightlink’s Isle of Wight foot ferry (a high-speed catamaran) and the pier for the Gosport Ferry (not a high-speed catamaran), as well as a taxi rank. The railway station is a 1930s James Robb Scott Streamline Moderne rebuild, albeit one of his less notable ones. I like it though, and it has a reasonably unaltered Network SouthEast ticket office for fans of that kind of thing.
In an ideal world, The Hard would have a completely integrated single-structure transport interchange that married together trains, buses, ferries and taxis, but it’s probably never going to happen given the various commercial interests involved, and the lack of a compelling business case. As just one example of the drawbacks of the current less-integrated approach, if you want to get off Wightlink’s catamaran and onto the Gosport ferry to reach the other side of Portsmouth Harbour, you have to walk all the way up into the railway station, come out of the station, and then walk back down the Gosport Ferry Pier. There’s no direct link between the two ferries, and it looks like that’s the situation which will pertain for the foreseeable future. There’s also no sheltered walkway from railway station to the bus station.
The curious name “The Hard” comes from the site’s earlier existence. ‘Hard’ is a term referring to an area sufficiently firm to allow it to be used as a slipway into a body of water (see also, for instance, Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire).
Until recently, the difficult interchange between ferries wasn’t the worst thing about The Hard. That honour was held by The Hard Interchange itself, which actually comprised the bus station and taxi rank. Built sometime in the 1960s/70s (I haven’t found the definitive date yet), it was either a piece of dramatic Brutalism or a “Carbuncle of Concrete” nearly a match for Portsmouth’s other famous concrete carbuncle/masterpiece, the Tricorn Centre (demolished in 2004).
I’m not convinced the old Hard Interchange was a great piece of Brutalism, although I must admit I struggle with Brutalism at the best of times. It had some exciting zig-zag angles, but it seemed too obviously to have been built out of cheaply obtained breeze blocks to be genuinely brilliant.
Perhaps the most unsatisfactory element of the old Hard Interchange was that one of the major – and indeed marked out as such – pedestrian desire lines went straight across the island bus stops of the facility, and in so doing across the actual bus movement areas. Pedestrians and maneuvering buses inevitably came into some degree of conflict, and the arrangement certainly didn’t meet modern safety requirements.
You can have a look around the site as it once was, thanks to Google Streetview:
In 2007, with Portsmouth Football Club’s fortunes firmly in the ascendant, a planned massive £600m rebuild of the site would have seen the Hard Interchange replaced. A new bus facility would have formed part of the public space leading into a huge new Portsmouth FC football stadium designed by architecture practice Herzog & de Meuron, while the existing station and ferry piers would have been retained. It would have been quite something, the new stadium projecting way out over the water, and more details, along with plenty of amazing artist’s impressions, can be found at dezeen.com, here. (By the way, the associated text is well worth reading for the bleak humour of the vast discrepancy between Portsmouth FC’s then aspirations, and the reality as we now know it.)
Unfortunately, the ambitious Herzog & de Meuron scheme proved just too, well, ambitious. And with Portsmouth FC transforming itself from FA Cup winner into fourth-tier club in short order, there was no longer any compelling reason for the club to leave its longtime home at Fratton Park, a few stations up the railway line. That left a highly unsatisfactory bus station at The Hard to sort out.
In 2014, a rather more modest replacement for The Hard Interchange was approved. Instead of a £600m football stadium, the new plan was a £7m direct replacement. Architecture Practice AHR got the job. It beat off competition from bblur Architecture (of the new Slough bus station fame), which proposed an undulating, wave-like roof. That concept would have sheltered passenger facilities below, and extended as far as the station entrance, providing a sheltered walking route between trains and buses (the concept is detailed on bblur’s website, here). In the end though, AHR’s version of the Hard Interchange was the one chosen, and it opened in May this year, delivering a bus station that if not exactly radical, is still a much more attractive part of The Hard’s streetscape than the old one was, not to mention meeting 21st Century needs much more satisfactorily.
Where the old Hard Interchange had several island bus stops, each with a small shelter, the new bus station has a single concourse giving direct access to 10 ‘drive in, reverse out’ bus bays. As such, it affords much better weather protection than the old individual bus shelters ever could have done, and is warmer and better lit. It features glass curtain walls on all sides and also contains two smaller buildings, one of which contains a travel office and the other a tourist information centre and shop, as well as self-service tea and coffee facilities. Both units are softened by facings of vertical wooden strips.
The main building is a rounded triangle in plan, with a door at each corner. This intercepts passengers arriving along the three main desire lines: from the railway station/ferry piers immediately to the east (though unfortunately AHR’s design didn’t incorporate a sheltered walking route), from the Gunwharf Quays shopping outlet to the south, and from the Historic Dockyard to the north. Pedestrians are now directed around the bus apron, instead of right through it, improving safety. What used to be a drop-off/pick-up point and taxi rank to the north of the interchange has now been turned into a pedestrian area, with a subtle paving design in which shaded bands radiate from a point located on the nearby HMS Warrior.
The new bus station is notable not least for being an example of a high-quality bus station being built in the south of England. Although bus stations in general are something of a threatened species, where new ones have been built it has been more often in the north of England. There, they have often been delivered under the auspices of Passenger Transport Executives or their equivalents. Not so at The Hard, where there is no Passenger Transport Executive to take forward the project. Instead, Portsmouth City Council has led the way.
Although I said that it wasn’t exactly radical, two elements of the design help lift the new Hard Interchange above the mundane.
The first is a dramatic sail-like ETFE canopy which provides shelter between the bus station and buses which are dropping off or picking up passengers. It’s a suitably maritime piece of design, and also echoes the lines of the Spinnaker Tower which rises above the site. The quality of the finishes at the bus station are very high. The structural engineering firm which built the new Hard Interchange’s metal work notes that it had to weld and grind smooth all the joins in the columns supporting the canopy, to give a seamless finish.
The second is a sympathetic and very attractive lighting design. As Pet Shop Boys say, we all feel better in the dark, and that’s certainly true of the Hard Interchange. Glass-walled buildings always have an attractive Edward Hopper-esque quality at night, but the Hard Interchange goes one better through the use of a multi-coloured light splay over the two retail units within the building. White spotlights attached to the retail units are also aimed at the ceiling to mark the seating areas at each bus bay. Small downlighters in the ceiling provide further, subtle illumination, which reflects up from a polished floor. It’s a world away from the harsh fluourscent strip lights and cheap matt-grey floor tiles you’ll often find in transport waiting rooms and gives a lovely atmosphere to the waiting area.
Taxis haven’t been forgotten in this rebuild. There’s now a dedicated waiting room and taxi rank to the west side of the bus apron, and close by is an area provided for cars dropping off or picking up passengers. The taxi waiting room has a similar shape to the main bus station building, though much smaller, and is finished with a glass front and metal panelled walls. It also looks good in the dark, as you can see.
I took the night-time photos of the new Hard Interchange when a points failure at Portsmouth Harbour meant that I missed my connecting ferry back to the Isle of Wight and had to wait an hour for the next one. I’m actually sort of glad I did. Normally, bus stations aren’t somewhere you want to hang around at night. This one might well be an exception.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Portsmouth City Council’s Regeneration of the Hard information page, here
AHR’s project page for the Hard Interchange, here
Hillcrest Structural’s project page for the construction of the new Hard Interchange, here
Bblur’s Hard Interchange design concept, here
Herzog & de Meuron’s Hard Field concept (yes, that’s really what it’s called), here
If you’re here the football (presumably by mistake), this history of Portsmouth FC’s various abortive new stadia is well worth a read
…and anything else linked to in the text above