Pictured above: Some of the volunteers: Bridget Kelly, Jose Nicolson, Pip Rowlandson, Sophie Mack-Smith, Daljit Rai, Lou Dossett, Suzanne Garben, Anne Tyson, Gabriele Trinczek and Judith Perle
All photos by Corin Ashleigh Brown
Founder of the London School of Mosaic (LSoM) David Tootill long believed there was an opportunity to install a significant piece of mosaic art at London Bridge. Now his dream is finally becoming a reality.
By Catherine Rose
Listen to Catherine Rose narrate her feature:
A Thousand Streams, a 57-metre long (76-square metres in total) mosaic mural, is set to be installed within Station Approach at the new London Bridge Railway Station by spring 2024. The first panels were put in place in April 2023.
David Tootill has collaborated with Network Rail for about 10-15 years and spoke to London Bridge Station Surface Manager Richard Timmin about the possibility of a mosaic installation there. Richard was enthusiastic. Historical brickwork at the station had been damaged when the Shard was built, leaving a “conservation deficit”. He wanted to bring history back into the station and return it to being a public space. This aligned with David’s belief that the area be “civilised and decorated” to represent the community through “architecture’s most expressive surface”.
With an overall theme of “Inclusion, Diversity and Equality”, David and LSoM Director Dr Silvie Jacobi put out a competitive brief to artists and designers. Both felt it was important to convey the untold stories of local people in all their cultural and ethnic variety.
The winning designer was dynamic architect and self-confessed Londonphile Adam Nathaniel Furman.
Using the universal language of abstract design, Adam tackled the brief with his foundational idea: “Within a river, a thousand streams”. Consequently, the andamento of the design reflects not only the many people moving in and out of London Bridge Station on a daily basis, but also the flow of the River Thames itself, represented by continuous curved lines that come together in harmonious unity. Geometric shapes within the design respond to local architecture and landmarks.
Adam has always had an interest in mosaic and, in 2010, went on a pilgrimage to see the manufacture of smalti tiles, so he already had an appreciation of its history.
“I read the brief and learned as much as possible about the school,” says Adam. “It was nice to combine architecture with a longstanding interest in mosaic. I’ve never had an opportunity to work with mosaic artists before.”
Coincidentally, his first project at architectural school was a study of London Bridge. “It is Europe’s biggest and oldest commuter station,” says Adam.
He first had to understand the requirements and limits of the project and design from there. The mosaic is based on 21mm flows using 20mm vitreous glass tiles in rainbow hues, which form the context and building blocks of the design. Adam has also used some smaller tiles for texture.
Project managers Suzanne Garben and Jo Lewis, both diploma graduates of LSoM, then came on board to technically realise Adam’s concept, working from an initial A4 design to meticulously plan the best method by which to implement it.
The result is that there are 50 different mosaic panels, each made up of a maximum of 20 sections. The panels average 1.1m by 1.4m, which put together measure 57 metres long.
Prismatic design drawings using Adam’s 28 colours line the wall of the LSoM studio. Numbered back-to-front, Adam’s designs are printed onto brown paper in reverse. These patterns are then filled with the corresponding tesserae.
The finished assembled panel is applied to the wall with adhesive, after which the backing paper is removed so that the design is revealed the right way around.
Tiles have been sourced from Italy, Mexico and China mainly through Mosaic Workshop. Colour and design consistency has been paramount, which has been challenging.
“Supply chains are not operating brilliantly. Sometimes we’ve had to find substitutions,” says Jo.
Adam is known for his colourful aesthetic; consequently, the panels are vibrant, providing much-needed colour to a uniformly grey concrete area of London Bridge. They will be mounted along a wall that divides pedestrians from the bus station.
At the moment, fabrication of the panels is ongoing by around 40 volunteers with a core team of 15-20 regulars. They have been guided and “assiduously supervised” by Suzanne and Jo.
Volunteers at work on the installation of the first panels
Once the sections are put together, they are assessed for a match in colour and line. There is a constant correction process. Ongoing conversation within the fabricating team is encouraged with a WhatsApp group for feedback and tips.
“It’s been a great teaching exercise,” explains Suzanne. “People love to be part of a large project.”
It is estimated that 21 million people annually will walk past and see the finished mosaic.
“There’s a deep tradition in England for mosaics. It’s the noble companion of nature,” explains David. “In Ancient Egypt, 95% of all public buildings were covered in art. Now we’ve reached an all-time low.”
This sorry state of affairs is balanced, however, by a burgeoning optimism. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York already has a good public mosaic programme and the LSoM team is hoping this will be echoed in the UK with many more public spaces ripe for artistic uplifts.
“This is about a renaissance of mosaic,” says Adam. “It’s for everyone. It’s been proved that people feel better in decorated spaces. Art takes you out of yourself. I think this is a benchmark project for what can be done all over the country.”
Serendipitously, a series of Roman mosaics, part of a Roman villa, has just been unearthed following excavations near the station. David is hoping that these can be displayed in context next to the contemporary mosaic.
Project funding has come from the Arts Council, Southwark Council, Network Rail (who will maintain the wall) and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Oral Histories. In tandem with the project, David is recording the life stories of nearly 1,000 young people. These stories will go into Southwark Archives as a much-needed chronicle of the diverse population in the area. There will also be a plaque and QR codes will be incorporated into the design to enable viewers to access the varied histories and discover information about people linked to the project.A book and a film are both in the offing. Local director Elliot Kennedy, who has been filming at LSoM for three to four years, will undertake this, and the book will be a collaboration written by around 10-15 project contributors chaptering the design, fabrication and installation of the mosaic.
Currently in the process of expanding its facilities, there is no doubt that LSoM has stayed true to its ethos that “mosaic is for everyone”, while at the same time providing a “high-quality addition to the built environment”.
Project managers Jo Lewis and Suzanne Garben have found the project to be a unique one due to both the size of the mosaic and the fact that the fabrication team, being volunteers, have varying experience and ability as mosaic makers. Whilst preserving the integrity of this being a handmade project, which is important to its core values of community and inclusion, there was also a need to ensure a high-quality finish and a level of consistency across an enormously large work. They have several tips to help achieve this aim:
Initial discussions with the artist regarding the design and how it would be fabricated were important. The work was specifically designed to incorporate 20mm tiles with a 1mm grout space, the basic unit of the work being 21mm. This early understanding between the designer and the fabricators has proven to be fundamental to the look and making of the work.
Before fabrication began, Suzanne and Jo worked out a detailed andamento style and method of working that could be taught to volunteers with different levels of experience and was easy to replicate. The volunteers are encouraged to learn the house style whilst also being given the freedom to come up with solutions as they work on the design. The volunteers discuss any issues that arise as they work, creating a self-made font of knowledge.
The panels are worked on in sections of approximately 400x400mm. Volunteers work on different sections, often completing each other’s work and, in this way, many hands are involved in each panel. For this reason, once the sections are placed together and a panel is complete, no one person’s hand is apparent in the work and an overall consistency is maintained without the loss of the human scale and hand-made quality for which they’re striving.
The London Bridge Mosaic Project