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Brutalism is back

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Preston Bus Station shows the public need for strange, vast, non-functional spaces in the city, says Rory Olcayto

Brutalism. What a stupid name to give an architectural style. According to Microsoft Word’s thesaurus, similar words include: atrocious, vicious, wicked, evil, cruel, vile. So a Brutalist architect is an atrocious architect. Or a vicious architect. Or a wicked architect. Or an evil architect. Or a cruel architect. Or a vile architect. Or even an atrocious, vicious, wicked, evil, cruel, vile architect. (Actually I’ve met this guy.) So nice one, Alison and Peter Smithson. Nice one, Reyner Banham. Your smart-arse reasoning - ‘It comes from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”’ - should have remained a jolly little in-joke for you and your debonair (suave, elegant, refined, charming, well-groomed, courteous, sophisticated, urbane, cultured) pals. Because as soon as you coined the phrase, youpretty much lost the game.

Still, after decades of being hated by pretty much everyone, Brutalism is back (perhaps because we’re living through brutal times), as proved by the listing of Preston Bus Station (pictured) last week. Architecture minister Ed Vaizey loves Brutalism, English Heritage love Brutalism and the people of Preston are absolutely bonkers for Brutalism. Really, they are. As Christine Murray pointed out in her most recent editorial letter, in 2010 it was voted the city’s favourite building. (In a survey by the local paper, although how many people voted, and whether they were local, I do not know.)

Yet Preston Bus Station, to my eyes at least, isn’t really Brutalist, it doesn’t have that Norman Castle bulk, that bare Gothic menace that proper Brutal buildings have (like Sheffield’s Moore Street electricity substation for example, also listed last week). Instead, its facades seem to go on forever, or streak towards a vanishing point like the made-up classical temples in a John Martin painting (or a go-faster remix of a John Martin painting).

As for the people of Preston loving it, but not really wanting it to be used as a bus station (for this too, appears to be the case) - that’s great news. Because it means ‘the public’, actually quite like big, strange, sculptural, non-functional objects right in the middle of their towns and cities, and that not every part of the townscape needs to be capitalised.

This case was more than proved during this year’s Open House, when 40,000 people queued up for hours just to have the chance to walk around the ruins of Battersea Power station. You could reasonably argue that in its current state, as a vast picturesque, futurist ruin, it’s far more interesting and appealing than it had ever been during its operational life, or will be when it’s reworked into a pile of overpriced flats and associated lifestyle tat. And what a massive missed opportunity. It should have been bought for London. Or the Mayor should have said to the Qataris, ‘If you want to keep investing in new builds across the city, you’ll have to buy Battersea for the people of London and fund its conversion into the world’s greatest park.’

It reminds me of an interview I conducted 11 years ago with comic book writer Grant Morrison. He said many things, including this: ‘Y’know I worked for one of these things, Glasgow Futures; a talk with a bunch of people, architects, planners and all kinds of media people. There talking - saying: “We’ve got to build on brownfield and greenfield sites.” I said: “No you don’t, you actually need areas of public mystery, distress and chaos; people need that in an urban environment - you need the bombed out building site - you need the odd patch of grass where cats have their kittens,” and they just didn’t get what I was talking about. They didn’t understand about moving through space and feeling that certain spaces are sacred and that boundary spaces are important to city living.’


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Neil Perry

    I'm glad that a building such as Preston Bus Station has been protected, even though the people of the city don't really want it as their bus station. But therein lies the biggest battle ahead, for me anyway: how do you protect it from becoming a poor commercial entity in the future? Investment is attractive but if the building is to move away from being a transport hub, it's commercial future needs to be considered seriously.

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