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Too good to lose

Hugh Pearman

Don’t demolish Preston Bus Station, says Hugh Pearman. Instead, run a proper competition to find viable new uses for this masterpiece. This idea is backed by RIBA President Angela Brady and President-elect Stephen Hodder.

It’s amazing that a municipal bus station and car park from the late 1960s in a lesser-known regional English city can attract national and international attention, but such is the case with Preston’s celebrated, dramatically sculptural  bus station. Seemingly immune to the praise lavished on it from all quarters over many years and all the publicity for the city it has generated, the city and county councils see it only as a problem – they say it is too run down, too big for today’s purposes, and too awkwardly sited. Despite the abandonment of the large shopping centre redevelopment that would previously have swept it away, the councils want to demolish it anyway, and build a new bus station.  They have managed to convince themselves that this would somehow be cheaper than refurbishing the one they already have – which is still very much in use.

On Monday (December 17) the city council will vote on whether to demolish it. There has been a chorus of dismay, from concerned local residents through to national critics. The World Monuments Fund wants to save it. The 20th Century Society wants to save it. Readers of The Daily Telegraph, in an online poll, voted to save it by 75 per cent to 25 per cent. I want to save it.

I regard the council’s figures – suddenly so different from earlier sets of figures -  with scepticism. They smack of the tactics that used to be deployed to justify the demolition of fine Victorian buildings once routinely described as 'ugly', or 'eyesores'. As with those, so with the best of the historic modernism of the 1960s, which is now at last coming to be appreciated. Dirt can be cleaned. Clutter can be removed. Repairs can be made. Interesting and viable new uses can be sought for parts or all of it.  As for being in  the wrong place - really? In that case it's been in the wrong place for 43 years. Somehow people have been able to catch buses to and from it all that time.

Preston bus station is routinely described as 'Brutalist' but in my view it is a great deal more elegant than many buildings so tagged. It is a palace for the people, on a sublime scale. Hardly surprising when you consider that it was designed not only by Keith Ingham of Preston-originating architects BDP, but also by engineers Arup, who were particularly concerned with the key visual element of the bus station - the curving, projecting thin-shell concrete edges to the car park levels. The fact that the building was designed to serve both private and public transport is one of its strengths.

One of its perceived weaknesses is the fact that you have to approach it through subways – surrounded by Tarmac and a recently-erected security fence, it seems unapproachable. Yet as the BBC proved with its live staging of the  "Preston Passion" last Easter – where the bus station became the joyous centre of a huge community celebration - it can come to life when allowed, at surface level. That suggests a way forward.

One of the ironies of this saga is that the virtues of the building, being now so well known, have brought the city of Preston a great deal of publicity. They couldn't build a brand-new 'icon' building today which would attract half that attention. Maybe the city and county councils should consider that, start to listen more carefully, and think more positively. What could they do to channel the extraordinary power of this building? How could they turn it into a cultural and economic magnet, pulling in visitors?

Of course it's not easy to find such new uses - but with those grandly-scaled public interior concourses and as much parking as you want on top, one can imagine it becoming a destination in itself, rather than merely the run-down point of departure and arrival it is now. Being so close to the city’s wonderful Harris museum and art gallery is another plus. 

Ideally, the building should be spot-listed right now, to allow a breathing-space. It’s been refused listing twice previously, but support for it has continued to grow strongly. It’s time for architecture minister Ed Vaizey to get brave, and buck bureaucracy.  But listed or not, I would like to propose an alternative to demolition. Councillors: how about instead backing a serious international architecture competition to find a way forward for this wonderful building? A lot of love would come your way.

Here at the RIBA Journal, we’re only too happy to help. RIBA North-West is already planning a "Forgotten Spaces" competition for the bus station next year, but we want to build on that and throw the net wider. RIBA President Angela Brady says:  "I will back this 100 %". President-elect Stephen Hodder, based in the north-west, says: "Unequivocally! Keith Ingham was a personal friend. Preston Bus Station is indeed his greatest work and should be saved. Its demolition would erase a layer within the city's architectural heritage. I have wondered how I might support the retention of this wonderful building and l most certainly back your campaign."
Jonathan Foyle, head of the World Monuments Fund in the UK, remarked in a Twitter conversation: ""Competition would be ideal - and independent assessment of repair costs" (He too is suspicious of the council's figures).
In another Twitter exchange, I put it to Preston City Council Leader Peter Rankin (who is in favour of demolition) that such a competition could throw up viable new uses for the bus station. He replied:  "Nothing would make me happier. I'd give it away if someone came up with a funded business plan." But Rankin warns:  "(We) have had plans for alternatives. But no money! That remains the big problem."

Still, the bus station is there, in use, and magnificent. I'm convinced a formula can be found to save it. There's already support for a serious competition. Who's in?