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Brutalism's return to favour

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The story of Preston Bus Station is the story of Brutalism’s return to favour, says Christine Murray

It’s official. Brutalism is beautiful. Park Hill was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize (and picked as the AJ readers’ favourite to win). English Heritage’s new exhibition ‘Brutal and Beautiful’ opens this week. And Ed Vaizey has protected Preston Bus Station with Grade II listing, along with three other post-war structures - continuing his bonanza of Brutalist listings since being named architecture minister for the second time in September 2012.

Vaizey also Grade II-listed electricity substation Moore Street in Sheffield designed by Jefferson Sheard (1968), leading the Guardian to proclaim the listings as a ‘celebration’ of UK Brutalist architecture.

But the Daily Mail greeted the ‘celebration’ with typical sarcasm: the headline read: ‘Monstrous Preston Bus Station is saved for the nation’. Although the article’s writer does go on to confess that, for Prestonians, the bus station is far from monstrous. It was voted by citizens as their favourite building in a survey conducted by the Lancashire Evening Post in May 2010, and 1,435 people signed the Save Preston Bus Station petition, presented to Preston City Council, requesting they invest in the building’s future, rather than demolish.

The story of Preston Bus Station is the story of Brutalism’s return to favour. Twice previously rejected for listing, even BDP was dubious about the value of its 1969 Corbusian concrete landmark, and was happy to see it demolished in favour of the construction of the (also BDP-designed) £700 million Tithebarn town centre regeneration project. Tithebarn was abandoned in 2011 when anchor tenant John Lewis pulled out, while the bus station has been the subject of an ongoing campaign by English Heritage and The Twentieth Century Society.

Now, it’s champagne all around - nearly. BDP chairman David Cash described it as ‘excellent news, the building is a heroic structure of its era.’ Lisa Ackerman, chief operating officer at the World Monuments Fund, which put the station on its at-risk list in 2012, applauded the listing, hailing the 1960s and 1970s as ‘a tremendous wave of adventurous public buildings’.

What has ushered in this era of acceptance for the architectural movement once described by Prince Charles as less sympathetic to British architecture than the Luftwaffe?

Perhaps the decades of icon building have led the public to recognise the civic grandeur of buildings like Preston Bus Station. Now that cities have become brands, these long-unloved buildings have the chance to reclaim their place on postcards (‘From Preston Bus Station with love’).

Whether or not they are fit-for-use seems secondary to their status on the skyline. Former BDP chairman Richard Saxon says he’s pleased the building will be saved, ‘but not as a bus station’, and called for fresh ideas for reuse. He even suggested it be renamed the Keith Ingham building after its project architect.

The new love for Brutalism has united the public and architects’ tastes. But the tension between the listed and the listees persists. The only moribund note came from councillor Peter Rankin, leader of Preston City Council, who has long wanted to demolish and build a smaller station to free up development land. Rankin said: ‘obviously it’s not the outcome we were hoping for. We’ve always said the bus station is too big, provides relatively poor facilities for bus passengers and costs Preston taxpayers over £300,000 a year to maintain.’

But now that Preston’s most popular building is here to stay, Rankin needs to start thinking of this Brutalist masterpiece as the city’s Guggenheim Bilbao - an icon and a ready-made logo for the city. Forget the Tithebarn pipe dream, regeneration begins with the future of Preston Bus Station.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Casting favourites aside, I believed that Park Hill (which I chose for this AJ Poll) was the clear winner to be expected from architects as judges.

    That wasn't to prove the case here!

    Good discussion is on this at RIBA LinkedIn group, where I commented that I'd chosen a number to win per separate polls, but that my deliberated judgement was as per the AJ Poll.

    I suggested that the role of judgement be given over to the actual chartered and associate memberships of the RIBA, i.e. to decide by vote, rather than relying on a select few [supposed] masterminds...

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