Speaking of Retro, Check Out the Preston Bus Station

Yes, I went to a bus station on my birthday - and not even to take a bus!

While yes, I am crazy, but there was a special reason – the Preston Bus Station is not exactly just any old bus station, and my interest in it ironically has nothing to do with buses!

It is one of the most striking examples around of Brutalist architecture, dating to 1969.  If you don’t know, Brutalism is a particular harsh (brutal, shall we say?) version of Modernism, typically carried out with sharp geometry and loads of concrete.  Wikipedia as always provides some good info, and interesting to see that its Brutalist Architecture page mentions some familiar characters – the Trellick Tower which we immortalized last year as the ugliest building in London, the Washington Metro, and three buildings at my alma mater (the law school, Forbes Quad – sorry, called Posvar Hall now, and my own School of Information Sciences building).

The main feature is the very long, repetitive facade - it almost causes optical pain as your eyes try to focus!

The Preston Bus Station, which with space for 40 buses on each side of the building is claimed as the second largest bus station in Europe, has gotten some wider attention because it is in danger – for more than 10 years now it has been on the chopping block.  This has raised some very interesting issues – on the one hand, it is an amazingly awful (hell, brutal – see pictures below) structure that certainly doesn’t seem “fit for purpose” anymore, it if ever was.  On the other hand, however, it is a landmark; the people of Preston have actually voted it as their favorite building, and it really captures the architecture and style of the time period.

Britain has a preservation movement that is even stronger than the US, but not surprisingly it is mostly focused on much older stuff.  What timeframe is appropriate for something to become historic?  Certainly lots of recent-past structures are demolished without thought, and that has happened throughout history – but after some period of time the thinking changes and those things that were viewed as so awful become quaint or retro or whatever.

The plan has been to knock it down and build a new city-center shopping complex; there have been several petitions to grant it landmark (known as “listed” here) status, all rejected.  The fight continues, and the economic slowdown has perhaps lessened the demand for the new shopping center.  Advocates have quite a nice website with a petition and a lot of other information about the building at http://www.prestonbusstation.co.uk.

So, what do you think – should this building be preserved?  Check out the rest of the pictures below to see the retro interiors!

The bus "gates" (a fancy word for whole in the wall, as there didn't seem to be any actual doors) are pretty plain queues with wooden posts between them, although the double-height gallery does allow a lot of light in.

We ventured up to the roof for a 'panoramic' view of Preston. Note the curvy edges that are supposed to reduce the impact of collisions against the outside wall. That yellow arrow in the back right looks fake but was really there (perhaps another collision avoidance measure!).

The multi-story car park above the bus station was virtually abandoned (at least on a Saturday). Note the detail of the curved, smoothed concrete (it does remind you of the vaulted ceilings in the Washington Metro, doesn't it?).

One of the real highlights was the totally-retro buffet in the middle of the concourse. Doesn't that English Breakfast look appetizing? You should note that "buffet" in British means "a small cafe at a bus or railway station."

Astrid was a bit naughty and tried to get some inside pictures of the buffet, because the whole place (including those eating inside) appeared to be a snapshot of 1973. Unfortunately, the glares caused her to only get this shot of the serving area. The seats were bright yellow rotating bucket seats, like my old high school cafeteria.

This looks like a really comfortable place to wait for a bus, doesn't it?

The worst design feature (by far) is the fact that you have to access the building by one of three "subways" (British for underground passageway). This was to not impede the flow of buses, but of course makes the building an isolated island and the subways the kind of place you would be likely to be stabbed or shot or something (at least in a US city). Apparently, for many years people have violated the rule of no crossing the bus traffic area to avoid using the subways, so the city is finally considering making an official crossing. We were quite confused by this sign until we realized that it was for people accessing taxis (not taxis driving down the ramp!).

So retro! Not exactly inviting, this is the path from the civic center (Guild Hall) to the bus station.

Overall, it was well worth our 15-min stop to see this potential landmark that is listed on the World Monument Fund’s “endangered monuments” list.  I’m certainly in favor of saving it, but I have to admit I’m not exactly sure how to do it.  It doesn’t seem to be too popular or useful as a bus station, and conversion to something else would quite possibly ruin it.  In a bigger world city it could be a cool museum of brutalism perhaps, but I’m not sure that Preston can sustain that.


Posted on 19/11/2011, in Exploring the UK, Silly British Things and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Suzanne M-G

    Oh, dear God. This is really rough for me, Alex. I’m an Art Nouveau fan. Happy birthday, fella!
    Best, Suzanne

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