The tearing down of some of the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics when London’s Tottenham Court Road tube station was renovated sparked a controversy which resulted in the remaking of some of the destroyed sections and the University of Edinburgh offering to house bags of salvaged fragments. But what will happen to the mosaic fragments and why are they so important? Helen Miles Mosaics explores the issue.
Once upon a time I bleached my hair, had a ring in my nose and lived down the road from the Tottenham Court Road tube station in London. I was young and raced past the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics in the tube station passageways on my way to work. If you had asked me then what the Paolozzi mosaics were, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you wanted to know what impact they had on my life, you would have been rewarded with a look of blank confusion but I liked standing on the escalator and looking up at the mosaicked arches as I glided earthwards at the end of the day.
That was in the 1980s when the mosaics were freshly installed and I was freshly released upon the world. But that was then and this is now and when I recently returned to London on a day trip from Edinburgh a different me, grey-haired, without the nose ring and fully aware that these mosaics are one of the most important public art installations in the country, descended into the tube to look at the Paolozzi mosaics and to see them for the first time.
My interest in the Paolozzi mosaics was piqued by being part of the organising team for the British Association for Modern Mosaic’s annual forum which is being held in Edinburgh this year on September 30 and October 1 and will include talks by Christopher Smith, who worked with Paolozzi on the construction of the Tottenham Court Road mosaics, and by Liv Laumenech, public arts officer at the University of Edinburgh – now the custodian of the rescued mosaic fragments. Ever keen to keep my finger on the throbbing pulse of mosaic matters, I also attended an all-day symposium entitled A Public Art Puzzle which was run by the university and culminated in a heated discussion about what should happen to the fragments.
Ideas about their future flew about the room. Eduardo Paolozzi was born to Italian immigrant parents in Edinburgh’s port of Leith and so the suggestion of repurposing them in Leith was well received. Could they perhaps be incorporated into a future tram stop at the port? What about inviting different artists to respond to the fragments and use them in new works? Could they be exhibited across Europe as part of a exploration of the impact of migration and movement? What would Paolozzi himself have wanted? As an artist fixated on the tension between man and technology, would he not have understood and even relished the fact that his mosaics have been partially dismantled in the fact of the relentless forces of change?
I sat there in a state of bafflement. As a mosaicist, to my eyes the fragments looked like nothing more than chunks of concrete with bits of vitreous glass and smalti still clinging to them. Most of them weren’t appealing to look at and many had the distinctive blackened pockmarking formed of the sweat and breath and exhaustion of decades of London commuters. A mosaic’s value, the reason why we appreciate them, is for the overall composition, design, use of colour and artistic skill – discarded tesserae are no more a mosaic than flakes of paint are an oil painting. I was clearly missing something. Why was rubble being treated with such reverence and seriousness? I thought of the neglected Roman mosaics – beautiful, precious, intricate – I had found by chance, seen underwater or walked over and wondered what all the fuss was about. Little did I know.
Some history will help put things in context: Eduardo Paolozzi, a sculptor and founder of the pop art movement, was commissioned in 1979 to create an art work for Tottenham Court Road after a member of the London Regional Transport project team saw a mural by Paolozzi in Berlin. Over the next five years 955 square metres of mosaics were installed in stages along the Northern and Central line platforms. The competed project also included a circular mosaic, known as the Rotunda, a large panel referred to as the Church Window and mosaic decoration around the arches which curved over the entrance to the escalator.
The designs for the Tottenham Court Road mosaics were drawn from recurrent themes in Paolozzi’s work, particularly the city as a ‘machine age jungle’*, and reflected his interests in collage, surrealism and abstract art. The completed mosaics also incorporated references to the area surrounding the tube station: butterflies for the all night Turkish bath formerly in the Russell Hotel**, architectural plans because of the Architectural Association nearby, as well as cameras, saxophones and electronics to acknowledge the life on the streets above ground while the use of strong, primary colours was a deliberate allusion to the ethnic diversity of the local community.
The tube station was transformed. Where once the passage ways and platforms had been ‘bent on reminding travellers that they had penetrated a region of the earth noted only for its dank and claustrophobic gloom’*, by the mid 1980s the station was exuberantly colourful and swirling in metaphor, pattern and imagery: cogs, a space shuttle, a mechanised cow, conveyor belts, a heart with industrial valves, a commuter overlaid with a primitive mask and machine components are just part of the mix.
Paolozzi contracted mosaic artists in Spilimbergo, Italy, and London to interpret his designs and the mosaics were made on paper using the reverse method with a mixture of smalti, vitreous glass and piastrelle (tiles) in glass. There are distinct differences between the mosaics on the Central Line which is coloured red on the tube map and the Northern Line, which is black. While the Central Line mosaics are unashamedly shouty in their use of colour and include rich hand cut smalti elements, the Northern Line ones are subdued and simplified and rely on the pre-made squares of glass to delineate the designs.
The decades passed and people like me glimpsed the Paolozzi mosaics as they dashed through the station but probably rarely stopped to look at them more closely until severe congestion and the need to expand the station due to the addition of Crossrail meant that things couldn’t stay as they were. There needed to be a ticket hall six times its original size, wider escalators and new passageways and the Paolozzi mosaics were in the way.
At this point, the story of the Paolozzi mosaics gets as murky as the remaining fragments. One version of the story, the version I heard at the University of Edinburgh symposium, is that Transport for London did everything they could to preserve the mosaics but that the authority had no choice but to remove the decoration of the arches at the tube station entrance because of logistical engineering reasons. The arches, although an essential part of the overall design, represent five per cent of the whole mosaic and are disputably the least interesting. The rubble which remained was destined for landfill when the Twentieth Century Society (now known as SAVE Britain’s Heritage) swooped down and rescued about a third of it which eventually ended up in black plastic bags in Edinburgh University’s storeroom.
In fact, however, Transport for London also set about demolishing significant sections of the iconic Central Line mosaics before SAVE Britian’s Heritage, the Paolozzi Foundation and other organisations got wind of what was going on and caused such a furore that the demolition was halted and Gary Drostle (President of the British Association for Modern Mosaic and one of the world’s most respected and prominent mosaicists), was called in to remake the missing sections. The original tesserae were unsalvageable and Drostle went to Spilimbergo to track down the exact smalti colours and painstakingly remade around 20 square metres of mosaics using photographic records to replicate the shape and positioning of the individual pieces.
Destroyed? The Paolozzi mosaics? I only found out about the fate of the Central Line mosaics through a chance conversation months after the symposium but once I did the passion aroused by the mosaic fragments not only made more sense but aroused my ire fully as much as that of the people who had gathered for the event. The lumps of rubble suddenly seemed incredibly important; Paolozzi’s artistic stature is undisputed but his only mosaic work, a public art installation which is recognised by millions and is intimately linked to the fabric and history of London, was somehow not considered worthy of preservation. For me, those fragments now stand in for what was lost and remain as a tangible reminder of how easily casual disregard can culminate in wilful destruction. I am older and distinctly frayed around the edges but I am still here – the Paolozzi mosaics very nearly weren’t.
The debate about the future of the Paolozzi mosaic fragments will continue at the BAMM Forum. For more information go to www.bamm.org.uk. Tickets can be bought online through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/bamm-forum-2017-mosaic-a-celebration-of-design-expression-colour-tickets-33142545245
*Eduardo Paolozzi Underground. Edited by Richard Cork. Royal Academy of Arts. 1986
**Correction. Sent by reader Malcolm Shifrin: ‘Although many news items …. note that the butterfly represents the artist’s memory of a visit to the all-night Turkish baths in the Russell Hotel, the baths were actually in the now demolished Fitzroy Doll Imperial Hotel, almost next door to the Russell.’