PROTECTING PRESTON BUS STATION
Sir John Nash’s Regent Street, Sir John Soane’s Bank of England, the Euston Arch, the art deco Firestone factory and Preston bus station: all, except one, are buildings demolished in the name of efficiency and progress that were said to have outlived their useful purpose, to be impractical and expensive to maintain, and whose loss was regretted forever after.
The exception is Preston bus station, which still stands, just, pending erasure by a huge retail development indistinguishable from huge retail developments elsewhere, which is presented as absolutely essential to the future health and happiness of Preston. Locals and experts alike have urged the preservation of the bus station, but the relevant ministers in this government and the last have turned them down.
You might think that Preston bus station does not belong in this august company – after all, an amusingly dull image of it featured in Martin Parr’s anthology of Boring Postcards – but you would be wrong. It is precisely like the old tyre factory or Soane’s out-of-date bank, in that it is a great work about to be destroyed just before its period comes to be fully appreciated and just when the functional justification for its existence seems weakest.
With its impossibly long horizontal lines, its surprisingly voluptuous curves, its generous waiting areas, it embodies the spirit of its 1960s age, but it faces the same fate as Preston’s Gilbert Scott town hall, long ago lost when out of fashion.
The bus station is not alone. It is part of a company of buildings from the 1960s and 70s that fall victim to a vicious compound of circumstances. They are tough, not obviously charming and carry a label no PR expert would have chosen, of “brutalism”. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated. They are a hard sell. You might be one of many who look at the images on these pages and hate them. But then, many had the same reaction to Victorian piles and Lancashire factories, which have become the heart of urban regeneration.
These works are mostly public buildings, built by local authorities, and by a kind of civic confidence going back to Victorian times that, it would turn out, was in its death throes. They are also socialist. They tend not to maximise the commercial efficiency of their sites, preferring a generosity of space that now makes them vulnerable to property developers who can multiply their profit-making area by factors of two, three, four and more. The modern descendants of the councillors who had these structures built now rush, in an Oedipal spasm, to slay them with the retail and leisure centres that will make their city look like everywhere else.
In theory, the system of listed buildings should protect works over 30 years old that are of historic and architectural interest, also younger buildings that are of exceptional quality and under threat. The usual procedure is that English Heritage makes recommendations and the culture department accepts or rejects them. Yet, either because the relevant minister has turned them down, or because English Heritage has not supported them, many buildings of undoubted interest are lost, threatened or refused listing.
Birmingham central library. Photograph: Stephen Cooper/AlamyThey include the bus station, Redcar library, the Get Carter car park in Gateshead, Birmingham central library, and, in London, Pimlico school, the Robin Hood Gardens estate and the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. Meanwhile, the BBC’s relatively insipid Television Centre has been listed, because it inspires fond memories of John Cleese, the early Doctor Who and the Blue Peter dogs.
The listing system is a miraculous thing and does not always duck difficult decisions – Milton Keynes’s 1970s shopping centre is listed, for example. The current listings minister, John Penrose, seems more open-minded than his predecessor, Margaret Hodge, who declared her hostility to most things modern.
But the system has failed with this particular class of buildings. Taken together, their loss would amount to an editing of history, the forgetting and smoothing over of a vital period in British politics and architecture. With, incidentally, the environmental loss of all the energy and material that went into their construction, which now has to be spent again on new buildings and the remains that now have to be sent to landfill.
Now the wheel of time is bringing early Thatcherite monuments up for consideration, most notably the Lloyd’s building and Broadgate in the City of London. The former almost certainly will be listed when its time comes. Broadgate is more complex, as listing risks offending the mighty international business of UBS, and its merit lies in its overall plan rather than individual buildings. But, at its best, listing has always been about asserting value over immediate gain, as a result of which we still have buildings such as the universally admired St Pancras station. If it can recover its nerve, Prestons of the future can be avoided.
Rowan Moore, the Observer