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From the archives.

Should a brutalist bus station be preserved as part of Britain's cultural legacy? The example of Victorian architecture, discussed by Mark Girouard in the February 1973 issue, shows just how mercurial architectural taste can be.

Two years ago Preston City Council announced plans to demolish its bus station to clear the site for a shopping centre. Built in 1969 to the designs of Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson, the bus station is believed to be the second biggest such facility in Western Europe. According to the city council, it costs over 300,000 [pounds sterling] to maintain annually and would require 23 million [pounds sterling] to refurbish. One can understand the authority's preference for demolition, especially since the building is a prime example of what has come to be known as the brutalist style.

Nevertheless last autumn, following a campaign led by English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, Britain's Culture Minister Ed Vaizey announced that Preston's bus station was being accorded Grade II listed stares and so protected from razing. It is now deemed to be 'nationally important and of special interest', and Preston City Council is obliged to ensure the structure's preservation.

When it comes to buildings like the bus station, are we still too close to the period in which they were built and therefore unable to assess their merits with true objectivity? These questions arise after reading a piece by architectural historian Mark Girouard in the February 1973 issue of Apollo. 'The Evolving Taste for Victorian Architecture' considered how attitudes to 19th-century design had evolved over the previous half-century until, by the time Girouard was writing, Victoriana was again in vogue.

Yet, as he points out, this was far from the case in the decades immediately after Queen Victoria's death. While the engineering skills developed during her long reign were admired, the uses to which they were frequently put tended to meet with dismissal or disdain. At the same time, as Girouard notes, from the mid 1920s onwards a small but influential band of tastemakers adopted another and possibly more pernicious attitude: 'the Victorian age was found to be amusing'. One thinks of Robert Byron entertaining his fellow Oxford undergraduates by dressing up as the deceased queen, or Evelyn Waugh wryly mocking Tony Last's hopeless devotion to his Victorian Gothic ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, in A Handful of Dust. Among such people, Girouard writes, a 'taste for antimacassars, pitch-pine and wax-fruit could, curiously enough, be combined with the Modern Movement's view of the Victorians; it was a kind of safety valve for those who were desperately trying to persuade themselves that there was some good in Gropius and Le Corbusier'.

However, he observes, although out of favour very few Victorian buildings were knocked down during the interwar years because they were 'relatively new, superbly solid, still in mint condition and mostly used for the purposes for which they had been built'. Economics rather than taste guaranteed their survival, at least until the 1950s and '60s which is when widespread demolition got underway. And while Girouard does not state this explicitly, it becomes evident from reading his admirable narrative that at least some of the blame must rest with those clever people who in their youth had decided to find Victorian architecture 'amusing'. In 1933, for example, John Betjeman had published Ghastly Good Taste: Or, a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture with satiric illustrations by Osbert Lancaster. As Girouard comments, the book included the observation that except for William Morris and engineers, 'building ceased to be of anything but commercial importance in England after 1860'. Lines such as these had an unintended consequence: they made the public believe Victorian architecture was of no value.

Ultimately the joke proved to be on Betjeman who, as he grew older, became an ever more impassioned advocate of the 19th century's achievements. However, Girouard remarks, much to his fury Betjeman 'was by now typecast as a Victorian joker by an enthusiastic public who lapped up his humour and ignored the increasing knowledge and sensitivity which accompanied it'.

In his inaugural lecture as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge given in 1949, Pevsner chose as a topic the original holder of that position, the 19th-century architect Matthew Digby Wyatt. According to Girouard, Pevsner 'was greeted with such howls of laughter that he had to get down off the platform and say "This is not funny". The comic potentialities of the Victorian age were increasingly exploited.' The tragic consequence of this comedy was the subsequent spoliation of many British cities.

Tides turn and tastes change. As Girouard concludes: 'One can already envisage the completely different situation of too many Victorian buildings being preserved with too little discrimination as to their quality.' How soon before a similar remark will be made about 1960s brutalism?
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Title Annotation:ARCHIVE: VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE; bus station in Preston City, England
Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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