Each day, in cities across the world, we use public transport systems, and rarely give much thought to the artworks and symbols that have been designed to help us make our way across the city, or brighten up our journeys. In fact, it could be argued that the very best public transport designs are those we actively take for granted, that become so much a part of the wallpaper of an individual city’s life that it feels like they’ve been there forever.
Images and artworks from two such examples can be found on display at the Bloomberg Space in London over this summer, with curator Henry Coleman bringing together collages and maquettes related to Eduardo Paolozzi’s iconic mosaics for Tottenham Court Road Underground station alongside Lance Wyman’s design system for the Mexico City Metro. Shown with these works are also related designs and artworks by both Wyman and Paolozzi.
The decision to pair the duo up in an exhibition happened almost by accident, according to Coleman, who came across the Paolozzi works when researching another exhibition in the Royal Academy archives. “That’s where I saw images of the production maquettes and collage drawings for the first time,” he says. “I was struck by how powerfully sculptural the maquettes were and by the timebound quality of the drawings with their mixture of dated technical information married to Paolozzi’s vibrant collage.
“Shortly afterwards I spent some time in Mexico City, travelling the Metro every day,” he continues. “The first photo that I sent back from Mexico City was a shot of the Icon line map. The signage for the system, the combination of ‘icon’ and typeface felt incredibly specific to Mexico City, again tied to a specific time, but spread across this incredibly vast area as though it had arrived fully formed within the same instant. To me the clarity of the graphic system was powerful enough to pull together the entire network into something like a massive, city-wide sculpture. I wasn’t aware of Wyman’s work before that point and it was this physical experience of travelling within his system that led me to look at his work more closely.
“Beyond the fact that they are just two incredibly joyous and affecting bodies of work. It seemed that there might be a possibility to place them next to each other to look at the issues of how our engagement with public space is shaped by sometimes remote processes of aesthetic decision and action. By looking at a sculptor and a designer working in a superficially similar ‘space’ we thought there might be some interesting questions asked.”
While Paolozzi’s mosaics for Tottenham Court Road – which caused a public outcry when they were threatened with destruction during the development of the forthcoming Crossrail link at the station – are the newer works, created in 1984, they feel a little like Old Masters in comparison to the bright Pop-Art styles of Wyman’s Metro designs (made in 1969), which are displayed alongside some of his work for the 1968 Olympics and the 1970 World Cup. The two sets of works are shown in different rooms at Bloomberg Space, which serves to emphasise the differences in style and approach.
Despite this, Coleman sees many links between them. “At the simplest level there is a lot of shared imagery,” he says. “Butterflies, crickets, ducks, run through Paolozzi’s work of this period and Lance’s Mexico city Metro Icon system. The Paolozzi works that we’ve focused on in the exhibition all come from a period where he was trying to construct a very direct visual language that would work in the public space and I think that’s what leads to that search for evocative archetypes.
“Similarly, Wyman was looking for images that would be instantly recognisable and able to form a symbolic link to a given area without recourse to written language. The end use and how they applied this search for a communicative symbol is obviously very different, but do seem to be some sympathies between the two bodies of work.”
Talking before the show’s opening last week, Wyman reiterated the importance of creating a system with layers of communication. “It has to have something that ties it together,” he says. “And it has to be practical. Iconography is practical – we all know that now but back in the 60s and the 70s it was thought of for special occasions, like the Olympics. But when you take it and apply it to the city streets, and you really have a diverse vocabulary that you have to develop, it becomes pretty interesting.”
In his Mexico City Metro work, Wyman deliberately incorporated local folklore into the imagery he created. For example, for the Candelaria station (a model of which is shown at Bloomberg Space) he made reference to the slang word for the local criminals – ‘ducks’ – in the icon he used. “You can get pretty expressive,” he says. “It can have a meaning of just being itself, or when you get into a city, it can represent something historical. All of that gets into the layering system and the more that you can make each one of those layers sing and be meaningful, the stronger it becomes and the more it works for people coming into the city, or people that live in the neighbourhood. It has a lot of directions it can communicate in.”
Wyman makes another crucial point about public art and design too, one that will resonate with Paolozzi fans, whose campaign has seen much of his TCR mosaic restored and returned to the station. “Designing for the street, you have to have maintenance,” Wyman says. “It’s not here today and you want it to be gone tomorrow – you want it to be here tomorrow and for years of tomorrows.”
‘Metro: Art At Velocity’ is at Bloomberg Space in London until August 5. More info at bloombergspace.com