Nearly four years late and costing around £19bn, London’s east-west Crossrail project is finally (almost fully) open for business. Now known as the Elizabeth Line in honor of HM’s platinum anniversary, it is an engineering feat, drilling through central London to connect Heathrow Airport and Reading in Berkshire in the west with Abbey Wood in south-east London and Shenfield in Essex to the east, with 10 brand new stations and a suitably royal purple presence on the new subway map.
Yet these grandiose statistics tend to overshadow the fact that the Elizabeth Line has also been accompanied by the most ambitious commissioning of permanent public works of art in London in at least a century. And this is not just art as a starter or final embellishment: in both cases, the work was developed by a leading contemporary artist alongside the design of the building and in close collaboration with Crossrail engineers and architects. In many cases, they also refer directly to a station’s location in the city, as well as the communities it will serve.
Chantal Joffe has lived in East London for many years and her 2-metre-high portraits made of laser-cut aluminum for the platform walls of Elizabeth Line’s Whitechapel station are inspired by her Sunday wanderings among the cosmopolitan crowds that roam the streets and markets around the displace station – a neighborhood that has been home to many of London’s migrant communities for centuries.
“Whitechapel is a vibrant, beautiful diverse area full of people and with an incredible atmosphere,” says Joffe. She adds that she “wants the art in the station to connect the underground with the above ground and the feeling of Whitechapel as a bustling inner city. It is very important that you feel that vibrancy very strongly.”
Sonia Boyce, who currently represents Britain at the Venice Biennale, also grew up in London’s East End and her series of color-printed panels stretching along the track in Newham feature over 170 illustrated stories collected from local people of all ages and backgrounds.
Newham Trackside Wall is Boyce’s first public artwork, stretching for nearly 2km along the tracks of the Elizabeth Line in east London as they wind through the capital’s former docklands. It is one of the tallest works of art in the UK and bears witness to Boyce’s view of the harbor as “the gateway to Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world”. Many of the stories it tells testify to the countless communities and their goods that have lived in and passed through the port areas during its often eventful history.
The gigantic artificial cloudscape that Spencer Finch created for Paddington Station’s 2,300-square-foot glass roof brings together more than 30 different types of clouds that would never naturally appear at the same time, replicated in frit paint made from broken glass. These range from the thickest cumulonimbus to the lightest wispy cirrus and work in tandem with the real clouds outside.
This cloudy canopy is partly inspired by John Constable’s Sky series, visual documentation of his ‘skying’ expeditions on Hampstead Heath, not far from Paddington (with a layover at King’s Cross). Finch says his work “exists both as an artificial cloudscape and as a tribute to the British obsession with categorizing and systematizing the most fugitive natural phenomena”.
At Farringdon station, Simon Periton evokes the area’s history as the center of the British jewelery trade, digitally printing huge images of precious stones onto the illuminated glass panels of the interior walls lining the western ticket hall.
There is more passenger movement in Israeli artist Michal Rovner’s work for Canary Wharf. Here, a large video screen shows repeated rows of silhouetted figures, moving along different levels of horizontal and oblique lines in a composition inspired by the station’s dramatic architecture. “I’ve always been fascinated by human movements in time and space and the continuous flow of people moving from one place to another,” she says. “I hope my work in this place, seen by millions of people, will remind them that the time they take for granted, going from one place to another, and the space in between, actually makes a lot of sense.”
Bond Street station isn’t expected to open until later this year, but when that happens, Darren Almond’s abstract field of fragmented numbers, cast in a grid of 144 aluminum panels above the main staircases, will also play into the traveler’s experience of hectic schedules and daily routines.
Passengers descending to the Elizabeth Line will also encounter two more of Almond’s giant metal signs declaring: Reflect from your shadow and From under the glacier, which offer more philosophical musings on departure, arrival, and deep geological time. As he puts it: “We’re in those layers and literally come out from under the glacier. What could be more dramatic than being reminded that your physical presence here, right now, is only made possible by traversing geological time itself?’
Douglas Gordon evokes a more personal history for the Dean Street ticket hall of Tottenham Court Road with a new film work based on his memories of his walk through Soho’s red light district in the late 1980s, when he first came to London. came from his native Glasgow to study at the Slade School of Art. “I used to walk around that neighborhood like a little Scot, just looking at things outside — because I was too nervous to go in,” he says. Gordon’s film is still being edited at the time of writing, but will soon be broadcast to surrounding streets.
The other work for Tottenham Court Road is a geometric wall drawing by Richard Wright in gold leaf. One of Wright’s few permanent pieces, it extends over the concrete ceiling above the escalators, providing a subtly shifting experience for ascending and descending travelers with the artist in the hopes that “it will provide a moment of preoccupation or deceleration, and that perhaps from your peripheral vision you could concern yourself with this space.”
While all these works are already on site, Liverpool Street Station is still awaiting two outdoor works. Conrad Shawcross’s serpentine bronze sculpture, which gives physical expression to a musical chord “falling into silence”, will be installed in public spaces at the station’s Moorgate entrance later this year.
And Yayoi Kusama’s interconnected steel spheres will descend on a downward motion outside the eastern ticket hall of the station in 2023. “London is a huge metropolis with people of all cultures constantly on the move,” says Kusama. “The spheres symbolize unique personalities, while the supporting curvilinear lines allow us to envision an underlying social structure.”
Even if there are still a few additions to be made, given Crossrail’s bumpy ride, the fact that all these complex, carefully considered public works have come to fruition – or will come – could give Londoners a welcome moment of pride. Everyone on board!