Art Goes Down The Tube
Back in the 1920s the London underground tube system was updated from its dark-wood Victorian designs and enjoyed a unified modernist look that lasted for the next 60 years – clean lines, matching tiles, elegant lighting and streamlined simplicity.
By the time the 1980s arrived, the wheels were really starting to come off the system. It needed massive infrastructure investment to cope with the expanding city and stations, particularly the interchanges, had not been modernised for decades. Many passageways still had the old steel flood doors that had fascinated me as a small boy. The stations had always leaked (Baker Street and Great Portland Street still do) but the passages were falling apart.
In came a scheme to revamp the busiest ones. But, like so many things in the eighties it was largely about appearances, not tackling the deeper problems. The Northern line was the beneficiary of some tarting up, including Chaucerian imagery at Charing Cross (not bad), film strip imagery at Leicester Square (awful, and now out of date) and Eduardo Paolozzi’s circus-coloured murals at Tottenham Court Road tube (Paolozzi designed the huge statue at the British library). This was my stop for the office, and while some of the designs were pretty enough most seemed disproportionate for the station, cluttered, fussy and gaudy. Crucially, they made the station looked even more cramped and dirty, when what was obviously needed was a station redesign, not a lot of expensive murals.
At the time everybody hated them, and there were many complaints that the redecoration plan was little more than a sticking plaster on a broken limb. What was needed was a radical rethink of the central system. Now rebuilding is resulting in new clear layouts with a definite design ethic – stations like the bridge-spanning Blackfriars are a triumph and a way forward that can cope with increased demand.
Tottenham Court Road interchange needed a massive rebuild that’s taking years. In the process, TfL appear to have dumped three of the Eduardo Paolozzi tiled arches and would presumably have got rid of more, until a heritage group and a public protest highlighted the issue. The question is; were all of them worth keeping? Certainly not as they originally stood, surrounded by bits of red tin with holes punched in it, but perhaps as art panels? They should definitely have been kept somewhere, but how much do you preserve? I wonder if 1920s passengers complained about updates to the Victorian designs.
In related news, TfL is getting rid of all twenty of London’s ‘ghost stations’ – hauntingly photogenic abandoned stations which really serve no use now except for the odd photo-shoot – but are also set to build on another thirty liminal spaces they own in, around or under stations. Will this affect the fringe theatre groups, bars and other venues which have used some of these spaces for years? Presumably the Southwark Playhouse, which has already moved railway arches twice, will be heading off again…meanwhile, at the top and bottom of this column, we have shots of Southgate Station’s 1920s look, which have been preserved.