Monday, 14 March 2011

Stockwell Bus Garage: Self's star fish in the South London sea

Will Self, the laconic and languid author of How The Dead Live and The Book of Dave, took thirty minutes tonight (Monday 14 March) to explain why he rates Stockwell Bus Garage as his most important London building. 
   "It looks like a pod of whales, a concrete Leviathan, frozen in mid arch as they swim through the rather choppy brick sea of south London," said the droll Self. "But that's a fanciful image that writers come up with...and frankly I wish we didn't."
   Self, a self-confessed south Londonphile, showed his affection for Transport for London's Grade II-listed bus garage to a polite Royal Academy of Arts audience in Piccadilly. He lives near the modernist bus garage in Stockwell, or 'St. Ockwell' as posher residents chirply re-name it.
   Self droned - albeit interestingly enough - about the surprising "beauty and spiritual uplift of the Stockwell Bus Garage". The building itself, built on the bed of the old River Effra, consists of a 120-metre long, unsupported roof, formed by ten arched ribs. It looks almost as tall as the lanky, lean Self himself. 
   The ribs of the 'whale' rise to an apex of 59 metres and cover 6,814 square metres of floorspace with no pillars. Each of the ten arched vaults formed by this arrangement is topped by a large skylight.  
   The garage was the largest area under an unsupported single roof in Europe when completed in 1952.
   Unfortunately, the bus garage is full of...well, as you'd expect...buses...and isn't open to the public, although schoolkids used it as a cut-through before Mr. Health and Safety came along with locking gates. The building's cathedral scale dwarfs the double-decker buses beneath that buzz all over London before returning to slumber at night.
   "It's a building that exemplifies what architecture can do," said Self. "It bears distinct affinities with the Pantheon in Rome and the skylights are reminiscent of the Pantheon's high central opening, the oculus...Unfortunately, unlike the Pantheon, it's a not a public meeting place for people but for buses, where buses talk unto buses, where buses mingle in their bus togas and discuss affairs of bus state."
   At this point, Self's language abandoned south London. His vocabulary clambered up Parliament Hill towards giddy Hampstead. But I'm glad I followed Self up his verbose hill as he nailed down one final definitive idea about the building. "It's vaulting representative...of the post-war settlement in Britain," said Self. "This, for me, is a concrete and glass Beveridge Report. It is the Welfare State, redolent of a society that believed in public transport. 
   "It speaks to me of a society that cares about its workers and believes its workers should have a beautiful and interesting environment. Its vast internal space a psychological level...a release for the drivers from the compression of the London streets that they have to negotiate all day."

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011.

No comments: