Last weekend I used the Northern Line at Tottenham Court Road station for the first time since it reopened. Oxford Street is not my favourite place in London but perversely for a tube station that was cramped, overcrowded and cavernously deep, Tottenham Court Road used to lift my spirits. That was wholly due to the wonderful effects of its Paolozzi mosaics; grubby and glittering schematic designs that plastered the walls and ceilings of the entrance hall and platforms. They were probably the only piece of art on the Tube that I have ever thought worked well. As such I was horrified when I heard that the murals were under threat after the Crossrail development and sad to read the story in the Standard that those in the entrance halls had been removed due to incompatibility with the station’s redevelopment. To some extent this shock was alleviated by the claim by TfL that 95 per cent of the mosaics had been preserved. But it was only last Saturday that I actually tested that proposition and as far as I can see all of the Paolozzi murals have been lost.
It would have been nice to be able to trust TfL but it’s now clear that we can’t. They succeeded with this act of cultural vandalism through stealth and misinformation and wrongful assurances to the hapless 20th Century Society that there was no need to invoke the listings system. But every single one of the Paolozzi murals that I saw on the Northern Line platforms was newly in place. The old mosaics, made up of thousands of tesserae, must have been utterly destroyed and then there must have been an attempt to re-execute them. Looked at close up the materials do not seem to be cheap exactly but the overall effect is drab and lifeless. TfL may claim that it is very difficult to compare because the old mosaics were so dirty. Balderdash, I’m afraid. It is likely that it is no longer possible to source the exact materials that Paolozzi used in the 1980s; the replacements that they found are listless and un-magical.
As such it prepares one well for the new murals, by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, that fill the entrance hall. The clunky diamonds and circles seemed a direct slap in the face for poor Paolozzi’s mural, the quirky charms of which lifted the spirits of those going about their daily grind. That said, the tube station is a lot bigger and easier to use so functionality, at least, is served – but it is very sad that greater consultation was not allowed and that there was not more input from the people who could, at the very least, have helped to make sure that the new mural had something of the same feeling and impact of what was so callously and underhandedly destroyed.