The bus station is the firm’s, and the town’s, best loved building. So why are they both building a mall in its place?
Why would an architectural firm want to demolish its most popular building? That, with a hint of reductio ad absurdum, is the question facing Building Design Partnership. A BDP online poll asked the public to vote for their favourite BDP building. Within a couple of weeks, a strange thing happened. There were decent showings for a concert hall in Perth, Chavasse Park in Liverpool and the masterful Halifax headquarters, but all were overwhelmed by Preston Bus Station, which at the time of writing has seven times the votes of its nearest rival. This wasn’t some internet fluke – a Lancashire Evening Post poll a year ago showed it was the most popular building in Preston, beating neoclassical monuments like the Harris Museum.
This building, twice refused listing by central government despite English Heritage’s recommendations, is to be replaced with an open-air shopping mall, designed by BDP. If renders are anything to go by, it will be bloodless, attenuated modernism, desperate not to be noticed. The Tithebarn development, as it is called, will have no bus station. Its developers are Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster’s property arm, and Australian multinational Lend Lease – and yet, amazingly, the refusal to list the building has been ascribed to “localism”. What is going on here?
Currently celebrating its 60th birthday, BDP began in Preston itself, as a left-leaning reproach to a certain kind of architecture driven by magazines, academia and celebrity; an unsentimental, northern, modernist firm which preferred to leave the suspiciously bourgeois word “architect” from its name altogether – it was proudly faceless, and that’s not entirely a bad thing, at least when its buildings were full of rugged drama and civic pride, as at Halifax and Preston. Like most firms, it has its skeletons – most of all an eighties and nineties designing covered, car-centred megamalls from Southampton to Ipswich – but its continued profit-sharing and work on schools and hospitals implies it hasn’t entirely forgotten its roots. Which makes it all the more frustrating that it would acquiesce in this corporate stitch-up.
The Tithebarn project need not even entail the demolition of the bus station – designer Ben Casey’s speculative modification of the plans shows how it could be adapted and retained. Even then, there’s something very telling in the way a public amenity, a building that, however bedraggled, tries to make something mundane into something special, is to be replaced with yet another shopping centre, yet another parade of identikit brands – in a city that already has more than one. It’s as if there were nothing more interesting that could be done with a northern city, post-credit crunch, other than making it into an inner city version of an out-of-town mall.
City councils love to talk up the uniqueness of their cities; architects are the same with their buildings. Through their combined philistinism, Preston Council and BDP have drawn attention to a unique building that was their finest combined achievement; and inadvertently, made it obvious how loved that achievement was and still is. Perhaps both of them might like to admit their mistake?