Hidden away from casual glance on a side street behind Stockwell tube station sits one of the great post-war marvels of architecture. A squat wide building that is only visible up close, this is the Stockwell Bus Garage, and for a few hours, the usually sealed off interior was opened up to the public.
Opened in 1952, it boasted at the time, the largest unsupported roof in Europe. A vast arched concrete roof that is barely noticeable from the outside, yet the space it creates dominates within.
Thanks to the pale gray of the concrete and plenty of lighting, this is unlike any other bus garage you will ever visit, which often feel dark and forbidding. Here it is light and welcoming. A vast expanse of tarmac flooring to play with.
The huge concrete beams reflected a post-war necessity — a lack of steel for a conventional steel frame, and also less well known, a lack of skilled brickies to erect the rest of the structure.
Concrete was easier, and unlike the ravages of time that came to haunt council estates, the vast ribbed ceiling is far away from grubby hands and could survive the wear of the years. Not to say that a bit of a clean wouldn’t be appreciated.
The shallowness of the ribs shouldn’t defy gravity, but thanks to engineering cleverness, they manage to spring gently from lightly angled supporting walls. Walls that seem almost impossibly thin to support such vast spans. No need for gothic buttresses here!
When Brunel built Maidenhead Bridge, people said the span was too shallow and wouldn’t support trains that ran over it. They were wrong, and here, a bus garage demonstrates the same delicacy that a shallow angle adds to a structure. Too flat, and you need columns. Too sharp an angle, and you end up with too vast a space that dwarfs the people within. Here the dimensions remain reassuringly human.
Undecorated, the concrete spans still show the imprint of the wooden slats that were used as moulds when the concrete was poured. More dramatic at the South Bank, here they are distant echos of the construction than a major focus of the design. Indeed, too heavy a decoration would have been oppressive.
But note the clever use of the services pipes to add just a hint of movement to the structure, lightening the overall effect. One set of pipes carries electricity to the suspended lights, while the other set of pipes carries away water from the drains above.
Bus garages are usually filled with the staff of the bus firm. Vintage bus gatherings more often filed with men of a certain age and attire. Today the bus garage was filled with ordinary folk having a great time inside the normally sealed off world of mystery.
The peoples bus garage
Some were there for the building, others for the buses, and some simply because it was something unusual to do.
Other people, mostly men, peered intently at collectables and rummaged through photos of buses to see if there was the elusive photo still missing from their encyclopedic collection.
Model buses for sale, for eye-watering prices. The bus operator never one to miss a chance, tried to hire some new drivers.
Children got childishly excited about sitting in driving seats of the vintage buses. A father asked his young son if he was enjoying himself. Yes! Which bus do you like the father enquired. The red one!
I smiled, for that is roughly my level of knowledge about the various bus types. New one, old one, very old one. I was there for the building.
For the bus geeks, there were many buses to photograph. For everyone else, that workhorse of the daily commute which rarely raises a smile as we squash inside was for a few short hours a generator of smiles and grins.
One lady of more adult disposition let out a delighted squeal when allowed to sit in a drivers seat of a modern bus.
The recently restored battle bus was in pride of place, and unsurprisingly getting the most attention. A nearby bus which has been converted into a mobile display showroom had a history of bus silhouettes on the outside. Someone had added the battle-bus model number to the silhouette with a — probably unofficial — makeshift label.
Stockwell bus garage is all too rarely open to the public — it is a working building after all, but what a shame that so few get to admire the architecture within.