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[Very long blog. Only for passionate Preston people]
(This weird blog post is about the tables used on Preston Market and how I am against them being replaced with new ones, which I think are very bad. But before you tell me this blog post is stupid, I want you to think of the issue in the wider context of the redesigning of cities, and how councils and designers repeatedly get it wrong as they slowly turn every town and city centre into a bland, featureless copy of every other bland featureless town and city in Britain).
Preston Market comprises of two covered markets – the main one and the smaller fish market. They are quite unique. I’m not talking about the indoor market, which has its own character – and rundown feel of many other British indoor markets.
I’m referring to Preston Market as the covered market here. You could also call it the outdoor market. It comprises of two sections under two beautifully (and newly restored) canopies. It cost £500,00 to do up the fish market roof. The main market cost £620,000. Because of their canopies, the two markets are unique to Preston, stunning in design and form one of the few unique selling points of this average Northern city.
Put simply, the market will be ruined if they replace those fantastic, worn, wooden benches with these inappropriate, malfunctioning mistakes.
The canopies were built in 1875. It’s the fact that they look like they did in Victorian times that gives them their appeal. The tables aren’t Victorian. But they are very beautiful, traditional and feel, you know, historic.
Here’s a photograph of the old tables, still being used now:
Here is the prototype new one, already in place at the Fish Market in Preston:
Where do you start? I almost feel like I want to cry.
This is about Preston. The city. The place that defines its people and which is trying to redefine itself. It’s a city I like and don’t like all at the same at time. It is a city that needs to change. Everyone agrees with that. And it is changing. After years of neglect, parts of the city have been upgraded, cleaned, improved.
For me, these changes already evident have come in two waves. The first is the physical: Fishergate’s new pavement and those lovely trees which look lovely at night when their lights are on. It’s been a huge improvement. Same for the big clean up and slight re-design of Avenham and Miller parks in recent years, and most recently Winkley Square.
Yes, the Preston bollard (a poorly designed stone pillar mini roundabout) has been bashed off its perch half a dozen times. But, hey, designers and town planners don’t always get things right. Everyone agrees with that as well.
The other change in this city has been culturally. Fuelled by the University of Central Lancashire, and turbo-charged by a handful of forward-thinking culturally inclined decision makers on the council – plus a clutch of independent artists – the city has promoted arts and culture to huge success.
Performance arts events like Derelict (Angel Club (North)/UCLan), all the shows they put on at The Continental and across the city by They Eat Culture, and a massive increase in cultural engagement events at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery have generated an interest in the arts and a positive perception of the city which is worth its weight in gold.
The last Preston Guild (2012) was a crucial springboard for arts in the city, which also boasts Preston Arts Festival, Lancashire Encounter, Preston Tringe, Lancashire Fringe (created by this writer) a rejuvenated privately-owned Preston Guild Hall, film clubs and creative groups like Just Write PR1.
And no one has done more for Preston’s cultural movement than Elaine Speight and Charles Quick, whose university/Preston City Council/Arts Council-funded project In Certain Places has had a massive impact on the city. Their work included with Harris Flights (2013), where a huge staircase was installed at the front of the Harris, and The People’s Canopy, those big red things transported by bike which were the cornerstone of Lancashire Encounter 2015 (though they lost their impact at this year’s festival when they were fragmented across the city).
And guess who designed these new Preston Market tables? Yep, Charles Quick, in co-operation with architect John Bridge of Frank Whittle Partnership.
So what’s the problem? This is the quick, as in succinct, answer: The tables don’t work.
Long answer: The tables really don’t work, the colours are garish, the design is flawed, nobody likes them and the stall holders hate them.
Here is a photograph of the prototype not being used on market day, by a tader who ‘arrived last and got the short straw’:
And I’ll go on. £1.1m (according to reports have priced each covered market separately, though possibly there has been some confusion over this*) has been spent on cleaning up Preston’s two covered markets. The markets, and their roofs in particular, are architecturally stunning, visibly appealing and are an important part of Preston’s heritage. And so are the old tables.
Worn and weathered to a natural shade of Preston, these tables – four planks of wood sitting on two A-frame supports – fit perfectly into the environment in which they function. They match the floor, they match the beautiful tiled walls which line one end of the smaller covered market and they match the Preston sky.
What doesn’t match its surroundings are these matt green buggers on wheels. That’s my objection. The aesthetic.
The objection of others are for practical reasons.
“Ask anybody on the market and they will tell you they don’t like them,” one market holder told me. He was the one who got the short straw that day and had to use the prototype for his stall. He didn’t even bother to pull out the two tables beneath the main table (see photo above).
He told me the tables were impractical. Being three different heights is no good to any stall holder, he said. Totally impractical, he told me.
The tables also have wheels on one side, to help move them. “No good”, the stall holder added. “If you accidentally knock the table, it rolls away. If you lean on it, it rolls down the hill.”
Both of Preston’s covered markets are built on a slope. The wheel situation is as much a health and safety issue as well as in inconvenience.
The complex design, including the wheels, will be susceptible to wear and tear and damage, with tables being left unusable and unstable should a wheel snap off.
So why are they being introduced? I’m told it’s a cost-cutting measure to save the council having to pay someone to set up the tables every morning. I’m not sure how true this is. All of the tables in the smaller covered market remain in place overnight. In the bigger covered market there is no longer a need to pack up tables as parking is night-time parking has recently been banned.
Form what I understand, the decision to replace the tables was made at the beginning of this process by the council. The consultation process is merely to choose what replaces them. Keeping what they have already got is not an option.
Nice idea as it was to involve the university and students in the design of new tables, I hope there comes a point where those involved hold their hands up and say: This hasn’t worked. It would be a silly to introduce these new three-tiered tables when no-one, especially the stall holders, like them or want to use them.
Charles Quick, through his work, examines urban development, new ideas and space, and is as aware as anybody of how change can often be destructive make things worse. He knows how important environment is for people, how they feel and wellbeing.
His In Certain Places project ‘examines how artists can contribute to the form and functions of a place’.
My feeling is that the greatest towns and cities in Britain are successful because they have either kept parts of their history or have within them structures or designs which are totally unique. If they are very lucky, they have both. Preston is on the verge of extinguishing part of its history and uniqueness in its quest for progress, as it sails dangerously close to a bland reinvention of itself into yet another forgettable glass-fronted British mall.
In the 1960s, too many beautiful historic buildings were eagerly demolished to make way for concrete carbuncles or community-free tower blocks which blighted a generation. And history has a funny way of repeating itself, not least in how some of these concrete megaliths are now historical pieces themselves.
Preston is on the cusp of something new. Whether it is the redevelopment of the bus station, the Harris Museum or the indoor markets, these new ideas can be good as well as bad. I’m particularly worried about the demolition of the indoor market. Part concrete monstrosity, it is also one of Preston’s few unique selling points.
I despise the way town and city developments sanitise central business districts into identikit streets of glass fronted buildings which rob their inhabitants of any sense of individuality. Check out Blackburn’s redevelopment. If you stand in front of the glass-fronted corner building, or walk inside The Mall, you could be in any one of 100 bland newly-developed towns and cities in Britain.
And this is why things like silly old tables are important. If you replace what you’ve got with something which – worst crime of all – fails in its duty to function, you’ve got an embarrassing disaster on your hands.
And as the old tables cost over £500 each (I am reliably informed) and there must be over 100 of them, that is an expensive disaster. Especially when the new tables will almost certainly cost more than £500 each.
Preston City Council, Charles Quick: Please, don’t do it.
NOTE ONE: * Reports I have read state that the Fish Market refurbishment cost £500,000, while the main market cost £620,000.
NOTE TWO: In Certain Places is a programme of artistic interventions and events, led by curators Elaine Speight and Professor Charles Quick, with the support of associate Rachel Bartholomew, in the School of Art, Design and Fashion at the University of Central Lancashire. Based in the City of Preston, in the North West of England, the project examines how artists can contribute to the form and functions of a place, by exploring new approaches to art, culture and urban development.
Since 2003, In Certain Places has worked with artists and architects to develop temporary interventions in Preston City Centre, hosted artists’ residencies, and organised talks and debates about art practice and place. Collectively, these activities have generated new understandings of the urban environment, enabled new ideas to be tested in the city’s public spaces, and formed collaborations between artists, institutions, communities, businesses and other individuals in Preston and beyond.
The project is financially supported by the University of Central Lancashire, Preston City Council and the Arts Council of England through their Grants for the Arts scheme.
NOTE THREE: I received no money for writing this article but worry I may lose the opportunity of future work with the aforementioned organisations for writing it.