Friday, 18 March 2011

Urban Trawl: Preston

Preston, Lancashire, is the newest city in the UK. This might sound puzzling, given its age, but it acquired city status only in 2002. According to 1920s Home Office directives, the 'grant of the title is only recommended in the case of towns of the first rank in population, size and importance, and having a distinctive character and identity of their own.' Does Preston fit any of these categories?

One of the promises of the erstwhile urban renaissance was that it could not only restore dignity and urbanity to cities whose greatness should not be in dispute – London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow – but also strengthen the urban qualities of smaller cities that might otherwise be straggling, vague, indistinct – the Wakefields and Readings of the UK. Preston sits between those two poles, in that it made major attempts to create some sort of coherent cityness, in the late 19th and mid-20th century. The decade in which it became a city made no such effort.

Preston might have ancient roots, but it's essentially a town of the industrial revolution; in fact, one of the towns of the industrial revolution, with its appalling environment and its frighteningly revolutionary workers spurring Charles Dickens to write Hard Times, whose utilitarian villain Gradgrind, famously unable to see anything other than monetary value, clearly still has some presence here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was also a pioneer in post-war roadbuilding, with the first stretch of motorway encircling it, and an inner-ring road further inside. It had a last, rather than first in 1969, when it became the centre of Central Lancashire New Town, the final New Town to be designated – before the unofficial New Town of Poundbury, at least. And Preston was pioneering in its radicalism too, one of the crucibles of the labour movement – and there are still independent leftwing councillors in the inner city area of Deepdale.

This combination of austere Victorian and post-war utopian values is reflected, for better or worse, in Building Design Partnership, the socialist collective founded here in the early 60s by local boy George Grenfell-Baines - now of course most familiar as one of the country's faceless architectural leviathans, and the only thing to have left Preston of national architectural significance. With another major exception, that is – the Harris Museum and Library.

At the centre of Preston is one of the greatest of sombre Northern civic complexes, made up of various administrative buildings, a stark Giles Gilbert Scott war memorial, a wide, imposing public square, and 'the Harris' – a piece of late Greek revival, with striking, almost Schinkel-like clarity and power, with nothing extraneous, no hint of Victorian fol-de-rol, a literal temple of working-class self-education, emblazoned with the words 'On Earth there is nothing great but Man – In Man there is nothing great but Mind'. It's a magnificent asset for any city, but here, where much of the townscape is shabby and stunted, it stands out as a beacon of what was once thought possible.

So, too, does the complex just behind it, but in a much tricksier way. Here there is one of those classically 1960s attempts to redevelop a town through the remaking of its circulation into walkways, underpasses and towers, with people separated from cars. It contains a couple of decent towers by BDP, under their most famous partner, the Brutalist Keith Ingham, both of which create a distinctive, vigorous skyline, but are a little loveless; something which could certainly not be said about the building beneath – Preston Bus Station. This, like Birmingham Central Library or Robin Hood Gardens, is one of those structures that a headline writer might call 'Brutalism's Euston Arch' – buildings trenchantly fought for by those who love them, destined to be removed for short-term profit. Yet unlike those two, it's held in undisputed public esteem – it recently won a local newspaper poll for best building in Preston. There's no surprise why – its glorious sweep is so simple, so confident, so right, that only a churlish antimodernist could not be seduced by it. Inside, matters are a little different – original signage battles with recent tat, and a clean is direly in order. It connects with a fussier, but also interesting Guildhall by RMJM, an oddly prescient building which straddles Stirling's red period and pomo; BDP's rival post-war megafirm also helped design the Central Market nearby, drab on the outside but a bustling Coronation Street Constructivist delight inside.

Stirling and BDP also led a partially successful attempt to build modernist housing to complement this modernist centre. I say partially, because the two had very different fates, in surprising ways. Stirling and Gowan's low-rise, brick housing was needlessly demolished, but BDP's two concrete tower blocks, an elegant, faceted design by its future chairman Keith Scott, still stand. A predictable answer as to why - they were sold to developers. It's sad that buildings like Stirling and Gowan's went when so much dross survived (or was built after), but Preston boasts some great little moments of accidental townscape nonetheless. One involves taking a passageway from a crumbling, cobbled Victorian snicket, past concrete car parks where cotton mills used to stand, via BDP's housing and its apologetic Housing Association successors, past typical milltown terraces emerging, suddenly and abruptly, into semis and bungalows – and an entrance down a magical series of winding stairs and alongside thick, autumnal undergrowth, to Avenham Park, the third (of three) genuinely special things about Preston.

There's a lot to love here – this is no flat piece of 'public realm', no concession to get planning gain. It's an undulating, complicated, vivid landscape, and one where you can see the city end right in front of you, just a short walk from the centre. It's the Victorian park as Victorian novel, a whole world in itself that you could spend weeks immersing yourself in, and happily it contains the city's one decent 21st century building, a jagged little cafe by McChesney Architects.

So why is it, given that Preston has these three first-class urban moments – the Harris, the Bus Station, the park – that it feels so un-city like, so pinched and unthought-about? The blame can partly be put on the 60s. The inner ring-road is truly horrible, pulling in its train a dross-scape of retail sheds and business parks – one of which houses the offices of BAE systems, the arms manufacturers who are one of the few surviving remnants of industrial Britain, and who build their weapons in the Central Lancs exurbs. It makes the city feel incoherent and drab, something aided by the fact that, after the Bus Station/Guildhall walkway systems fell out of favour, the pedestrian has to stand and wait, giving lots of time to survey just how miserable the townscape is.

The other reason is that Preston hasn't managed to erect more than one decent building in around forty years. Towns like this seldom have the clout or the confidence to challenge developers, and the results have been poor indeed. The whole panoply of outer-suburban blandness is here, in the centre of town – pitched-roofed 90s offices, concrete-framed and shoddily clad 00s Blairboxes, all without the hint of architecture that might have been demanded in a larger town. The feeling that nobody – or nobody in power, at least – seems to care what the city looks like is inescapable. In the most recently developed corner off the ring-road, a new hotel and recent buildings for Central Lancashire University are especially dispiriting. And while there has been one large attempt to plan something large-scale, it seems to compound the city's sadness rather than relieve it.

One of those New Retail Quarters that were planned all over the place in the wake of Liverpool One is mooted for the site of Preston Bus Station. Nearby an advertisement proclaims its putative virtues, and it's a melancholy sight. Next to the CGI of dead-eyed shoppers are the desperate words 'it's a nice place' and 'a bit of development is always good'. Yet the firm who have planned this development are BDP – who thus propose to erase what is perhaps their finest building.

Residentially, Preston's heart is Deepdale, where symmetrical stone terraces give way to quintessential red brick. It's the home of Preston North End FC, and until recently of OMI Architects' National Football Museum, a pretty kitsch but enjoyably tasteless decon mishmash, resembling what Capita might produce if given a book on Melnikov. The Museum was closed recently and moved southwards to Manchester, specifically to Urbis, to replace that museum's former focus on 'the city'. It's a reminder that we don't seem to know or care what makes a city. Nor do we care to try and help somewhere that lies inbetween, that hasn't quite achieved a true city's sense of possibility, drama and distinctive presence; instead, anything it does create is hived off to a bigger city, to a place that doesn't need the favour.

Originally published in Building Design, 2/12/10