“God, imagine the last thing you saw on this earth was Preston Bus Station.”
That might be the wittiest remark in the hundreds of comments to Owen Hatherley's report in the Guardian about the listing of the Preston Bus Station by English Heritage in late September. The remark was made by a commenter who claimed to be a local Lancashire lad, and was in reference to the (perhaps-apocryphal) tales of repeated, or even regular, suicide jumpers who ascended to the top parking level of the bus station to leap to their deaths. If not directly driven to do so by the horror of the building itself, at least the depressed were driven by the misery-inducing place to their end. Busses weren't the only things departing from the station, it seems.
What many of the disgruntled seemed to complain about was the disconnect between the non-local architectural enthusiasts, who appeared quick to defend any large building made of concrete in the middle of the 20th century. Others seems to judge simply on sight of image search results: mesmerizing photographs of a half-kilometer stacks of ribbed concrete panels, as elegantly imposing as an underlit steamship, or silently striking in its simplicity as Roman ruin.
It is possible to find gorgeous photographs of the Preston Bus Station, of which the above might currently be the most familiar and the most exultant. But it is one of a class that focus on just a single, if most prominent, aspect of the building: the megastructural “swoop” of the parking levels— this is also the subject and styling of the close-in lithograph, below, celebrating the building as a modern monument of Britain from indie shop We Are Dorothy, along with the now-gone Tricorn Centre and the nearby Forton Services.
(Incidentally, these four upper levels actually don't have anything directly to do with bussing, but instead are for automobiles. The boarding and disembarking of busses occurs only on the building's ground floor. In this sense, the Bus Station has more in common with, say Paul Rudolph's Temple Street Parking in New Haven)
Several months before the Listing was announced, I happened to be traveling north across Britain, and was able to spend a half hour exploring this landmark (like many, I had long ago in my early architectural education seen a startling picture of the exterior). I knew so little about the building other than its place in brutalist history, I was excited to see it and curious about what made its so well-known.
On a very overcast, breezy afternoon, not a cold day but still drab, I arrived at the Preston Bus Station (not by bus). The bus station is ringed with concrete at its base, as either side is a wide tarmac for coaches to maneuver and park. In much the same way as an airport's apron can make for exciting viewing, the bustling of the departing motor coaches makes for momentary enjoyable viewing, although its not exactly watching jumbo jets hurtling down the runway and launching up into the sky, next to touch ground in Asia or Africa.
I didn't have time to explore the town of Preston properly, but I can concur with the Guardian and Daily Mail commenters that this section of town is pretty depressing. With the bus terminal in the center of a vast plaza of asphalt, the arrangement nearly mimics the main square of a central European city, but this one ringed by exceedingly sad buildings, a half-dead shopping plaza with more surface parking, some abandoned buildings, and some contemporary 1970s mid-rises that constitute the Skyline of Preston, I suppose.
Welcome!To enter the building itself is a mean task. The above, I kid you not, is the ground-level entrance. At least, as I found it in May 2013. I have no idea if this a temporary condition due to some renovation, as there are bay numbers above the doors suggesting that busses formerly pulled up at this spot. I believe the only other way for pedestrians to access the station is a series of subterranean passageways or overhead bridges. Is there a more terrible space of modern life than an underground pedestrian tunnel to the bus station?
Bridge of Sighs.
How to get…at…the building?Inside the building was the grand finale of the slowly-increasing awfulness of the whole experience. I'll put aside whether traveling by bus is uplifting in and of itself or not; I only took a few pictures partly because the light was so low and partly because all these sad, creepy people were milling around with nothing to do but stare at me and my camera.
What's Exit Town?The interior hall is a preservationists dream, both in the sense that civilization has moved on from constructing spaces like this, and also it's hard to see anything that has been touched in decades, from the seating to the signage, the murky glazing to the worn wooden guardrails. The whole contemporary updates were the snacks in the smelly shop and the commercial branding of the private stagecoach companies.
The shabby, revolting Preston Bus Station could be an opportunity reinvigorate this megastructure into the glorious Temple to Transport that shines not only from rows of glossy Google jpegs, but at the centerpiece of a beautiful section of a revitalized city. This would prove the naysayers wrong by bringing forth the merits of the building, which if it is indeed a successful work of architecture, should be widely accessible to the general public. Instead, the only message seems to be a baffling and condescending dispatch from the capital: we know better than you.
All photos except 2nd & 3rd ©2013 Bauzeitgeist.