Chatham Waterfront Bus Station is the bus station that won a whole bunch of unexpected converts to the cause of Brutalism. You might think that the residents of Chatham would be happy to have a smart new bus station…
..but no, not a bit of it. Even in terms of a country which takes perverse pleasure in not liking new transport architecture (remember the silver ‘slug’ at Slough bus station?) or indeed much new architecture of any sort, Waterfront Bus Station has provoked unusual antipathy.
Waterfront Bus Station opened in 2011 as part of a regeneration scheme in the Kent town. In a statement about the prioritisation of buses as a travel mode over that of the private car, the Sir John Hawkins Way road flyover was demolished to make room for it. It was designed by architecture practice D5 with permeability a key principle. As such, it comprises a group of open structures and there is no principal entrance. Instead, various canopies and a travel centre are “nestled within a wider landscaping scheme”.
Responding to the parkland in which the bus station is located, the canopies are rounded and have a tree-like structure, including living sedum roofs on their upper sides. The canopies themselves feature copper cladding over galvanized steel, and the bus station was shortlisted in the Galvanizers Association Galvanizing Awards of 2013, no less. Underneath the canopies, glass walls provide some degree of weather protection, though not as much as some bus station users would like, as I will explain later. The travel centre continues the use of glass, having glass curtain walls. Two canopies are oval in plan, and sit with the travel centre on a central island, which has four bus stands on each side. Off to the west is a long, irregularly curved canopy, which serves another five bus stands.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with new British passenger transport infrastructure, it was heavily criticised upon its opening. Medway Council says that, “With it’s [sic] modern, coherent design, Chatham Waterfront Bus Station presents a welcoming reception to the bustling heart of Medway.”
Residents and local bus users weren’t so sure.
For a start, they weren’t altogether convinced it was in the bustling heart of Medway at all, as it was on the opposite side of the road from the main shopping centre, The Pentagon. The bus station Waterfront had replaced had formed an integral part of the shopping centre, as so many British bus stations once did. It ran right round the edge of the five-sided shopping centre at first floor level (second floor for American readers), accessed by ramps from the local roads. It was also a massive piece of concrete and brick Brutalism, all angles and concrete beams.
Opposition Labour councillors on Medway Council said the new bus station had been put in the wrong place and, “Residents with disabilities are going to find it difficult to get over here and use it. The people of Medway were not consulted on where they wanted this to be.” Local shop owners meanwhile were reported as having, “customers coming into the shop and saying they are not going to come to Chatham because of having to cross the road and go out in the weather.” But local Conservative councillors countered that, “There was extensive consultation on three sites and this is the one that got the most approval.” Square those statements, if you can.
I find it hard to get excited about Brutalism at the best of times, and Medway Council was certainly no fan of Pentagon bus station, with its gloomy and enclosed bus stands. “The old bus station is not a welcoming environment for travellers”, it said. “It is poorly lit, users suffer from exhaust fumes from buses and the area is generally run down.”
Athough it has a number of ardent fans, Brutalism is generally derided in Britain, most frequently appearing in the media with descriptions like “concrete carbuncle”. Yet by all accounts, the provision of Medway’s new light and airy Waterfront Bus Station suddenly made local residents nostalgic for their old Brutalist behemoth, which became viewed as the standard to which Waterfront was failing to aspire.
On Waterfront Bus Station’s opening day, the local newspaper gleefully reported passengers criticising various aspects of the new bus station’s design. These included a lack of zebra crossings, and the suggestion that, “Give it a couple of months and you’ll have all the yobs smashing the glass.” “It’s one big balls-up, there’s no other word for it,” one resident was reported as saying, even though I think that’s probably three words even if you count ‘balls-up’ as a single hyphenated word. Likely exposure to wind and rain, compared to the shelter afford by the caverns of the Pentagon bus station was also reported to be a concern. In the interests of balance, the local newspaper did find one passenger who admitted that, “I actually think it’s very nice. I found the other one very dark and quite disgusting, and I didn’t feel that safe.” You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time, and that’s certainly true when it comes to Waterfront Bus Station.
You can’t fault Medway Council’s attempts to try, though. The lack of zebra crossings was tackled by their provision a few weeks later, only for them to be branded illegal almost immediately because they were not accompanied by the requisite orange flashing lights. Medway Council subsequently admitted that the stripes didn’t conform to standards and removed them, replacing them with block paving of a different colour to the rest of the road surface and telling bus drivers to respect the crossing points.
The new bus station didn’t make itself any more popular with local residents after large numbers of drivers were fined for driving through it on bus-only roads, claiming that signage telling them not to was confusing or inadequate. Or perhaps they momentarily believed themselves to be driving a bus. Who knows? The fines allegedly netted Medway Council some £1.2m between 2011 and 2015. This was despite the building of a roundabout intended to allow car drivers the opportunity to turn around before entering the bus station.
A few years later, Waterfront Bus Station was in the news again for weather-related issues. It turned out that as well as their earlier concerns over wind and rain, the residents of Chatham were no more happy when the weather was sunny, because the sun’s glare was making the bus information screens hard to read.
By this point, you’d have forgiven Medway Council and regeneration company Medway Renaissance for wondering whether providing a new bus station was really worth all the hassle it had caused them. But Waterfront Bus Station had one last trick up its sleeve. When it opened, public toilets were supposed to be provided at the bus station, but they weren’t. It was suggested that they would open a few weeks later. I haven’t been able to find out whether they did or not, but by 2017 it seemed to be the case that the toilets had for some while been regarded as being for staff only. “However, some members of the public started to use the toilets, and as it was only a small number of people the toilets were left open,” explained a council spokesperson. Unfortunately, the toilets were then misused in ways you wouldn’t want to read about here (but you can here) rather vindicating the earlier decision to make them staff-only. They were closed to the public again, much to the annoyance of the Medway Pensioners’ Forum, who said the older people it represents might need the facilities at short notice. The toilets at The Pentagon shopping centre (all the way on the other side of the road, you’ll remember) cost 20p a go.
So there you have it. I think Waterfront Bus Station looks rather nice, but it’s one of those buildings that has clearly had trouble connecting with local residents and bus passengers. Just before it opened, Medway Council said that the bus station would transform transport. Unfortunately, transforming public opinion proved to be a more difficult task.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Medway Council’s current Chatham Waterfront Bus Station page, here
Medway Council’s original Chatham Waterfront Bus Station FAQs, dating from its opening, here
D5’s webpage for Chatham Waterfront Bus Station, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.