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Preston Bus Station: Ethics not aesthetics March 4, 2013

Posted by jennibarrett in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , ,

It is, by now, a widely accepted premise that Preston Bus Station is a building of architectural significance (see current article in RIBA Journal).  The consensus on its significance is given further weight by the support given by Angela Brady PRIBA and the RIBA President Elect, Stephen Hodder and the recommendations of the 20th Century Society.  Whether it is indeed aesthetically beautiful or not is a separate and more philosophical discussion – possibly one for a future post.
But its beauty and architectural significance is only one facet of the issue.
There’s the question of value.   What is it that we value in our city and how do we assess this?

Do we truly value our buildings of architectural significance, our contemporary architectural heritage?  Do we value them enough to prioritise their conservation more highly than the crude outcome of a profit and loss calculation?
Are we comfortable with this commodification of our heritage?

There are many fabulous buildings in Preston.  Let’s look at another.  This building was built in a style which caused much consternation at the time of its construction.  It was built in a Gothic Revival style.  The term ‘gothic,’  originally described a building that was crude, barbaric – ‘brutal.’  Despite the architectural adjective being a term of derision, it eventually  took its place in our stylistic vocabulary.
This Gothic building, despite being disliked by some, was originally built to signify city confidence and social progress.  But now, it’s going to cost over  £1million to renovate and it doesn’t even produce any revenue.
The building I’m referring to is the Grade 1 Listed St. Walburge’s Church, less than a mile from Preston Bus Station.  Its story echoes the plight of the ‘Brutalist’ bus station, another monument described by an architectural adjective that incorrectly infers something fearful and unsympathetic.  I’ve never never met anyone who would dare to suggest getting rid of the bus station’s gothic neighbour & those trusted with its care seek creative approaches to investment and widely promote its renovation to its former glory.  It’s value that transcends  any fiscal analysis and this is confirmed by those who use it as well as those who admire it from afar.


Source:  Paul Melling/Blog Preston


Urban value also embraces the spaces between the buildings.  Do we value our public spaces, our streetlife?  Preston Bus Station  is in public ownership; is used by the public and a unique and people-centric activity happens within it (however socially unacceptable this can sometimes be!).  In a sense, then, it’s not a building at all.  It’s a public space.  It’s a street that happens to have a structure built around it.
If we were debating whether to build on one of Preston’s key public spaces – the Market Square or Miller Park  – spaces which require expensive maintenance; are unlikely to generate much in the way of revenue, yet significant in Preston’s urban life, it would be acknowledged that something is being taken away from the people of Preston – certainly, not without launching some kind of competition to see how the spaces could be improved or to discover a more creative, forward thinking business model.

But this is what’s proposed here.  One of the main ‘streets’ in Preston, one which is iconic, renowned, busy and vibrant is proposed to be condensed, converted and downgraded to something that will be, well,  catastrophically ordinary.

So, back to the subject of value.  To use the procurement  terminology, is it ‘best value’ to remove something that is perceived to be successful in every other way, except monetarily,  without measuring the value of its less tangible assets via full transparent discussion or meaningful consultation with those who use it, or appreciate it from further afield?  Is that even ethical?  And until a full, collaborative, rigorous, creative and forward thinking decision making process has been seen through – and Gate 81 is a brilliant example of that – then ethically speaking, a decision can’t be made.


Source:  Amazon


Brutalism refers not to the imposing form of this style of building, but rather to the resulting aesthetic  linked to a  béton brut, a particular way of using and finishing raw concrete  which was adopted by a group of architects from a particular social and ethical standpoint, who used the béton brut as tool for their structural expressionism.   And  then the term also kind of stuck, thanks primarily to the publication of Reyner Banham’s 1966 book, “The New Brutalism:  Ethic or Aesthetic?”   Brutalism is an architectural style from recent history.  We may not like it now, but perhaps we will miss it in the future.

The debate about the future:death of Preston Bus Station, however,  is not a question of whether the building  is subjectively beautiful or not, but whether we truly value Preston’s future heritage and  how we transparently assess this without getting hung up on its financial commoditisation.  In that sense, this is a replay of 1966 (“they think it’s all over?”).  No, not football.  I’m referring again to Reyner Banham’s significant work.  This decision is a one of ethics, not aesthetics.



1. drjenidoyle - March 5, 2013

Reblogged this on Centre for Sustainable Development and commented:
How do we value our contemporary architectural heritage?

2. agiurgea - October 14, 2013

Interesting debate, I think I`ll have a go at it 🙂 . Well I believe that buildings have no innate value as objects, architecture does, but the funny part is that architecture is not the attribute of the building, it is of the human mind. It is our perception of the object that conveys upon it architectural value, thus it is a highly subjective matter. That means if we take into consideration the fact that there is no reality other than perception, it is quite unethical to not preserve any heritage to the future generations, so they can judge for themselves if they find the object aesthetically pleasing or not. They say that killing a man is beyond reason, but burning a book is killing reason itself, I would argue that it applies to architecture as well. I could go on tangents and write an essay on this, but its way too late for that kind of stuff 😀

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