Anybody who has been up around London’s Tottenham Court Road Tube Station lately (known to Tube aficionados as TCR) will have noticed that the Astoria Ballroom, venue for many hedonistic concerts and druggy 21st. birthday parties, and much else has gone to be replaced by a huge building site in preparation for Crossrail. One consequence of the £1 billion transformation of Tottenham Court Road station (to expand the ticket hall by almost six times and prepare the station for Crossrail) is the threat to the fabulous murals by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The late Scottish sculptor and “pop artist” was commissioned by London Underground in the early 1980s to help brighten up its stations. He took his inspiration from the jazz clubs of Soho, and the mosaic on the westbound Central line platforms features saxophones echoing nearby Denmark Street which is full of musical retailers. Other mosaics reflect the hustle and bustle of the city with running legs and other motifs of the busy lives of commuters.
His designs help passengers to momentarily forget that Tottenham Court Road is, in the main, an overcrowded interchange between the Northern and Central lines (it is used by 147,000 passengers a day). Instead they feel like they are part of Underground history, the murals having the look of something far older than their 27 years (the work was completed in 1984). However these are very important artworks as the mosaic murals that adorn seemingly every available surface at Tottenham Court Road station are the work one of the great British artists and sculptors of the twentieth century, whose work is often considered a forerunner to that of the later Pop Artists. Indeed he was the first artist to use the word “Pop” in an artwork. Paolozzi’s I was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947) is considered the first standard bearer of Pop Art and first to display the word “pop”. Paolozzi showed the collage in 1952 as part of his groundbreaking Bunk! series presentation at the initial Independent Group meeting in London.
Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi, KBE, RA (7 March 1924 – 22 April 2005), was a Scottish sculptor and artist. He was a major figure in the international art world working without compromise on his own interpretation and vision of the world around us all. Paolozzi investigated how we can fit into the modern world to resemble our fragmented civilization through imagination and fantasy. By the dramatic juxtaposition of ideas in his work, he let us see the confusion as well as the inspiration.
Born to Italian Immigrants in 1926 he had a long association with London prior to his death in 2005. He studied at both St Martins and the Slade School of Fine Art and, after spending several years in Paris in the late forties, returned to London and ran a studio out of Chelsea. Beginning with his work on cooling tower panels in Pimlico during the seventies, and ultimately culminating in the truly wonderful Newton at the British Library in the nineties, Paolozzi left an impressive imprint on the Capital.
For eight months from April 2011, Northern line services will not stop at Tottenham Court Road to allow essential works to be completed at the station. Contractors will be working 24 hours to rebuild sections of the tunnel lining and dig new connecting passages. This will allow new escalators to be connected to the platforms. The station will remain open and Central line services will run as normal. Customers wishing to use the Northern line should use nearby Leicester Square or Goodge Street stations. Something similar will happen with the Central line after the Olympics. The station is due to be completed by 2016 (and will remain open for as much of the project as possible). Project engineers admit they have no idea what effect the construction work will have on the tiled walls.
London Underground, which dates from 1863, of course have many Listed Buildings including their iconic HQ at 55, Broadway and an active Art on the Underground programme and are well used to conservation issues. They have issued this statement.
“London Underground highly values the Paolozzi mosaics within Tottenham Court Road Underground station, and alongside the Tube’s ‘Art on the Underground’ programme, we have been working closely with the Paolozzi Foundation as the Tottenham Court Road upgrade progresses. We are taking great care to protect and preserve these wonderful mosaics as we upgrade Tottenham Court Road station.
“As part of the upgrade of the station, major engineering works are required in the platform tunnels to strengthen them before new passageways are dug. This will mean that some sections of existing mosaic tiles will have to be carefully removed and reinstated once the tunnelling work is finished. Where small sections do have to be permanently removed from their current location, they will be preserved with the aim of being used elsewhere on the station in the future.”
My own view is, as wonderful as the murals are, they should never have been done. A deep Tube station is fundamentally a utilitarian pipeline for people and trains and simplicity of finishes and ease of circulation is really what people want with the design statements confined to the entrances. This is what the great architect Charles Holden achieved with his iconic work, especially on the Piccadilly Line on the 1930’s. The new stations on the Jubilee Line Extension in 1999 also took this approach and achieved a new architectural standard with Westminster Station winning the “Building of the Year” award and Canary Wharf and North Greenwich in particular providing a great sense of spectacle. The Tube has a great tradition of wall design with many of the early stations having unique tile designs which served as a visual location indicator to arriving passengers.
However covering every surface with artwork like at Paolozzi’s TCR makes you something of a hostage to fortune. For in what is essentially a utilitarian context you will need to make changes, add / remove equipment rewire, retrunk and so on and every time there is a danger to the mosaics. If you ask TCR users what they want they will tell you it is a station with better access, less claustrophobic and with more sense of space. The renovations will undoubtedly provide this and in making for a better ambience they will hopefully allow Paolozzi’s vibrant and exciting murals to be better seen and appreciated in a more comfortable and less stressed environment. For, whatever about the advisability of doing them in the first place, they are a unique and exciting legacy of one of Britain’s most exciting 20th Century artists. Indeed they are rendered even more exciting by being in such a mundane and unexpected location, one of London’s busiest Tube stations. This is a magnificent display of “Art for the People.”
London Underground appears mindful of protecting the murals but fans of Paolozzi, and of the unique character of much of the Tube, may need to remain vigilant as the huge construction works at Tottenham Court Road station continue over many years.
For more on London Underground and its rich design heritage see THE TUBE on the Eagle’s masthead.