Paolozzi’s murals may be threatened, but the real outrage is the architecture of the Crossrail stations, says Owen Hatherley
Not terribly long ago at the turn of the 2000s, the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground was finished. Its construction history was what you’d expect for a transport project in Britain – it had been seemingly endlessly trimmed and delayed, and had gone from being something designed to play a useful social purpose – connecting the GLC’s large ‘new town’ at Thamesmead to central London – to a double-loop across the river in order to service both Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome.
But somehow, for reasons that are still obscure but are often put down to the strictures of Roland Paoletti, architecturally it was a triumph. Taken together, these were London’s most cohesive stations since the Charles Holden years, with a common spatial generosity and strength. Some – Foster’s Canary Wharf, MacCormac’s Southwark, Hopkins’ astonishing Westminster – are probably the best works in London by those architects.
So it’s sad, as the stations begin to emerge from their scaffolding, to find that Crossrail seems to have returned to a more Beeching idea of transport architecture – cheap, cheerless and, with the partial destruction of Eduardo Paolozzi’s murals at Tottenham Court Road, potentially vandalous.
This is hardly the only public artwork by the prolific Scottish-Italian artist, nor even his only contribution to the London Underground – there is also a ventilation shaft above Pimlico station, dressed as an aggressive futurist artwork, a compelling industrial relief topped by polished, twisting quasi-organic pipes.
The career of Paolozzi the public artist is a puzzling one; from his pop art collages of the late 40s to the heavy, quasi-figurative statues placed as enigmatic decoration in front of the 80s’ first tentative regeneration schemes, or the enormous Blake-inspired Newton in the courtyard of the British Library, they veer closer to kitsch than you’d expect from an artist of this stature. One of them, The Artist as Hephaestus, was actually removed with little fanfare from its niche in front of a soon-to-be demolished Pomo palazzo on High Holborn.
The murals at Tottenham Court Road, though, are among the very best, imaginatively using the niches, passageways and tunnels in a continuous artwork full of colour, surprise, peculiarity and specificity. That any of it should be disappearing is, unsurprisingly, causing some consternation – a petition has already been organised.
The architecture of public transport is very much an afterthought
However, only a small portion of the mosaics are threatened (already half-gone as the AJ reports), that is, the arches above the main escalators, which in the new station arrangement will support nothing and hence be superfluous; 95 per cent will apparently be kept, something that probably already involves some ingenuity on the part of the rebuilders. This isn’t quite the Euston Arch. What’s worse is above.
The new station itself, now visible on the corner of Oxford Street, is a wan piece of PFI design, practically designed to disappoint. Other stations on the new line either planned (Ealing Broadway) or half-built (Farringdon) are similarly nondescript. Although in its tortuous gestation and engineering grandiosity Crossrail resembles the Jubilee Line, the architecture so far is closer to the quick, seldom particularly thoughtful stations of the Docklands Light Railway, or the drastically pared-down stations of the East London Line extension. It may be too soon to tell, but so far, we seem to have returned to a sadly familiar model where the architecture of public transport is very much an afterthought following the engineering and, occasionally, the property deals. Maybe if we’re lucky, somewhere on Crossrail’s stretch along the Thames there will be something as bizarre and captivating as Paolozzi’s murals, but it doesn’t look likely.