Sunday, 28 February 2010

Eduardo Paolozzi Mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Tube Station

On the eve of Tottenham Court Road Tube Station's demise (it is being redeveloped into one of the Major Crossrail Stations), I have made this photo tour of the Mosaics that alot of its interior is covered with, designed by Eduardo Paolozzi's Munich studio in three phases in the 1980s. These mosaics have graced my journeys through this station for the past 10 years, and together with the mind-blowing tiling of the tunnels, has added an unintrusively jubilant, and suitably superficial edge to the dowdy patina and standard spaces of this otherwise unremarkable station.

Entrance from Tottenham Court Road

The inside of all that is left of the whole block on the south side of St Giles' Circus (going down to the ticket hall) that used to contain the Astoria, Metro and the Ghetto, as well as that staple of early saturday morning Doners and fish n' chips, Dionysus.

The entrance to the descent of the three escalators from the tiny, low ticket hall is framed by this double arcade of bright primary patterns, through which you enter the commute home as if going into some sort of flamboyant, underground basilica. 

The Central Line Mosaics, completed in 1982, are all candy-coloured exuberance, as if the mosaic artists had been weaving a tribal fabric for the kingdom of Soho and Bloomsbury above, pouncing out of the walls like banners in a parade. 

More After The Break...

Paolozzi was involved in the early breathings of pop in the UK, and while alot of his later work is critical, uncertain, quite profoundly questioning, here the mosaics are decorative in the best sense of the word: they pick up traces of place and atmosphere, and reconfigure them into a palette that paints the surfaces which contain the place's actions and life with a veneer of its own concentrated strengths. And all this done with a margin of abstraction that places it slightly below the wavelength of direct communication (unlike the images of ancient artefacts from the BM in Holborn station, or the tromp l'oeils of paintings in the Tate at Pimlico, basically advertising), that sits it resolutely in the background, in the thin but vital zone between the form of the space and the attention of its occupants.

At the bottom of the escalators, just before the tunnel to the Central Line, is the Rotunda. A strange place, seemingly without a purpose (it only has an in, and an out, on axis with one another, so why not a straight tunnel like everywhere else in the station?), but with a collection of the most figurative of all the mosaics. These were the last to be designed and have clear, if slightly fragmented references, a bit like paolozzis portrait sculptures, in opposition to the more textural approach in the rest of the place (the bees seen in photos above are from the same phase). 

Strange and impossible mechanical devices refer to the wild inventions of the Architectural Association around the corner, to which paolozzi had affiliations going back to the Independent Group and its exhibitions Parallel of Life and Art in 1953 and This is tomorrow in 1956, mechanized chickens reffering to the proliferation of fast food establishments above, and angry looking masks possibly coming from the BM's ethnographic displays. Its a nice space, especially with the heavy square tube of lighting hanging from the reflective slats of stainless steel, but I prefer the other mosaics that are more recessive.

The Northern Line (my native platforms) are more muted, with the Northbound platform (image below) being dominated by greys, with hints of lime green, blues and reds.

The southbound platforms are bolder, with their geometries standing out in sharper relief from the strong binary use of black and white.

And between the areas covered in mosaic are suitably surreal corridors and tunnels decked out in op-art like grids of off-white elongated tiles and black mortar, that flicker moiree-like as you walk down them.

And as you leave Paolozzi's dirty but bright underground world, you rise up through the other side of his double-arcade, with this end's openings having the triumphant proportions of a Roman Arch.

I dont know what will happen to the mosaics, but I remember reading somewhere that LU is commited to incorporating at least some of them into the new super-station. They wont have the same intimate specificity that they have now, designed as they were perfectly for every corner and curve of the station, and they might look a little lost and forlorn in the gleaming vastness of all the huge new spaces, but at least there will be something to remember what was there before. Or on that note, perhaps they should be broken up, and given in pieces to all the people who actually enjoyed them as they passed through the station everyday, and will give them a new, and equally comfortable and specific home, to turn up in some future decade on Antiques roadshow, in a pile of much-loved things left to a grandchild by his grandmother.

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