Happy Birthday Preston Bus Station: Beautiful and Brutal at 50

She is 50 today... and it is a birthday few people thought she would see.

By Brian Ellis
Friday, 11th October 2019, 5:56 pm
Preston Bus Station
Preston Bus Station

Preston Bus Station, the poster girl of Brutalist architecture, celebrates half a century of dominating the city skyline - just seven years after councillors gave her the last rites.

Saved from the bulldozers and now a national treasure, the concrete landmark has reached her golden jubilee looking better than ever after a £19m facelift.

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Yet the debate still rages - is she Beauty or the Beast?

Opened on October 12, 1969 as the largest bus station in Europe, the iconic terminus with its scallop shell car park above continues to divide opinion.

When Preston Council voted to knock her down in December 2012, she was branded an “eyesore,” a “monstrosity” and a “Marmite” building, loved and hated in equal measure.

Many, who were unable to see the architectural splendour and aesthetic charm of this monument to the sixties, still can’t. For them it will remain a blot on the landscape.

Many believe it is one of the most significant examples of a mid-20th century edifice in the UK

Listed status

But there are many more who believe it is one of the most significant examples of a mid-20th century edifice in the UK and, as such, must be preserved at all costs.

The Government agreed with the latter in 2013 and gave it Grade II-listed status – although only after earlier rejecting the case for preservation on three separate occasions in 2000, 2010 and 2011.

Today, after a 19m refurbishment, the old girl is back looking her best

Before her grand opening Preston Bus Station was almost a decade in the making after Preston Corporation decided four separate bus stations in the town centre needed to be integrated into one.

In October 1960, local firm Building Design Partnership (BDP) was commissioned to come up with a scheme which also incorporated a giant car park and a taxi rank.

Structural engineer Ove Arup, who created the Sydney Opera House, was also called in and the 190-metre long bus station was born.

As long as Blackpool Tower

Work began on March 11, 1968 - the same day demolition work started on nearby buildings to make way for the inner ring road (now Ringway).

Slum clearances in the sixties had left a gaping hole where the new bus station was to be built.

It was by far the largest building project the city centre had ever seen.

The construction cost was £1.1m - more than £14m in today’s money - and for that Preston got a futuristic terminus with 80 bus bays (40 on each side).

It was as long as Blackpool Tower is high and on top was a car park with nine levels and with enough room for 1,100 vehicles.

A total of 2,800 sections of pre-cast concrete were used in construction to give the building its unique profile.

Contractors built three pedestrian subways to allow passengers to access the building without having to run the gauntlet of buses as they circled around the mothership.

BDP’s Keith Ingham, who was responsible for the final design with colleague Charles Wilson, said his aim was to give ordinary people a taste of the luxury of air travel which, at that time, was still outside the pay bracket of most people.

When it was unveiled, Preston’s was the largest bus station in Western Europe. It held that title for more than 30 years before being surpassed by the Kamppi Centre in Helsinki, Finland, but is still believed to be the longest. It also has a “twin” in the Iranian capital Tehran, also designed by Ingham.

But the huge building was barely 30 years old when its future was being called into question. With the £700m Tithebarn development on the drawing board in 1998, the bus station was earmarked for demolition to make way.

Straightaway a campaign was launched in 2000 to get it listed and thus protected. The move failed, with the council opposing it - even though 57 per cent of the Preston public gave it their support in an LEP poll.

When the Tithebarn scheme was eventually abandoned in 2011, the battle to save the bus station became even more intense.


In December 2012, after years of decline - some thought deliberate neglect - the cash-strapped council voted to knock it down, rather than continue forking out £300,000 a year in maintenance costs.

A report said refurbishment would cost £23m and even demolition would set the authority back £1.8m.

Big fan John Wilson, from Fulwood, started a petition to keep the bus station and pushed once more for listed status.

In 2013, backed by the 20th Century Society, listing was achieved and, within months, Lancashire County Council had taken the building off the hands of a grateful city council for the princely sum of £1.

The success of the Save Preston Bus Station campaign earned its organisers the Heritage Hero Award for 2014, given by the Heritage Alliance.

At the award’s presentation in London, Lloyd Grossman said the Preston campaign had represented “the power and passion of volunteers throughout the heritage sector.”

“The Save Preston Bus Station Campaign demonstrates the hard work and tenacity of volunteers in saving a formerly unloved and unprotected example of Brutalist architecture.

“While the volunteers were often diffuse and expressed within a range of social networks, their coming together of interests represents a public re-evaluation and democratisation of the building’s value.”

John Wilson, who said winning that award was "like scoring the winning goal in added on time and winning the FA Cup,” admitted he will be thinking about his beloved bus station today while on holiday in Spain.

"I always hoped a few years ago that it would still be there for its 50th birthday and I'm delighted it is," he said.

"The bus station would not have seen this day had a lot of people got their way. It would have been a pile of rubble.

"It was a long, hard campaign, but well worth it. Fifty years ago I was a bricklayer working on the Guild Hall and I saw the bus station rise from the ground.

"I'm glad it's still there and I will be thinking about her on her birthday, as I'm sure a lot of other people will be."

Today, after a £19m refurbishment, the old girl is back looking her best and looking forward to the next 50 years as the beating heart of the city.

It has now been designated as one of the 1,001 buildings in the world you should visit before you die.

While a 50th anniversary exhibition called Beautiful and Brutal has been running at the Harris since September, no specific event has been planned at the bus station itself today to mark the big 50.