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Prestons Threatened Brutalist Beauty

A bus station is not perhaps the sort of place one would associate with being an architecturally important building, but then if you think that perhaps you've never been to Preston.

The World Monuments Fund has released its latest list of buildings that it considers are under threat and has included Preston Bus Station on its list. How did such a structure come to be considered a modernist icon worthy of protection?

The story started in the mid sixties when it was decided that Preston needed a new central bus terminal and the decision was made to go for a modernist megastructure on a similar scale to what had been built at New Street in Birmingham.

BDP, who incidentally are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, were brought in with Charles Wilson and Keith Ingham leading the project. Their design brief was to come up with something capable of hosting eighty double decker buses making it the largest in the world, and a multi-storey car park on top of this with at least a thousand spaces.

In the end they came up with a solution that split the terminal up so forty buses would be located on each side of the building, with the cars stacked on top in a multi-storey car park.

Brutalism and modernism were much in vogue at the time and originally it was intended that the exterior of the building have a vertical fašade. Mindful of the fact this was a public building and funds were limited, it was eventually decided that an external vertical fašade of a good enough quality would not be able to be constructed on the available budget.

Engineer extraordinaire Ove Arup was brought in to help. He came up with the idea of a set of four curving balconies for the four upper levels of the parking that creates a look more organic than brutalist. At the same time this allows a balustrade under them that helps shelter the bus passengers naturally from the elements when it rains as they enter and exit the building.

Since it was completed in 1969 the building has gradually experienced a decline in use. It suffers from poor links to the city centre which has reduced passenger levels as many choose to alight elsewhere - something that could perhaps be easily rectified if Preston council were to draft a suitable local masterplan that includes the bus station as a centre of local public transport.

On top of this the site faces redevelopment in a joint venture between the local council and Grosvenor Developments as part of the regeneration of Tithebarn. This may go some way towards indicating the lack of local political will in making the best of what they have.

For the local council, the bus station represents a valuable piece of land that can be profitably redeveloped. For the local people of Preston however it is seen as the best building in the city, having won numerous opinion polls published by local newspapers on the matter.

Nonetheless, previous attempts to get the building listed by English Heritage have failed, firstly in 2000, and then again in 2010, with a review of that decision refused in 2011. It is symptomatic of English Heritage that modernist and brutalist architecture gets the short shrift, perhaps as it is simply not old enough to yet appear historically important when compared to the conventions it espouses.

In the meantime this raises the spectre that this popular bus station could still be bulldozed by an uncaring council despite massive local opposition, daring architecture, and an important place in the history of public transportation.
Preston Bus Station
Preston Bus Station