Langlands & Bell on making a memorial to Frank Pick at Piccadilly Circus Underground station
We’re often drawn to spaces and structures associated with travel. Since the late 1980’s we’ve returned again and again to this theme to make artworks ranging in size from small sculptural reliefs to full scale architecture, pieces inspired by the designs of airports, typologies of aviation networks, the codes of the internet, and the many other structures and systems connecting and surrounding us.
Piccadilly Circus station is an amazing place to make an artwork. Above ground Piccadilly Circus is not really a circus at all. It’s a lopsided urban accident of streets arriving and striking out in different directions between mismatched buildings festooned with advertising, but somehow it works. It is the heart of London: the hub around which the city turns. By contrast Piccadilly Circus station immediately below ground is a much more considered environment, an elegant circular hall lined with Travertine marble trimmed with bronze, where the weight of the city above is supported on slender octagonal columns. Londoners and visitors alike flow down into the rotunda descending escalators deep into tunnels reaching out all over London.
The rational circular design of Piccadilly Circus Underground station was commissioned in 1928 from architect Charles Holden by Frank Pick, but who was Frank Pick? He was the first managing director and CEO of London Transport in the early C20. A quiet shy man, he was also an intuitive utopian and self-taught polymath. Finding himself managing the dysfunctional underground railways in London, he proceeded to amalgamate, design and build the complex integrated mass transportation system that London has today.
What really impressed us about Pick was his absolute commitment to employing the best contemporary art, design and architecture. Pick believed that great art and design can transform every area of our lives and make them better and more enjoyable. He didn’t think art was ever an “add-on”, he believed it was at the centre of everything we care about. He also understood the creative potential in making a total-work-of-art that includes everything around us. This gave his vision great coherence and consistency.
Pick established the universally recognised bar and circle logo as well as the iconic Tube map designed by Harry Beck. In 1915 he commissioned the ground-breaking type-face by Edward Johnston that is still in use across the network today. He commissioned posters from the best artist’s of his day including Paul Nash, Man Ray, and Moholy Nagy, and he commissioned the leading modernist Charles Holden to design fifty stations, plus numerous bus garages, and other infrastructure.
Pick understood right from the beginning that London Transport was or should become a network, and he knew that if he couldn’t make it intelligible it wouldn’t work properly for people and it wouldn’t be able to expand as the city grew. By making London Transport visible as a unified network to its users he made it comprehensible and properly functional.
As artists we identify strongly with Pick’s aim. Nearly all of our work is about making structures, networks and the human and the social relationships they embody visible at every level. This is partly because we see travelling as communication. It enacts relationships between people, places, and cultures so that the exchange of ideas, activities and experiences takes place. Today more than ever, everything is in flux. Persistent transience is the defining characteristic of our time.
Searching for inspiration we were looking through Pick’s writings in the archive of the London Transport Museum when we suddenly spotted 4 pairs of words scrawled in the margin of his lecture notes: Beauty < Immortality, Utility < Perfection, Goodness < Righteousness, Truth < Wisdom. We immediately recognised they encapsulated Pick’s vision and intentions with the brevity and precision of a scientific equation. They are a clear attempt to reduce what he believed in, and what he was trying to do, to the absolute essential minimum, to understand and describe the path of transformation, of everyday qualities into eternal values, that can be achieved through great art and design.
Memorials can take many forms but they’re there to encourage people to stop for a minute and think…to give pause to reflect about something or someone we think is important. Of course importance is a relative term, which is why memorials are often contested. We don’t believe memorials should be didactic and tell people what to think. They should be part of the process of learning, and they should be beautiful. In this case we wanted to give Pick back his voice, so we have installed his words in monumental bronze letters of the Johnston typeface he commissioned on the marble wall at Piccadilly together with a huge new enamel roundel emanating light, and bearing his name.
If the installation awakens people’s curiosity to discover who Frank Pick was, why we owe him so much, and whether we still have something to learn from the values that drove him it will be worthwhile, to understand that by transforming our surroundings we can transform our lives.
Langlands & Bell