Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Art of Preston Bus Station

Preston Bus Station isn’t just an iconic brutalist structure, it’s a reminder of a time when planning was bold – and public transport infrastructure was a symbol of the future.

Preston Bus Station's refurbishment has just been awarded the World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize, one of the most prestigious conservation awards in the world. Credit: Getty Images

Preston Bus Station is one of the best brutalist buildings in Britain. It is a triumph that after narrowly avoiding demolition a decade ago, its refurbishment has just been awarded the World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize, one of the most prestigious conservation awards in the world.

The building is unmistakable: images of it proliferate on social media, with its huge, weighty, upswept balconies. It is, as architectural critic Ian Nairn remarked in 1975, ‘a multi-storey car park with a difference.’

You get a sense of the ethos of its construction in the review of the bus station in the Architects’ Journal in 1970:

By comparison with the jet aircraft and the express train, the local bus is an underprivileged means of public transport, and its status is reflected in the quality of buildings handling bus passengers. Preston bus station is a notable exception, its success being attributable to the local architect’s influence on his local authority client’s brief and impressive management of the whole operation.

Over the last few years, the same commitment to public services that built this great set-piece of post-war British architecture has also saved it from destruction.

So why did a medium-sized town in Lancashire build the largest bus station in Europe? Preston had always been an innovator in transport infrastructure, building Britain’s first motorway, the Preston by-pass, in 1958. Around the time the bus station was being built, plans were being hatched to create a new city, centred around Preston, and including in the towns of Leyland and Chorley, which would have had a population of 309,000 people, predicted to grow to 400,000 over the ensuing decade.

The proposed name for this project was the suitably Lancastrian ‘Redrose’, and the bus station was to be its nerve centre. However, economic struggles of the late 70s, the closure of the Courtauld factory in 1979, and the opposition to planned development which flourished under Thatcher led to its cancellation.

Credit: Building Study: Bus Station And Car Park, in ‘The Architects’ Journal Information Library’ (6 May 1970).

But the station was a product of a moment unafraid of planning, and unafraid of spending on the public good, safe in the knowledge that the investment would come back tenfold. Happily, the refurbishment is a product of a revival of that same instinct: as Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones have laid out in Paint Your Town Red, in the last decade Preston has offered a blueprint for local government community wealth building.

Preston has been the centre of this approach, with local government contracts contributing £292 million to the Lancashire economy in 2013, and £486 million in 2017. During this time, the contract for the bus station’s refurbishment was awarded to the Preston-based family firm Conlon Construction, whose early involvement in the design process, and enmeshment in the local economy, hugely contributed to its success.

The bus station was constructed between 1968 and 1969, designed by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of the Building Design Partnership (BDP), a Preston firm supported by the engineers Ove Arup and Partners and the borough surveyor E. H. Stazicker. Ingham was one of a rich crop of modernists who grew in the fertile soil of the northwest, also including Tom Mellor, who gave Ingham his first job, and George Grenfell-Baines, who founded the firm that became BDP, where Ingham worked for two decades.

The most striking thing about the station, aside from those iconic up-curved balconies, which find their echoes in some of the punchiest set-pieces of British brutalism—not least Chamberlain, Powell and Bonn’s Barbican Centre—is the high quality of the materials used throughout. The interiors feel much closer to the high-spec airports of the glamorous late-60s than a regional bus station. The concrete sections that make up the façade were precast in fibreglass moulds, a cutting-edge technology at the time, which produces a remarkably smooth, almost burnished finish.

In the fixtures and fittings throughout the station you find hard-wearing, durable, and hand-crafted iroko wood. The timber is a product of Ghana and Nigeria, and its use in Preston offers a glimpse of an imperial trade in construction materials after decolonisation and before the oil crisis. Those high-quality materials have been invaluable in the refurbishment, with Pirelli rubber floors shining once again, and the hardwoods sanded down and refinished, looking good as new.

Credit: Building Study: Bus Station And Car Park, in ‘The Architects’ Journal Information Library’ (6 May 1970).

The architect of the refurbishment, John Puttick, commented that ‘the building is sort of utilitarian, but in a really positive way. A massive benefit of the project was that the original materials are really hard-wearing, solid and long-lasting.’ Crucially, all of these prestigious materials sing from the same hymn sheet, making a legible whole: from the banisters to the typography of the signage, the building is a gesamkunstwerk; every part pulls in the same direction.

Architectural critic Ian Nairn said this of the bus station on the BBC in 1975:

We think that concrete, exposed, always has to be mean and messy. But look at the grand sweep of this: strength and—ultimately—elegance. It’s a splendid job. And this truly great building, which it is for me, is marred only, and it wasn’t the architects’ fault, by the underpasses… They’re the usual white-tiled, rather claustrophobic, narrow little passages.

Happily, John Puttick Associates’ refurbishment has solved Nairn’s only qualm with the building, creating a new public space to the west, with at-level access to the concourse. Puttick reflected that ‘although it was not always well looked after, it was an important social place in Preston. It is such a generous building; it has a generosity of space and of social purpose: for people to come in and use it on a daily basis.’

In many ways this building’s survival is totally remarkable. Compare Preston’s fate with Greyfriars Bus Station, Northampton, designed by Arup Associates in the mid-70s, and demolished in March 2015 after being featured in Channel 4’s 2005 series Demolition, which sought out public votes to demolish a ‘dirty dozen’ post-war public buildings, one of which, Sheffield’s Park Hill, is now Grade II* listed.

Similarly tragic is the loss of Rodney Gordon and Owen Luder’s Gateshead Car Park, the unquestionable star of 1971’s Get Carter, despite Michael Caine’s best efforts. Indeed, Preston council itself proposed the demolition of the bus station just a decade ago, and it feels an important lesson that its retention and refurbishment, on a limited budget no less, has won this prize from the World Monuments Fund.

The new concourse post-renovation. Credit: Bruce Lamberton / Wikimedia Commons

The problem with demolishing bus stations is that many people need buses to live their lives. Just as Preston’s bus station echoes of some of the best airport design of the late 60s, so too did the bus station architecture of the noughties that replaced demolished brutalism mimic and echo the neo-modernism of Norman Foster’s Stansted Airport, often to less generous, less socially minded, and more profiteering ends.

Policies of conserving modernist infrastructure and meaningful investment in public transport also have the crucial benefit of being vastly more green than either demolition or the relentless march of private car ownership. The hard realities of embodied carbon mean that your most cutting-edge electric vehicle, or greenest new building, is almost always less sustainable than a well-planned bus service or adapting the building you already have.

Bus services have generally gotten worse outside of London over the last forty years, a major factor stymying economic activity in towns equally failed by the train network. Preston has made significant progress against this trend through circular investment in local infrastructure delivered by local firms. Geographer and social scientist Doreen Massey once wrote that:

Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.

The Preston Model, and Preston Bus Station in particular, offer a literal alternative to this figurative disappointment. Come and wait for your bus inside a generous architectural expression of a muscular, co-operative, localised social democracy.