Costing over £13 million, the brand-new Chester Bus Interchange was the focus of my first ‘Contemporary Past’ field trip with level 5 (second-year) students. As part of a course exploring archaeological perspectives on the contemporary past, I wanted to take them to the newest addition to Chester’s environment and thus consider how architecture and material culture shape our environment in the early 21st century. The interchange has now won an architectural award.

Some of the themes we explored were:

  • The complex uses of the landscape around the bus interchange including the medieval, early modern and late modern buildings and structures, such as:
    • the Charles I tower of the Roman/medieval walls
    • the canal
    • 19th-century houses and temperance society hall,
    • the 1960s ring road,
    • 1960s residential tower blocks,
    • modern office and residential blocks.
  • The past allusions within the architecture:
    • red sandstone fake-facing
    • the crude classical allusions to the front
  • The practical issues of the roof, including how it wouldn’t necessarily protect against wind and rain;
  • The seats: how they are designed for only very temporary comfort but positioned to be awkward for people to dwell there overnight;
  • The positioning of cycle racks where the bikes won’t be protected from rain and the elements, and are exposed without clear surveillance to prevent theft;
  • The evocation of the former use of the landscape in the sign board – the presence of the cattle market is evoked in carved cattle viewed from above beneath the information station/map;
  • The RNIB-supported tactile plan to help the visually impaired navigate the interchange;
  • The contrast between how the brand-new structure is designed and how it is used – in particular how people exit the bus station by crossing a busy road rather than via the entrance. We also observed how the bus drivers don’t enter the bus station as intended – cutting the wrong-side of the mini-roundabout at its entrance.
  • The rubbish bins – and how they tell us the history of waste disposal and the many factors surrounding it – including compaction using solar panel, fully closeable aperture, cigarette disposal and many  logos, including Chester and Cheshire West County Council and CH1 Chester Bid Company. We discussed the contrast in design to those bins within the proximity of the toilets and information office: their see-through sides clearly a terrorism precaution. In addition, we talked about the archaism of the waste disposal logo: perhaps the most ‘antique’ representation. (11/04/18: I add here a link to a fascinating piece on public bins).
  • Temporary signs: despite all the design and money invested, some signs look like they were only added as an afterthought, including those warning people not to use cycles, skateboards etc.

We went on to explore other sites in Chester city, but the bus station alone reveals how an archaeological perspective allows us to consider design, use and biographies of activities even for a brand-new construction, revealing themes in public space, architecture and transportation and the evocations of social memories.