Wednesday, 19 December 2012

What is really happening at Preston?

x-posted from here

In a situation where benefits are being decimated, estates cleared, the NHS privatised and urban planning regulations torn up, it's easy for politicians (and developers) to claim that architecture is a side-issue, of interest only to aesthetes (probably southern). So it might seem that the campaign to save Preston's Bus Station from demolition is a distraction from the issue of austerity and what the response to it should be - but, in fact, if there's a better illustration of how austerity works and how hopeless the Labour Party have been in opposing it, I can think of few better examples. But, first things first - the building itself. Preston Bus Station was designed in the late 1960s by local, later to be international architects Building Design Partnership. 'Bus Station' hardly covers what the building is. What we have here is a Bus Station and multi-storey car park, with a vast, airport-lounge like interior boasting cafes, newsagent, hairdresser (!) and so forth - a Public Building in the truest sense, taking a mundane thing and making it as comfortable and pleasing as possible, lack of maintenance notwithstanding. The finishes of the building - the wood, tiles and metal of the interior, the op-art concrete waves of the facade - are of the very highest quality. Nothing today, bar the most expensive 'signature' architecture, is this well-made. But being a good Public Building is not going to do a structure many favours today.

I've been trying to puzzle out what is exactly happening with the Bus Station on Procrastinator and to be honest I'm still none the wiser. For most of the 2000s the proposal was to demolish the station and replace it - and the surrounding area of the '60s Markets and office buildings built at the same time by RMJM and BDP - with Tithebarn, a 'mall without walls'. Always a strange idea in a declining city that already has two large malls, Tithebarn was an early casualty of the recession, effectively cancelled in 2011 when John Lewis pulled out. That seemed to give the place a reprieve - earlier this year, at a public tour and talk on the Bus Station, I spoke to a few local politicians and councillors*, who said that they were keen to keep the building - the only obstacle was Lancashire County Council, who wanted a new bus station built by the Railway Station. This idea, that it's in 'the wrong place', comes up a lot, although it's puzzling - it's ten minutes walk from the railway station, but right next to the Guildhall, the Markets, the magnificent Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the shopping centres, basically everything a non-Prestonian might want to see or do in Preston. Nonetheless, Lancs Council are apparently adamant that they will not fund a refurbishment (though it may be cheaper than demolition), so if the current building is demolished, there will (eventually) be a new bus and LCC will (probably) be funding it. Here is what they want it to look like.

(image via Dominic Roberts)

Now you've got your breath back, I should point out that though this is what Lancs County Council want, they are not planning to do this anytime soon - they are not demanding the Bus Station be cleared out of the way. Why would they, when they want to build it somewhere else entirely? So the reason given is the cost of maintaining the current Bus Station. A recent costing puts this at £23 million, a bizarre figure - earlier estimates put it at £4 million, and even councillors concede the figure is probably around £10 million,. £4 million is a lot of money, particularly when council budgets are being crushed in Eric Pickles' iron fist, but the fact is that the Bus Station costs £300,000 a year to run. Local socialist councillor Michael Lavalette estimates that a 50p increase in car park costs would pay for the building's annual maintenance. So all this suggests that someone, somewhere, wants a prohibitive figure put on the building so that they can make the we-are-protecting-services-not-buildings-for-ponces argument, to get rid of the Bus Station ASAP. What for, though? 

What is key here is that Preston City Council also voted to demolish RMJM's 1960s Market building adjacent. That is, the other council-owned part of the former Tithebarn site. Like the Bus Station, although not quite as architecturally stunning, the market is a good piece of civic design, and it is well-used. Nonetheless, the Preston City Council meeting that decided to demolish the Bus Station and markets met for a paltry 30 minutes. I'm sure a lot of people in the city and outside of it have talked more about the Bus Station on an average Monday than that. So it seems pretty obvious that a fix is in. What sort of a fix? Well, what the council want in place of the Bus Station, for the moment, is a surface car park. Given that there's already a cordon sanitaire of dead space between the Bus Station and the ring road, that means a vast, exurban empty space in the middle of the city, to deliberately create the sort of vast, anti-urban car-centred wasteland that has destroyed Southampton - only without the actual shopping mall those spaces serve. The city's idea appears to be - as far as I can tell - that they will carry out the programme of demolition that was meant to precede the Tithebarn scheme, giving them a big empty space that they can then sell to a developer at that mythical moment, When The Market Picks Up. That is, Preston is choosing to inflict on itself what Bradford now has, a huge bloody hole where it used to have a city centre. This, incidentally, is also what happened to Portsmouth City Council in 2004, when it demolished the Tricorn Centre, after a similar campaign that pit bluff, don't-know-a-lot-but-I-know-what-I-like councillors against local and national architecture enthusiasts, who proposed several plausible schemes for refurbishment, redesign and renewal to no avail. The Tricorn was replaced with a surface car park, on which a 'Northern Quarter' was meant to be built, when The Market was most definitely Up. 8 years later it hasn't been, but maybe When The Market Picks Up....

This is the fate that Preston is choosing to inflict on itself. If it's only a matter of Lancashire County Council's hostility, why are Preston so keen to frame it as being about the Bus Station's allegedly exorbitant expense? Unlike similar acts of philistinism, like Tower Hamlets' sell-offs of Robin Hood Gardens or Henry Moore's 'Old Flo', or Birmingham's flogging off of sites occupied by John Madin's Library and NatWest tower, there are no buyers waiting in the wings. Unlike the Tricorn, the building is structurally sound, it works, and it is popular, winning the Lancashire Evening Post's poll for best building in the city - no mean feat when the Harris is nearby. Like the Tricorn, there are several plausible plans for its redesign and reuse, to sort out its problems with circulation, its excessive size, and so forth. Preston and its architecture have been, through the council's philistinism, in the news for the first time since, well, the 1960s. Every council wants an Iconic, nationally recognised building. Preston now has one. So why not appeal to Lancashire County Council's good sense, and mount a council-sponsored campaign to save the building? It still seems like the most plausible reason is that they really do want to replace the Bus Station with a surface car park, in the hope that one day a developer will want to build them a mall. After (or rather during) the massive game-changer that is the financial crisis and the obvious bankruptcy of cities built on debt, shopping and driving in and out, Labour councillors - in both Lancashire and Preston - still can't think of anything their cities might be other than shopping centres. In fact, austerity now gives them an even better alibi. Can't you see - we've got no choice...

Petition to save Preston Bus Station is here.

*one of whom told me a story about this delightful new hotel, that he'd been the only councillor to vote against it when it was in planning. When asked why, he said 'because it's a terrible piece of architecture'. He was told 'that's nothing to do with us'.