Whether you appreciate its aesthetic or not, there’s no doubt that Brutalism gave us some of the 20th century’s most distinctive buildings. Named after the french word for raw or untreated, the architectural movement used exposed concrete to create stark and angular buildings. Done badly, it meant grey soulless monoliths, ugly and unloved and hardly helped by the connotations of the word ‘brutalism’.
At its best however, the movement was capable of extraordinary buildings. They drew the eye not with decoration but with their form, managing to be both minimalist and dramatic at the same time, which is why some architects have tried to reclaim its reputation with a new name: ‘heroic architecture‘.
Among the Brutalist buildings that have stood the test of time is Preston Bus Station, built in Lancashire in the north of England in 1969. It was the biggest bus station in Europe at the time, with a multi-storey car park on top behind those rows of soaring fins. All that weight of concrete was offset inside with bright glass and white tiles. A natural element was carefully and deliberately introduced by using the rich tones of African Iroko wood on anything that would be touched by visitors, such as benches, railings and doors. Design geeks will also note the use of Helvetica in the signage.
Grand though this was when built, there were some fundamental problems. The first was that it was too big, designed to accommodate major urban growth that never quite materialised in a context of de-industrialisation. Unused to full capacity, parts of it fell into disrepair. Other parts of it were reconfigured, slowly eroding the original design intentions. It was expensive and poor value for money for a council with increasingly tight budgets, and finally the decision was taken to demolish it in 2013.
That didn’t happen, through the efforts of local campaigns and 20th century architectural heritage organisations. Instead, it was fully refurbished, under the guidance of John Puttick Associates. Buses used to come in to both sides. By re-routing them all to one side, the building could be reconfigured around a new public square. New spaces were created for retail, and a prime location for a new youth centre.
Because good choices were made about materials first time round, there were plenty of things that could be sharpened up and kept. Iroko wood is very durable and only needed planing down and refurbishing. The rubber floor was still performing well and looked great after a thorough cleaning. The original design logic of signage and colours was restored. Ultimately it was a refurbishment that tried to tinker as little as possible, but restore what was most worthwhile about a building that had once been great – and multiple awards for the refurbishment proved the value of the approach.
There are a few reasons why I wanted to profile Preston Bus Station. The first is that it kept a very large concrete building. Concrete is enormously carbon intensive. The embodied emissions of a building of this size are formidable. Every time a building can be saved and repurposed rather than knocked down, emissions are saved.
Secondly, the way that it was re-configured opened up large areas of new public space. High quality shared spaces are a form of public affluence, which I would argue is an important way to improve people’s lives in a developed country. It’s an investment in civic life and in community, and we need more of that in culture that tends to champion consumerist individualism.
Finally, bus travel is the most sustainable form of mass transit. It’s the most affordable too, which means that it’s more inclusive. Taking the bus should never be seen as a second class option to car travel, and where possible it should be made better, using ‘bus rapid transit‘ principles. We should be lavishing attention on bus stations, making them bright and attractive places – served by growing fleets of sleek electric buses of course.
In short, Preston Bus Station was a 1960s vision of urban travel. With a few tweaks, there’s no reason why it can’t be a great example of sustainable urban transit in the 2020s too.