Preston’s visually striking bus station is facing an uncertain future as heritage experts and the local council debate its value. But perhaps there is another debate to be had between engineers and architects about the motivations for protecting structures via refurbishment and retrofitting instead of knocking them down and starting again.
Engineered by Ove Arup & Partners and designed by BDP, Preston’s iconic reinforced concrete bus station is actually more of a vast car park.
Built in 1969, it is the car park’s gently curved layers of balustrades, made from 2,800 precast units, which straddle the bus station, that give the building its unique appearance.
According to the Twentieth Century Society (C20) the structure is “one of the most significant Brutalistbuildings in Britain”, but its owner Preston City Council says it is too costly to keep and wants it razed.
It says running costs are £300,000 a year and a report by consultant Jacobs puts the cost of refurbishment at between £17M and £23M, versus £10M to £15M for a rebuild.
With the bulldozers circling, English Heritage has twice recommended that the behemoth be listed - in 2000 and 2009 - but each time to no avail. A third attempt is currently underway with campaigners on tenterhooks awaiting culture minister Ed Vaizey’s decision.
For Phew it comes down to whether future generations can learn anything from the building
English Heritage’s latest attempt to have the structure listed is yet another twist in an ongoing saga that began back in 2000 with the tabling of Lend Lease’s £700M Tithebarn regeneration scheme - a project BDP also worked on - which required the demolition of the station.
Even though that scheme was dropped in 2011 when retail giant John Lewis pulled out, the council has stuck to its guns. As well as rejecting a proposal to save the building by energy magnate Simon Rigby in February this year, it last month upped the ante by applying to have the building protected from being made a listed structure for thenext five years.
English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, C20 and the Royal Institute of British Architects have all nailed their colours to the mast and are actively fighting to save the building.
With them the World Monuments Fund has joined the fray by adding the bus station to its influential Watch List, and if that wasn’t enough, according to the Lancashire Evening Post 70% of Prestonians want to save it.
But what do engineers think?
“I haven’t seen or heard anything from them,” says Clare Price who is heading up the C20’s campaign to save the structure.
ICE Panel for Historical Engineering Works (Phew) chairman Brian Crossley comes straight to the point: “As far as Phew is concerned it is not a particular interest. It is a car park with architectural merit.”
Mouchel director Ian Weir, also a Phew panel member, agrees: “In terms of structural form there is nothing unique or innovative about it,” he says.
And it seems that some architects agree on this point.
“It was not pioneering from an engineering point. It is interesting because of its external scale; it is insistently horizontal.”
Richard Saxon, BDP
“The engineers are probably right. It was not pioneering from an engineering point. It is interesting because of its external scale; it is insistently horizontal,” says BDP chairman Richard Saxon, who was a young architect working in the practice’s Manchester offi ce during the bus station’s construction.
Phew claims it is being pragmatic. It has fought for the protection of Stockwell Bus station in south London because that building is a striking, and very early, example of insitu concrete vaulted roofing. “Maybe it’s our training,” says Weir. “We tend to be more analytical when it comes to deciding what is worth saving for future generations.”
For Phew it comes down to whether those future generations can learn anything from the building.
Preston, it seems, is just not special enough.
But is that really the case? Although Saxon sympathises with that point of view, he says the station’s unusual T-beams that are upturned at the end to receive the balustrades units, were innovative. “Innovative in terms of form, if not technically,” he says.
These layers of balustrades, often described as “scalloped”, give the shelter its character. But according to English Heritage’s latest listing application, it is the way they are made that could hold the key to convincing Vaizey to list the building.
This is because the formwork moulds used on site were made of glass reinforced plastic (GRP) rather than steel, which was industry standard at the time.
The listing says: “Considerable technical difficulties had to be overcome by the manufacturers in order to produce the moulds.”
BDP civil and structural engineer director Jonathan Pye says the use of GRP, basically fibreglass, was essential to achieving the desired finish.
“The architect wanted an organic look with smooth curves,” he says. “It was one of the very early examples of this type of mould, using ground-breaking technology to create a piece of outstanding architecture, it was ahead of its time.”
Monumental scale and use of GRP aside, even the crane used to hoist the precast units into place was special.
“With its 10t carrying capability and 100ft (33m) reach, the self-propelled Scotch derrick was one of the largest cranes used by the building industry in this country,” cites the English Heritage listing application.
While Price says the engineering profession has stayed out of the debate, she concedes that is probably because no one thought of inviting it in. It seems the ethos of collaboration between engineer and architect that built Preston bus station has yet to filter down to campaigns such as this.
Perhaps realising the as yet untapped weight that the engineering community could bring to bear to her cause, Price signs off by describing the station as an “example of great engineering skill and pioneering use of materials that should not be lost to the nation”.
Let’s hope her people talk to our people. And vice versa.