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Why should Preston Bus Station be saved?

Posted on - 9th December, 2012 - 6:04pm | Author - | Posted in - Preston Bus Station

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Blog Preston has been contacted by Alan Mercer after he read the story about the Preston Bus Station demolition. Although Alan has not been actively involved in the campaign to save the bus station he felt strongly enough to put his views down on paper and share them with us. Alan says:

I have early childhood memories of being led along the narrow alley past the tea bar to the old Ribble Bus Station that used to occupy part of the current site – probably being taken by my mother or an auntie to catch a bus for a day trip to the seaside. Looking back, these snapshot recollections place me in a 1940s movie – a Brief Encounter world of hats and coats and steam.  But it wasn’t the 1940s, it was the 1960s.

The first time I saw the new bus station it seemed like the future had arrived.  The contrast between this and what had gone before was dramatic.  The clean white lines of this remarkable building and the curves of the upper levels sweeping skyward took your breath away.  It laid down in no uncertain terms that Preston was continuing  its tradition of civic development and innovation that had boasted the prosperity of the late Victorian period by building not just the biggest and boldest in Britain, but the biggest and boldest in Europe.  The construction of the Ringway and the opening of St Georges Shopping Centre around the same time demonstrated that Preston was not content to merely exist in the 20th century, but was looking forward to the 21st century.  The completion of the Guild Hall slightly later, along with an adjoining office complex, meant that Preston now had core transport, entertainment, shopping and commercial facilities that were fit for a new age.

The bus station stood out amongst all of these achievements.  Apart from the award winning statement design, it was a remarkably functional building.  I spent my teenage years and my early working life constantly arriving and departing; changing buses, or heading off through one of the underpasses into the town.  Passing through was easy as it never seemed overcrowded.  The gate numbers stood out, there were plenty of seats.  The large sliding doors could be closed to keep the cold winds out while you queued.  Even the rails between the gates were useful places to rest against, rather than barriers designed for herding passengers.  It felt like a place that was serving your needs as opposed to one that aided the convenience and efficiencies determined by the service provider.  It just worked.

I was always fascinated by the materials used in the construction.  The designers dispensed with the arrogance of expense and ornament and instead chose durable products that although minimalist also provided texture, contrast and interest.  It was this utilitarian approach that gave the public a sense that they owned the building rather than just being allowed to use it.  Despite the years of constant use and aggravated neglect the materials have stood the test of time and the various elements are mostly still intact.  I remember I always wanted to obtain some of the rubber floor tiles to use in a bathroom or even a garden as they seemed to never show any signs of wear.  I expect the majority of the tiles are still in good condition despite 40 years of constant footfall.

Growing up in the 70s it was a hub for social activity.  As teenagers, friends would meet waiting for the same school bus, or you would arrive on one bus from school and all split up to catch buses home to different parts of the town or outlying areas.  Often you would happily hang around with your friends and catch later buses instead – always keeping an eye out for the girl that you knew might arrive on another bus from another part of town.  But this sense of amenity probably wasn’t just reserved for teenagers.  It was a warm bright open space and by and large a safe and friendly place to be.  It was not just somewhere to catch a bus.  Whether you only used it a couple of times a year, or used it twice a day, you would probably bump into someone you knew.  A café, newsagents, gift shop, a record shop (Spin-a-Disc?) and possibly the odd boutique meant there was every reason to break your journey.

Of course, the deep recession of the late 70s and the Thatcher years took their toll throughout the North.  The huge manufacturing base that had underpinned the economy of Preston for over 50 years disappeared in less than 5, and despite growth in housing and the service sector, the confidence that inspired those huge projects of the 60s and 70s has never returned.  Whatever remained of the grand plan has been forgotten, and the city (as it has now been elevated) has been left in a state of limbo.

I can understand the problem now facing the City Council.  At the heart of the issue is the fact that the bus station design makes it impossible to separate form from function.  This of course is fundamental to the brutalist ethos; the function is the building.  This is a bus station and can never be anything else.  But we no longer have the employers based in the city and, as with other towns, large retailers have deserted the centre for the outlying retail parks.  The bus station is under-utilised as people are less reliant on public transport.  It takes up a huge amount of space.

Opportunities were missed with the Tithebarn development due to the insistence –despite very strong public opposition – that the bus station had to go.  While Preston spent 20 years arguing about this, Liverpool got on with it and completed their development in less than 10 years.

It’s difficult to see where things go now, but if we leave it to decay until demolition becomes the only option, or flatten it to leave a vast empty space, then we may as well turn off the lights and throw away the keys to the city.

Preston needs the bold vision that was demonstrated when commissioning the design all those years ago.  They didn’t just build a bus station, they built the bus station.  However, those were boom times.  The money and the confidence have long gone.

Leaving aside the nostalgia that I obviously feel, and even ignoring the undoubted architectural merit that rivals or mostly surpasses Preston’s many other great landmark buildings, the feeling persists that Preston Bus Station must survive and must be maintained and kept clean and serviceable for the benefit of the population who continue to use it. It should stand as a reminder that only a few short years ago we had the vision and bravery to contemplate such an audacious scheme.  It may be the last truly great building that Preston sees for the remainder of this century and should be with us until we are sure we can replace it with something that is equally ambitious and challenging that we can point at proudly and say ‘this is what Preston can do’.

Many thanks to Alan for giving the matter some thought. What is your opinion? Do you think the bus station should be saved? Let us know in the comments below

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