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THE COMMISSIONING OF EDUARDO PAOLOZZI
FOR LONDON REGIONAL TRANSPORT
AT TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD UNDERGROUND STATION
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
The Underground Railway is inevitably part of the cultural life of London. The stations are landmarks by which, to many of us, the geography of the city is defined, and the Underground lines the threads that link up the activities we undertake in London. So often a trip onthe Underground is a prelude to going about our daily business in the fabric of the city.
A modernised Underground station performs a number of functions. Foremost in the minds of London Regional Transport and the architects was to improve the environment for the travelling public and make it a more pleasant place to use.
This was a consideration that ran through the whole Station Modernisation Programme and where resources permitted, an element of decorative design or artwork was incorporated by the design team in the refurbishment. The design team researched the history of the individual area in which a station is to be found.
Following careful consideration and approval of one or a number of schemes, this resulted in readily understood references to the area and, usually, a cheerful approach - gift wrapping at Bond Street, Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street, for example.
In addition, the agreed design strategy, on occasion, provided the opportunity for one of the functions of public art - where the artist, drawing from his or her own wide range of cultural reference and from the historical and cultural influences of the area gives something back that interacts with and enriches the area, addressing all the old frames of reference anew.
The process of commissioning Eduardo Paolozzi was at the time very clear and simple. Only at Charing Cross, where David Gentleman had been employed on a series of panels portraying the construction of Queen Eleanor's Cross had a major part of the station been left to a decorative artist to design. There was a concern that few artists would be capable of work of this scale and would understand the real constraints of Underground stations.
A member of the project team was attracted by an illustration of a Paolozzi mural in Berlin.
A meeting was arranged by the architects with Paolozzi. An immediate affinity resulted and Paolozzi was commissioned. Yet the Department was not primarily motivated by the extent to which Paolozzi's work was internationally known.
Indeed, the project designer was quite unaware of it at the time and Paolozzi's work was chosen because it was liked and communicated well. In all cases, selection involved approval by a design committee, but essentially London Regional Transport has been a patron of both established and less widely known artists.
The design approach had been to include art as a unitary whole in the modernisation of an Underground station (and London Regional Transport was one of the few underground railway systems that did so). It had also been a means of emphasising the line identity. Thus the architectural designs made sure public art was not left in isolation, outside a framework in which it relates to the everyday user.
Initially, the material chosen was ceramic tile. Eventually, though, mosaic was selected instead for its greater flexibility in creating intricate forms - a happy choice as the quality of mosaic is much more striking at the close quarters of an Underground platform.
The choice of Paolozzi proved instinctively, too, the right choice for Tottenham Court Road. His vigorous sense of movement and the density of his designs echo the hubbub of Tottenham Court Road and its shops, drawing influences from the electronic gadgetry of these shops, from Egyptian mummy cases in the British Museum, from his recollection of the area in the 1930s and 1940s and his own vision of the future of the area.
Since the commissioning of Paolozzi, London Regional Transport became for a while, at least in terms of the exposure it offered to the artists it could select, a major commissioner of public artwork.
Modernising an underground railway imposes real constraints on architects. In the case of most other large building structures, the frequent complaint of engineers is that they play second fiddle to the architects' spaces and aesthetics. With deep line underground stations, architects find themselves restricted by the engineering decisions of a bygone era. Their ability to significantly modify structures is small. Their inclination may thus be to hold onto determining aesthetic input. It is, therefore, a tribute to what was achieved at Tottenham Court Road that the architects chose to devote a large proportion of their budget to executing the designs of an artist who had not yet been commissioned on this scale in Britain.
On the largest of public canvases - the murals of an Underground station - with more visitors to it than any gallery, Eduardo Paolozzi's work at Tottenham Court Road Station speaks volumes for itself.