The Long Lens blog: Photography with added snaps

The photography site for sore eyes. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.

Make Preston Iconic

preston bus station, preston, garry cook

If you want to do make Preston iconic there is only one place to start: Preston Bus Station.

This Brutalist masterpiece is the only genuinely unique architectural monument in the city. Those concrete curves… wow.

This is why it is such good news that the bulldozers have been turned away and the building, plus its concrete aprons, is going to be transformed into a community space. Well, at least half of it is anyway.

When the new £23million refurbishment plans were unveiled by Lancashire County Council they talked about Preston Youth Zone – football pitches, climbing walls and fitness suites.

It was all very exciting.

But then I got a little bit worried. What if these new plans ignored the historical and artistic importance of the building, the very things that make it so special? What if the developers ignored history and design in favour of imagined sporting utopia? I’ve started having sleepless nights worrying about these plans for this icon. In the plans unveiled so far, where is the originality, the innovation in creativity and design? Innovation and design is critical to the success of new developments. And I mean genuine, groundbreaking innovation – the stuff that can be difficult to understand sometimes.

The University of Central Lancashire is big on innovation. They have whole departments dedicated to innovation. Why aren’t they getting involved?

My worry: What if the city ends up with a white elephant, a partially-used sports venue frequented by teenage gangs glue-sniffing in the corners? If that’s what teenage gangs do these days.

Yes, I have reservations of the bus station being developed into a sports centre. If anyone has ever been to a Soccerdome they will know how cold, draught, empty and unwelcoming they are. And that’s just the bar area.

This iconic venue needs more. This building needs a morphosis into an arts centre/museum to make it wonderful and seal its iconic status.

I’m scared that the opportunity of turning the bus station into an arts icon – like the amazing MAS Museum in Antwerp which is a truly groundbreaking arts/museum space open 24 hours a day – will be overlooked because the decision makers did not think big enough. Because they failed to think iconically.

Who wants a ghost building echoing to the sound of footballs being kicked on its aprons?

Jennifer Mein, leader of Lancashire County Council, said of the redevelopment plans: “Much has been made of the historic place of the bus station but these proposals show how we intend to make the building a valuable part of Preston’s future.” What, through five-a-side?

I say: Much has been made of the historic place of the bus station because it is the most important bit. Please don’t ruin it.

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There’s a cafe in Preston Bus Station, isn’t there? It’s quite kitsch. What are the developers plans for it? Rip it out and put in a destined-to-fail faceless fast food venue or fitness suite?

What if they retained the cafe in its original state, marketed it as a piece of bus station history and used it as an arts venue? Photography exhibitions on a monthly rotation, social groups in the mornings and open mic nights in the evenings. Musicians and poets would come from miles around so that they could say ‘I performed at Preston Bus Station’. Maybe the young people of Preston could be gently persuaded that there is more to life than two litre bottles of cider down the park on a Friday night.

The Bus Station should host all sorts of community, creative and craft events – the county council stated this when the new plans were unveiled – but there is a fear that these arts and creativity ideas will fizzle away without a sustained and rigid plan. This is a link to the open design competition for the bus station (closes April 21, 2015). Who the County Council choose as the winner will be a massive decision.

The main focus of the development appears to be sport: ‘indoor sports hall, outdoor pitches, a climbing wall, fitness suite’. Preston doesn’t really need another fitness centre, does it?

Then there is the subway which leads to the city centre. A draughty, wide walkway. Perfect for photography and print exhibitions. Local artists could see their work displayed. Schools could run arts initiatives with a bus station exhibition at the end. Surely there must be enough imagery and other historical artefacts in Preston’s archive which can be printed and displayed here.

This walkway, which emerges at St John’s Shopping Centre, forms what could be an amazing art route in the city, linking Preston Bus Station with the Guild Hall, covered market, the flag market and finally the Harris Museum.

At the moment, St John’s (owned by Praxis (Holdings) if you’re interested) is a disaster area, the kind of semi open-air shopping centre which makes British towns and cities so bland. But, hang on, why not celebrate this architectural difficulty in the same way we have the bus station, and make it part of an art route? Install public art to make it a destination, rather than a place to avoid. And don’t be put off by the critics when you devise this plan, they will always complain.

There are already plans to extend the Fishergate redesign (which has had a decent impact on the city) up to the bus station. This is good. But please don’t miss out on the opportunity to add some iconic art to the development, thus making Preston slightly more adventurous than every other town and city in Britain, which are all slowly being blandised to look like each other. This is Preston’s big chance to be different. But originality needs courage.

This is what needs to be done: Commission some sculptures (only iconic ones, of course) relate them to the history of Preston and give the city some identity through culture. There are dozens of research papers detailing the impact of art on towns, cities and regions. The value of sculpture, exhibitions and events cannot be underestimated. There are people in the council who know this. There are others who will not get it.

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But if the decision makers look at Liverpool or if they look at Newcastle and Gateshead, see the impact on wellbeing, read the reports on social engagement, they might just have their eyes opened.

The guy who bought the Guild Hall, Simon Rigby, seems fairly forward thinking in his plans for the city. He needs to be on board with this plan. But it’s the people in charge of the bus station who hold all the cards.

As little as ten years ago, Manchester was the north west’s most attractive city as a destination. But Liverpool has overtaken Manchester, powered by a substantial and sustained diet of arts and culture. The development of Liverpool is an example to any city. Use arts and culture and see the difference it makes to the economy (which councils like) and, more importantly, the people.

There are many things wrong with Preston. Not many people will argue with that. But there is an opportunity coming to put things right – all focused around the love/hate bus station. Let’s not get it wrong. This is probably the last chance for this city.

Let’s make it happen. Make Preston iconic.

Preston bus station historical facts: The bus station was built in 1967 by Keith Ingham for Building Design Partnership, with Ove Arup and Partners taking care of the weight-bearing structural curves on the upper levels.

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This entry was posted on March 12, 2015 by in preston, preston bus station, preston city council.
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