Preston Bus Station gets its English Heritage listing – but what does this mean?

The Grade II listing of Preston Bus station has been subject of an on-going debate for a good while now, regularly appearing in newspapers as ‘one of the biggest, greyest and most divisive examples of 1960s brutalist architecture’ as Mark Brown of the Guardian (24/9/13) refers to it. In giving his assent, the Coalition Government Minister Ed Vaisey saw it as a ‘remarkably good example of integrated 1960s traffic planning’, while English Heritage praised its architectural innovation – ‘a stunning car park façade that was unashamedly trying to create a sense of the monumental’. Certainly the building’s monumentality has prompted an array of photographs circulated in many media outlets (see this, in the Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9736522/Conservationists-fight-to-save-iconic-Preston-bus-station.html). Something that is in common, however, with almost all of the images – together with much of the description of the listing debate – is the lack of people. A quick ‘image search’ in Google will underline what I mean: the architecture tends to be the key aspect that is central to the denotation of Preston Bus Station as an ‘item of heritage’. Where have all the people gone?
While much of the coverage, and – seemingly – the official policy debate, has largely revolved around the architectural and physical attributes of the Bus Station, a survey of local people conducted by the Lancashire Evening Post in 2010 identified the Bust Station as Preston’s favourite building. Are we to assume that the population of Preston – or at least those that took part in the local newspaper’s poll – are big fans of the aesthetics of brutalist architecture? My guess is that whatever English Heritage, the Department of Culture, or Preston Council think on the aesthetics of the Bus Station, the actual ‘heritage’ of Preston Bus Station resides not in any architectural treatise nor planning guideline, but in the everyday activities, movements, and lives of ordinary people.
The critique of an essentialist definition of ‘heritage-as-a-physical-attribute’ is not new, but such a definition still seems to get in the way of debates: it appears to close off discussion and answers questions. Rather than being seen as a stable and unalterable attribute, perhaps a more active and open articulation of heritage can enable a more plural and democratic debate about how city centres are managed, and who they are managed for. Indeed, drawing on the work of Nigel Walter and Denis Cosgrove, maybe there is space for a more ‘creative’ notion of conservation – one that can be radical, and both perform the necessary task of sustaining a sense of ‘tradition’, but at the same time refuse to bow to the distorting power that such tradition often invokes [Walter, N. (2013), ‘From Values to narrative’, Intl Journal of Heritage Studies]. Love it or loathe it, the heritage of Preston Bus Station is a great deal more than an architectural edifice – and it is far from complete.

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