You can tell Walsall isn't part of the cosseted South East. The stone is different. Industrial buildings impinge on the town centre. A butcher sells large packets of pork crackling for 60p. And people smoke. In public.
They smoke in the 'Crossing at St Paul's', a late 19th century Gothic church converted into a Christian-themed shopping centre.
'Alleluia! Praise the Lord!' resounds instead of S Club 7 from the Gothic pillars and plate glass shop fronts, and its restaurant chairs have backs shaped as pointed arches. They stub out their cigarettes on the beautiful blond wood tables Sergison Bates provided in their canalside pub. They might even complement the 'everyday', or 'ordinary' feel of Caruso St John's art gallery by doing the same on its timber panelling, but it was closed the day I visited.
But they don't smoke in Allford Hall Monaghan Morris's bus station, though if they did the robust finishes would hardly show it. This is probably more to do with the embargo on smoking on buses than any awe the local people feel for their new transport interchange, still less that the imminent boarding of buses provokes thoughts of mortality.
It is, as AHMM's Peter Morris says, simply a big roof resting on 12 columns over 11 bus stands, a concourse building and a smaller canopy with another three stands. It's not an architecture of Cabbalistic composition or Borrominian symbolism or even Zumthorian tectonic, though psycho-geographers might find significance in the presence of a 'demonic' - as described by the council leader (referring to the black-and-white effect of the partly polished granite stone in which it is carved) - statue of Princess Diana so close to 'The Crossing at St Paul's'.
And there is an art programme. Tanya Kovats and Alex Hartley have reworked glass screens between the bus bays with large opaque circles, both to meet the building regulation condition that glass should not be entirely transparent and to reflect the giant oculi in the roof. Necessity balances opportunity, but meaning comes through experience, appreciation through use.
At some point in the past, Walsall's urban form assumed an essentially orthogonal grid. Steel mills arose alongside the traditional leather tanneries, but neither they nor the grimly austere Doric courthouse and the more exuberant Edwardian baroque town hall dramatically altered the street pattern.
AHMM's entry to the competition held in 1995 rested on the simple perception that buses travel in curves rather than right angles, so it proposed a giant oval roof with 11 bus bays, supplemented by a smaller, fish-shaped canopy with another three. Bus lanes snaked under them, impeded by a minimum number of columns. It was perhaps the realisation that the oval introduced the theme of curving, which the lanes and bays could elaborate, that lifted its entry over runner-up King McAllister, which also proposed an oval form.
The form itself arose from pioneering work by the local highway engineers. The improved traffic flow system demanded a replacement for the old bus station, a few stands shoved into chevrons on a backland site between the church, the car park and the 30s' Neo-Georgian municipal transport offices. Back in those heady days of low tender prices and City Challenge grants, Centro, the branch of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority that provides the area with facilities for the deregulated bus companies to operate, recognised the opportunity to improve services and turn a backland site into a frontland location.
AHMM's design built on what Morris remembers as a well considered brief. It added openness to improved efficiency; the first and most remarkable impression the station leaves is how easy it is to penetrate.
This makes operational sense. Station manager Nick Rawlings reels off the statistics: three or four operators giving 90 bus movements per 12-hour day in a six-day week, between 10 and 20 people per movement - a good 15,000 people every day. The final cost breaks to something less than £1 per journey during a year. In a 30-year life, that's not much for each trip.
The station's open sides lend functional weight to the omni-directional promise of the oval roof; they allow people to enter and leave from all sides, making it a truly central facility. If anywhere, its precedents lie in central markets rather than bus stations.
Additionally, AHMM opened up a public square that is almost generically urban: bank and bus station flank the church. Approaching, as most buses do, from a slip road off Bridge Street, the 45m long smaller canopy appears almost impossibly thin, a wisp of smoke trailing from the main station. From this lower angle, from which you see the concourse building first, the station appears volumetric; from the other, higher side, it is the virtually horizontal plane of the roof that registers, as the ground slopes across the site towards a flight of steps to the square.
There are also retail units in the concourse building. One, currently subdivided, offers local travel information, but one of the station's four main operating companies wants to take the whole unit as an enlarged travel centre. The other is at present empty except for the 'Demonic Diana', an obsidianBlack Athena presiding over this municipal endeavour; shortly she will be replaced by a coffee or confectionery outlet.
All this made for a good, sound concept.
It showed the knack that AHMM has for responding empirically and imaginatively to practical problems, often turning them into opportunities. The principles it has culled from modernist sensibilities mediated through an appreciation of urban form are sufficiently flexible to absorb programmatic issues but robust enough to turn them into architecture. In its Oeuvre Complete, it will probably immediately follow the juvenilia; it was the first major project AHMM received, though funding delays and a few hold-ups during construction meant several commissions leapfrogged ahead of it to completion.
It went to planning at the end of 1996, out to tender in May 1998, started on site the following September and opened seven months late in July last year, although the smaller canopy is still not quite ready.
The hiccups on site came from an unfortunate and probably avoidable combination of circumstances. Not surprisingly, the roof demanded a high degree of engineering input - it is 45 m wide and almost double that at maximum length, resting on 12 irregularly spaced steel tree-like columns. It has 17 small oculi and 10 large cowls cast into it.
These let in daylight and frame the sky; at night, uplighters on the columns shine on to the reflective painted underside of the roof.
The hollow columns take rainwater and services, so the soffit is clean, apart from the tripartite column heads.
It's a striking vision and, though conceptually simple, had not been achieved before in such a context. Working with engineers Atelier One, AHMM melded operation and function with structural priorities. The slender columns, for example, could not scope with the lateral movement of sheer: inside the lesser oval of the concourse building are massive sheer walls, combining structure and operation to make a double functional justification for the enclosure.
Around the perimeter runs a deep ring beam. It demanded careful, sequenced casting in situ and equally careful, sequenced de-propping. At one point during this process, the contractor noticed a slightly larger sag than expected, leading the client's representative to stop work on site. The subsequent engineering report from Anthony Hunt Associates concluded that, with the precautionary exception of filling one of the steel column tubes with concrete, no modifications were needed and, eventually, everything proceeded according to plan, albeit delayed. The legacy of these difficulties lies perhaps in some finishes turning out rather rough; in places the concrete is not quite as smooth as it might have been.
The small canopy is in that wonderfully Italian Rationalist material, ferro-cement - chicken wire-like reinforcement applied to a supposedly smooth finish by a plasterer. It could have been smoother.
These quibbles do not detract from the experience of use. Rather, the overwhelming impression is of ease and efficiency. Looking through the roof 's oculi is, as it were, to peer through a microscope at some complex biological interaction; people and buses move across the sloping plane apparently randomly, but over time specific patterns emerge. AHMM worked hard to devise straightforward signage in the absence of budgetry allowances for specialist graphics and to provide simple, robust and vandalproof seating. Each stand has a hardwood bench set in a low concrete wall with a panel for timetables above, and a metal stand incorporating number, litter bin and help-point intercom. Quite reasonably, practicalities and function dominate at this micro-level. Buses have a very limited standing time and no one wants to linger. It is not, after all, an art gallery; its success is measured by efficient throughput of buses and people. The strength of AHMM's big roof and slender column concept is that it facilitates these aims and still exudes presence within its context.
Meanwhile, the 'Demonic Diana' awaits her fate. Locals, tempted by a prize draw, voted on her future after she had been rejected for the local council offices. She might go to the art gallery, but 'they don't like that sort of thing there', explains Rawlings. So she is more likely to end up somewhere in the bus station precinct. As a fanatical anti-smoker, this might appease her troubled soul.
Costs based on accepted tender sum. Unit costs are expressed as cost/m2 of covered bus station area only
FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £39.33/m2 Reinforced concrete isolated foundations to canopy columns. Reinforced concrete ring beams, ground slabs and retaining walls to concourse building
FRAME £28.64/m2 Structural steel rolled hollow section trees supporting main and satellite canopies.Reinforced concrete structural core to concourse building
UPPER FLOORS £3.17/m2 Reinforced concrete upper floors to concourse building
ROOF & ROOFLIGHTS £220.86/m2 Lightweight reinforced concrete elliptical slab to main canopy; precast concrete edge beams, cowls and rooflight kerbs; built up green roofing system to main canopy.Ferrocement satellite canopy
STAIRCASES £0.79/m2 In situ concrete straight flight staircase to concourse building
CURTAIN WALLING £126.60/m2 Powder-coated, steel-framed, double-glazed curtain walling to concourse building, including structural supports and automatic entrance doors
INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £3.55/m2 Proprietary stud, jumbo stud partitions and blockwork walls in concourse building
INTERNAL DOORS £6.38/m2 Hardwood door frames, solid core flush doors, steelfaced doors and steel roller shutters to concourse building
WALL FINISHES £6.49/m2 Fair faced concrete generally to concourse building. Ceramic wall tiles on render base to toilet areas. Emulsion paint finish to plasterboard partitions
FLOOR FINISHES £13.12/m2 tone tiles to public spaces in concourse building. Ceramic tiles to toilet areas.Fully accessible raised flooring to first floor offices
CEILING FINISHES £4.72/m2 Proprietary accessible suspended ceiling and MF plasterboard ceilings to concourse building generally
FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS
FURNITURE £5.34/m2 Bench seating to retail areas, shelving to cleaners' cupboards in concourse building.Clocks to concourse building and bus stands
SERVICES SANITARY APPLIANCES £8.38/m2 Toilet cubicles and appliances to public and staff toilets, concourse building
DISPOSAL INSTALLATIONS £0.86/m2 Above ground cast iron and PVC soil and vent installation to concourse building
WATER INSTALLATIONS £5.53/m2 Domestic water installation including mains distribution, hot and cold water distribution, water heaters, pumps and insulation to concourse building
SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £15.44/m2 Mechanical ventilation including extract fans, air handling units, ductwork, insulation; heating installation including boilers, radiators to first floor, underfloor heating to ground floor of concourse building
ELECTRICAL SERVICES £45.73/m2 Mains distribution, power, lighting to concourse building.External lighting to main and satellite canopies and pedestrian areas.Street lighting to adjacent roads.Lutron lighting control system
LIFT AND CONVEYOR INSTALLATIONS £3.02/m2 Disabled stair lift serving first floor of concourse building
PROTECTIVE INSTALLATIONS £6.44/m2 Fire alarm, disabled toilet alarm, entry control systems to concourse building.Pollution-monitoring system
COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £29.10/m2 Telecoms installation, PA/CCTV installation to all points of bus station and approaches
BUILDERS'WORK IN CONNECTION £4.23/m2 Holes, chases, boxings etc for concealed installations in concourse building
EXTERNAL WORKS DEMOLITIONS, SITE CLEARANCE £60.83/m2 Demolition of existing bus station and adjoining properties, including asbestos removal.Site clearance and levelling
RETAINING WALLS & STEPS £25.07/m2 Reinforced concrete retaining walls adjacent existing church, including ramped access and steps to main bus station concourse
ROADS, PAVINGS & LANDSCAPING £179.64/m2 Diversion of existing public highway bisecting the site.Bus lanes and laybys serving the main and satellite bus stands.Pedestrian paving to adjoining public highways and the church square.Realigning and resurfacing approach roads.Maintaining access to shops, church and through routes for pedestrian and vehicular traffic at all times
BUS STANDS £38.16/m2 Purpose-made, powder-coated galvanised steel and toughened glass screens at bus stands
DRAINAGE £30.67/m2 Foul drainage to concourse building.Surface water drainage from canopies, roads and pavings.Petrol interceptor
EXTERNAL SERVICES £24.35/m2 Trenching for water, gas, electrical and telecoms installations; minor services diversions (Note: Main services diversions for water, gas, electricity and telecoms paid direct by client and do not form part of the contract sum)
ANCILLARY WORKS £18.28/m2 Forming roof over adjacent pedestrian walkway forming link to shopping precinct and railway station
PRELIMINARIES & INSURANCES
PRELIMINARIES £146.63/m2 Fixed and time-related preliminaries for a 60-week construction period
Cost summary Cost per m2 Percentage (£) of total
SUBSTRUCTURE 39.3 3.57
Frame 28.64 2.60
Upper floors 3.17 0.29
Roof and roof lights 220.86 20.05
Staircases 0.79 0.07
Curtain Walling 126.60 11.50
Internal walls and partitions 3.55 0.32
Internal doors 6.38 0.58
Group element total 389.99 35.41
Wall finishes 6.49 0.59
Floor finishes 13.12 1.19
Ceiling finishes 4.72 0.43
Group element total 24.33 2.21
FITTINGS AND FURNITURE 5.34 0.49
Sanitary appliances 8.38 0.76
Disposal installations 0.86 0.08
Water installations 5.53 0.50
Space heating and air treatment 15.44 1.40
Electrical services 45.73 4.15
Lift and conveyor installations 3.02 0.27
Protective installations 6.44 0.59
Communication installation 29.10 2.64
Builders'work in connection 4.23 0.38
Group element total 118.73 10.77
Demolitions, site clearance 60.83 5.52
Retaining walls and steps 25.07 2.27
Roads, paving and landscaping 179.64 16.31
Bus stands 38.16 3.46
Drainage 30.67 2.78
External services 24.35 2.21
Ancillary works 18.28 1.66
Group element total 377.00 34.21
PRELIMINARIES & INSURANCE 146.63 13.34
TOTAL (EXCL CONTINGENCY) 1,101.35 100.00
CONTRACT TYPE JCT 1980
START DATE September 1998
COMPLETION DATE June 2000
TOTAL COST £3,764,889
TOTAL FLOOR AREA Site area 9470m2; main canopy area 3171m2
ARCHITECT Allford Hall Monaghan Morris: Simon Allford, Ceri Davies, Jonathan Hall, Susan Le Good, Victor Kite, Paul Monaghan, Peter Morris, Louise Munch, Peter Sargent
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Appleyard & Trew
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Atelier One
CIVIL ENGINEER Clark Smith Partnership
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Watkins: Dally
ARTIST Hartley & Kovats
CONTRACTOR Shepherd Construction
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS concrete and ground works O'Donnell Developments; green roof system EriscoBauder; paints Keim Mineral Paints; rooflights Rooflight Systems; glazed screens Solaglas; signage Drakard and Humble; access hatches ladder Surespan; resin bond paving Sureset UK; kerbing Redland Pre-cast; road surfacing Miles McAdam; paving Marshalls; Jansen curtain walling Multibeton; raised flooring Quiligotti Access Flooring; CCTV Quadrant Video Systems; external floor lighting LEC Lyon; anti-graffitti paint Nucoat Protective Coatings; external/internal uplighting Sill Lighting; external render Scotseal; clocks Badet; ceramic tiling Focus Ceramics; ironmongery Allgoods; cubicles/stainless steel WCs C&B Systems
Atelier 1 www.atelierone.com