March 8, 2013 5:14 pm

Condemned ‘icon’ offered ticket to ride

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Preston bus station©Jon Super

It is common for a local lad who makes a few million to buy his city’s football or rugby club. Simon Rigby must be the first to offer to save its bus station.

The farmer’s son-turned-entrepreneur has pledged to refurbish Preston bus station, a supreme example of 1960s brutalist architecture, if the council in the Lancashire city hands it over to him instead of demolishing it.

His promise to take on an estimated £10m of liabilities could be the last chance for a building that many say has outlived its purpose but which remains loved locally and among architecture fans worldwide.

Mr Rigby said: “It is iconic. It’s listed in a book of buildings that you must see – along with the Taj Mahal. Whatever replaces it won’t be. And Preston people have fond memories here.”

Built in 1969, it is marked by its grand size – the passenger area with 80 gates was designed to evoke an airport arrivals hall – and the five layers of sweeping, curved concrete.

However, bus use has declined sharply, its car park’s 1,100 spaces are deemed to be too narrow, and the council has closed the top floors to save money. Carpeting in the main hall has been burned and shops in the adjoining underground walkways leading to the city centre have long been shut following vandalism.

Mr Rigby said he would revive the building’s original ambition. “This was a cool place. It can be cool again. There are thousands of college and university students passing through.”

He wants to open shops, start-up business units and art displays. He would install automatic doors to keep out the wind and widen the car park spaces. Frank Whittle Partnership, which is drawing up the plans, said the structure was in good shape.

Mr Rigby says he would invest £500,000 annually for 10 years to bring the building up to standard, and cover any losses. Then, he believes, it could make a modest profit.

Mr Rigby, 51, grew up on a dairy farm near Preston, and made £22m when Spice , the FTSE 250 utility services company he founded, was taken private in 2010.

He said the council had run out of ideas after the £700m Tithebarn shopping development to replace the bus station fell victim to the recession.

However, Preston council said it would cost at least £17m to refurbish the building, which was incurring a loss. Provision for buses now lies with Lancashire county council, which has offered to pay for a new station.

Almost all those using the bus station during a visit by the Financial Times opposed demolition.

“It’s part of Preston,” said Melissa, who declined to give her surname. “You won’t find anyone who wants it knocked down. Most people have memories of here as well. I met my partner here when he asked for a light.”

Peter Rankin, Preston council leader, said councillors voted in December “with our heads” not hearts when they agreed to demolish it. However, a council spokesman said they would assess Mr Rigby’s plan in the coming weeks.

Hugh Pearman, architecture critic and editor of the RIBA Journal, says the issue could be taken out of their hands. Ministers have twice turned down English Heritage’s efforts to list the bus station, in 2001 and 2010. But he notes that the former Halifax Building Society headquarters in the West Yorkshire town – which was also built by BDP, the bus station’s architects – was placed on the list for special architectural or historical interest last month. “Is this an omen?” he asked.


Brutalism: brave, bold and very British


Brutalism might have looked tough but a fearsome appearance and rugged concrete have not been enough to stop the bulldozers tearing through its greatest monuments, writes Edwin Heathcote.

The term “brutalism” derives from the French Béton brut, or raw concrete, but the description seemed to fit the style as well as the material that emerged from the architectural offices of the postwar British state between 1950 and the 1970s.

This was almost entirely an architecture of the welfare state and an expression of civic pride. Its monuments, such as Preston bus station, were proudly public spaces.

It has been a bad few years for this relatively young architectural style. Gateshead car park (which featured in the film Get Carter) was torn down in 2010, Birmingham City Library is forlornly awaiting the completion of a flashy new successor before its demolition and the huge Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London will follow.

But there are snippets of good news. London’s striking South Bank Centre, designed by the Greater London Council architect department, is being revivified with a £100m project announced this week. There is, at last, a growing awareness of the value of this very British contribution to modernism.

Preston bus station, like so many brutalist buildings, is a monument to a bygone public realm; generous, sculptural, civic and genuinely public. Once they are gone, nothing like them will ever be built again.

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