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Original at The Independent

Top deck
Buses - unlike trains, planes and cars -
don't generally get a look-in when it
comes to architecture. Which is why
Walsall's new bus station is so exciting

Fiona Rattray reports
02 July 2000

Transport has spawned a spectacular range of building forms in the industrial age: from the hallowed halls of railway stations and the high-end glamour of the international airport, to the more modest multi-storey car park and consumption-friendly petrol station. But while planes, trains and cars continue to inspire visionary architecture, there is one mode of transport that is rarely associated with eye-catching buildings. The humble, lumbering, shuddering bus is the poor relation: the vehicle that architecture forgot. And who ever heard of a bus-spotter?

Until now, that is. For a modest west Midlands town like Walsall to enter the 21st century with one exciting piece of contemporary British architecture is an achievement. To gain two in the space of a few months looks like genius. But while Caruso St John's assured Walsall art gallery is no more than one might expect in this era of Lottery-funded arts projects, Allford Hall Monaghan and Morris's bus station is, in its own, less glamorous way, every bit as exciting.

When St Paul's bus station opens later this month, it will serve five bus companies sending 100 buses an hour through Walsall's compact centre. Built at a cost of £6.5m to Birmingham-based transport body Centro, it's a functional building - not much more than a large slim roof, 80 metres long by 45 wide. Supported at one end by a glazed building and elsewhere by a seemingly random series of delicate, branching steel pillars, it appears to float. Both the roof and the building are elliptical in shape: the former punctured by a series of round holes; the latter housing smart public toilets, retail spaces and offices.

"We wanted to make a building which has a powerful urban resonance," says AHMM partner Peter Morris. But the exercise, he says, has been as much about solving the problems of traffic movement and the vagaries of the existing site as making a design statement. Directly in front of the bus station is a new public square, part of AHMM's competition-winning design, linking it with the neighbouring St Paul's church. The square is important - not just because it saves the church (part shopping centre, part place of worship) from the sorry fate of urban eclipse, or because it makes for a more pleasant (and safer) approach to the station - but because its creation demands that the road swerve to the left. It introduces a sinuous aspect to the site which reflects the curves of the structure.

Crossing the square you enter the station up elegant fanned steps (there is a ramp round the outside for wheelchairs and buggies). Once under the concrete canopy the most glorious aspect of AHMM's design is revealed. The roof is pierced by a collection of funnel-shaped chimneys or "cowls", each set at an angle. Light floods in through the cowls, spotlighting the road below. The larger ones (5m in diameter), those above the bus lanes, are open to the sky. The others, above the waiting platforms, are glazed. The glass keeps the passengers dry while the open voids allow some of the exhaust fumes to escape. According to the architects, the dramatic light effect is inspired by the visions of heaven in Powell and Pressburger's 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death. It sounds like a lofty aspiration but if you've seen the film you'll know it works.

Up on the roof it's a thrilling sight: a lunar landscape of emerging cowls. Peer over the edge and you get a vertiginous sense of their generous scale. Come September, when planting conditions are right, a green roof of sedum (a low-maintenance succulent) will be planted. It will be invisible from the street: its job will simply be to soak up carbon monoxide and replace it with oxygen.

The underside of the roof is painted white - increasing the light levels and highlighting the exposed concrete of the cowls. At first glance the surface has the subtle patina of silvery grey metal. Architects love concrete, but the public doesn't and AHMM's selective revealing of the material here lends it a precious quality. Elsewhere it has been used to equally good effect. Inside the administrative building, holes created during the casting process have been left unfilled, creating a subtle grid pattern on the walls. Outside, smooth monolithic slabs support cantilevered hardwood benches and timetable holders.

There is something wonderfully unfamiliar about the Walsall bus station. Aside from the dramatic roof and elegant, curving organisation of the space, the colour-coded signage (designed by AHMM with the graphic design company, Atelier Work) has the clean simplicity that you find in European cities but not, as a rule, in ad hoc Britain. Even the bus in the diagram looks foreign.

In the site office of the contractors, Shepherd, there is a photograph of the old bus station: a perfunctory series of elongated shelters with metal roofs. It looks like the kind of place where you would sit with your shopping in smelly discomfort, wishing away the minutes until your bus finally arrived. Sitting on one of the new benches, looking up at the roof, you can imagine being so mesmerised by the cloud movements or the shafts of light that bus after bus could pass you by, the frozen peas in your bag turning to mush. It's as worthy of contemplation as a piece of art and it's no more than Walsall, having given the country a wonderful new gallery, deserves. *

See also previous article.

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