Aleppo at King's Cross

London, UK – 2017

Aleppo at King’s Cross is a permanent commission for the Tapestry Building at King’s Cross. The work is by the acclaimed artist Tess Jaray. Aleppo at King’s Cross is a monumental ‘wall sculpture’ in pale pink, white and dark purples, with a distinctive geometric form carved into six symmetrical panels. This commission is part of The King’s Cross Project, a three-year programme of art commissions for the buildings and public spaces at King’s Cross.

Wakefield Cathedral Precinct

Wakefield, UK – 1992

 Wakefield Cathedral Precinct is a bold and imaginative city centre landscape scheme which has brought together Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, artist Tess Jaray and the Church.

Wakefield Cathedral is surrounded by busy shopping streets. Early in the 1970s the shopping streets were pedestrianized predominantly with concrete slabs which by the late 80s had broken up under the increasing weight of delivery vehicles and heavy pedestrian use. Rather than embark on short-term , piecemeal repairs, Wakefield decided on total replacement with materials equal to the demands of such heavy use.

Wary of the stereotyping which can blight many pedestrian schemes, Wakefield went an imaginative step further, by commissioning an artist to create a design concept unique to the site. Tess Jaray was a natural choice for the role and her close collaboration with engineers from Wakefield’s Transportation and Engineering department has produced a new public space of distinction and quality. 

Jaray set out to integrate the cathedral with its surrounding shopping streets, creating a physical and aesthetic unity between the various elements. At the heart of the scheme was the creation of three magnificent paved terraces along the cathedral’s south side, removing the old boundaries between town and cathedral. The terraces are physically linked to each other, to the cathedral and to surrounding streets by a series of Yorkshire steps to match the cathedral fabric.

One of the most crucial visual links united all the elements is created by the buff and blue decorative paving which reflects the mellow tones of the cathedral’s Yorkshire fabric and the slate blue of its windows and roof.

Design motifs inspired by the cathedral also play a crucial role. The cross in the motif is the terrace paving, different in scale on each level, to give added visual interest, a degree of orientation and a subtle modulation to the whole, whilst retaining the colour link to the cathedral. The cross is created in Wakefield buff against Harlech Blue and in the surrounding streets a basic design of three blue pavers contrasted on a background of buff herringbone bond makes a discrete reference to the trinity.

The cohesive design approach is carried through into the double cruciform Yorkstone planters and the street furniture which is painted in slate blue to harmonise with the overall scheme.

Extract from The Planner No.42A-48 1992

Arts Council of Great Britain Roof Terrace

London, UK – 1991

This terrace was commissioned by Lord Palumbo, Chairman of the Arts Council as his gift to the ACGB.

It is outside the Chairman’s office on the fifth floor of the Arts Council Headquarters in Great Peter Street, Westminster, and commands an exquisite ‘roofscape’ and panoramic view of London dominated by Westminster Abbey.

The original terrace was almost unusable, just bare concrete and some timber trellis- work. It had to be completely reshaped and rebuilt from scratch, both for structural reasons and in order to create a place that was appropriate and integrated with its surroundings.

The paving is made from green Kirkstone Slate and a creamy Spanish stone Bianca Lorca, which was also used for the copings. The railings are grey-green painted steel with a bronze handrail. The paving and railings are designed to complement each other, and the design incorporates elements of architectural, ecclesiastic and Islamic motifs that I have used in my work for a number of years.

This was very much a collaborative project, involving not just artists, but architect, project manager, roofers, stone masons, builders, metal workers, etc.

Centenary Square

Birmingham, UK – 1991

Bullied, polluted and throttled for decades by the city’s obsession with traffic flow, the people of Birmingham are at last re-emerging from their subway-ridden oppression. Having suffered the tyranny of the Inner Ring Road ever since it was hatched in the post-war period they now find that the planners are attempting to release them from its coils. Nowhere more spectacular than in the re-modelled Centenary square: an immense open space dedicated to the pedestrian rather than the car.

Discovering such an unexpected sanctuary in the heart of this beleaguered city is a tonic. It’s aptly named Paradise Bridge has been flung over the road which once so noisily divided Centenary Square from the Victorian stateliness of the area around the town hall and art gallery. Astounding pedestrians, it is reserved for them alone as they walk, in unaccustomed serenity towards an expanse of richly patterned paving in brick, designed by the artist Tess Jaray. Quiet yet rigorous, its rhythm is first asserted outside the Hall of Memory, erected soon after the first world war and guarded by bronze figures redolent of heroism, vigilance and grief.

Jaray’s sinuous lines, honouring the Birmingham tradition of red and blue brick in its buildings, curve round the Hall like concentric rings spreading outwards from a momentous splash. They gently take command of our feet, leading them round the Hall and towards the arena where the main part of her pavement has been installed.

It unrolls in front of us with the steady, unforced authority of an oriental carpet. Rippling at the edges, its design grows in complexity as it approached the centre of the Square. Alternating sections animated by zig-zags, and bands filled with lozenge of colour, it pushes forward a drive as irresistible as a powerful mosaic floor running up a cathedral nave.

But Jaray never allows the sense of exultation to lose sight of a human scale. This is a pavement softly attuned to the needs of the individual walker, and the figures appear reassuringly at home as they negotiate the individual components of the pattern she has devised.

The colours accentuate the air of welcome it offers. On a dry, warm day the overall hue is reminiscent of terracotta, interspersed with pale mustard, parched ochre, sun-baked orange and a refreshing use of darker, blue-tinged elements. It serves memories of dusty Renaissance piazzas, and Jaray acknowledges that Italy has provided her with indispensable sources of inspiration.

At Centenary Square, however, she was allowed to design light fittings, benches and even litter-bins as well as the pavement itself. These structures, in elegant yet sturdy iron-work, indicate her respect for the still surviving Victorian street furniture elsewhere in the city. But they also possess a lightness of touch and a leaning towards simplification, which identify them as late 20th century in feeling. They certainly chime with the sensibility enlivening the pavement, and also provide congenial surroundings for the water sculpture produced by Tom Lomax.

How did a painter of her calibre manage to secure such a monumental and all-embracing civic commission? Jaray had previously proved her aptitude for multi-dimensional design by producing the plum-coloured terrazzo concourse at Victoria Station, and a decorative brickwork floor for Stoke-on-Trent Garden Festival.

Richard Cork, 1991, "Second City Finds It's Feet", The Times

Victoria Station Concourse

London, UK – 1985

 The imaginative commuter must be touched by the awkward pathos of Victoria Station. An employees' war memorial, for instance, set in the wall by the Casey Jones Burger Bar, was decorated today by a posy of flowers set in a Travellers Fare polystyrene beaker. Novelists and script-writers have felt the station's grubby romance and mourned, a little mockingly, the passing of its supposedly splendid past.

Arnold Bennett‘s Edwin Clayhanger thought he saw the magnificence. He found Victoria 'unstrenuous, soft [with] none of the busy harshness of the Midlands; it spoke of pleasure, relaxation of spending free from all worry and humiliation of getting. Everybody… came with an assured air of wealth and dominion.' But this comfortable vision has always been difficult to sustain. Victoria never displayed the unalloyed, unified grandeur of the great termini - of St Pancras, for example, or old Euston. For most of its history since 1860, indeed, it has been not one but two stations, adjoining but operationally separate, each run by a rival railway company. From the west station ran the Brighton line – where Jack Worthing was found, in a handbag, in what is now the ticket office – and from the east, the Chatham line.

Each half had, and still has, its architectural splendours. The west side has JT Knowles’ ‘frenchified’ Grosvenor Hotel of 1860; the east, Sir John Fowler‘s glass roof of 1862, an airy perspective of cross-braced segmental trusses underhung by delicate sunburst lattices of struts and ties. But until the turn of this century the northern facades of the stations, facing the present bus station, were tumbledown timber hoardings. These were replaced by sumptuous piles of rosy brick and Portland stone, the more lushly imperial being Sir Reginald Blornfield's eastern wing of 1908: all cornucopia, swags and mermaids 'contemplating well-parted bosoms'. The two concourses must then have looked their best: each like a spacious city square, roofed in glass, and surrounded by facades resembling prosperous banks.

The architectural zenith lasted only a few years. The First World War imposed great strain on both stations: by October 1918, for instance, 7,500 men travelled daily through them to and from the Front. Then, in 1923, the nationwide railway amalgamations enforced a shotgun marriage between the two rival companies, and thus the two stations. Through their party wall, for instance, was grudgingly breached the wretchedly inadequate mousehole which still connects them. The overall result or the union was the ill-joined pair of concourses, architectural Siamese twins, which now comprises Victoria Station: no pleasure to look at or to use.

Nationalisation, and competition from road and air traffic, hastened the deterioration. Withdrawn one by one were the great expresses – the Orient to Istanbul, the Tauern to Split, and the Golden Arrow to Paris: even the Brighton Belle was forced to take her last naughty weekend. The granite-lined pavements and cobbled cab-runs were coated in asphalt, and cables and pipes crept over the opulent internal facades like undergrowth over a ruin. Much more recently, on the eastern side, sprang up a hardboard slum of quick-snack stands and ticket-collector shacks, surmounted by a huge train indicator and Transalpino advertisement which together conceal Fowler's great vaults. Into the west concourse, similarly, oafish huts were thrown up which now house WH Smith and British Caledonian. 

John Betjeman, incorrigibly tolerant of the picturesque, called it all 'a rather happy sort of muddle'. Certainly, if one stands on an asphalt floor sticky with split Coke and discarded chips, it is not too fanciful to be reminded of those Piranesi prints where medieval novels cower beneath the vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius and cattle graze in the ruins of the Forum.

Until last year, that is. The station’s prestige and usefulness began to revive with the opening in 1969 of the Victoria tube line, and were further enhanced, very recently, by a privately-run reincarnation of the Orient Express and accelerated service which now makes Gatwick the most convenient of London’s airports. To provide a more fitting and revenue-attracting setting for these developments, two enthusiastic Southern Region architects Ian Hurst and Nigel Wakeley, have made splendidly bold plans. The indicator boards, now obscuring the roofs, are to be relocated; the opening between the two halves of the station is to be doubled in size; and, most important, the two concourses are to be cleared of their hovels and asphalt, and completely repaved.

Tess Jaray was commissioned to design the paving. She has made two designs, appropriately reminiscent (from Victoria one once travelled directly to the Near East [sic] and indirectly to India) of Islamic tile work and marquetry. Both are simple patterns of dihedral symmetry: for the more or less square concourse, a huge flower-like device symmetric about 14 radial axes; and for the more elongated east concourse, a linear motif, looking a little like sugar tongs, symmetric about just one axis. The family resemblances of the two patterns will help to unify the two concourses since they will be visible from each other through the enlarged east-west opening.

It is too early to comment on the flower pattern, which has not yet begun on site, but the sugar-tong motif is three-quarters complete, enough for the problems confronting the artist to be appreciated and her solution enjoyed. It certainly looks very handsome and at home in its setting, seeming – as the artist intended – to have been there for years. Jaray simply went to Victoria and drew alternatives until a design emerged that appeared ‘right’; she is not disposed to analyse the reasons for its success. And no wonder. Art criticism is inclined to write a yard of text about every foot of canvas, flogging the poor artwork within an inch of its life. Even so, Jaray conjures such richness from so meagre a formal vocabulary that it is worth wondering how she does it.

This is not quite her first commission to make art in a public place. In 1984 she produced a set of brickwork bonds, not executed, for walling and vaulting another station. But her works until now have been almost entirely small-scale and graphic (drawings, paintings and prints), making use of a remarkably narrow range of forms. A typical Jaray work may be described as a rectangular ground within which floats a ruled symmetrical pattern of a dozen or so interlocking polygons. The angularity of the form is softened by her use of gentle colours and enlivened by a slight illusion of movement. At Victoria Jaray uses this formula again but on a larger scale.

For this gesture of Renaissance at Victoria, the floor material is of Roman origin: terrazzo. Into a hard-wearing cement paste is mixed an aggregate of marble chips; when dry, the surface is ground several times to a fine gloss. The result is easy to clean and looks vaguely edible, like nougat or Italian sweetmeats and just as varied. Combinations of different cement pigments and types of marble give a wide choice of hue and tone. At Victoria, as in other terminals from Charing Cross to Waverley most of the terrazzo is being laid in foot-square tiles of pale cream; tillers call them ‘biscuits’.

The cream picks up the colour of the Portland stone which decorates the window and door openings in the surrounding internal facades. Into this cream base Jaray has inlaid a pattern of tiled lozenges, also in the soft warm hues of the facades. The terrazzo of the lozenges is of grey chippings in a bluish terracotta paste, echoing the wall’s granite base. And each lozenge is framed by a narrow strip of marmalade colour: pink chippings in an orange paste, recalling the predominant brickwork of the walls.

As for the pattern itself, Jaray’s first problem was that what would ideally have been a rectangular concourse, symmetric about the central colonnade supporting the glass vaults is in fact neither symmetric in operation nor regular in plan. The shotgun marriage of the two stations, combined with the westerly location of the taxi-rank, ticket office and tube line vomitory, all mean that the eastern platforms tend to be approached not axially from the north but from the west. In plan, too, the eastern concourse is robbed of symmetry by the diagonal wing of building which clips off its north-east corner to follow the historical line of Wilton Road. The irregularity of the plan area would discourage any designer from a floor pattern following the facades like the border of a carpet. The opposite strategy is to treat the concourse as simply the ground on which a pattern may be floated as a self-contained figure, well away from the edge. In adopting it Jaray followed the precedent of the patterns in her paintings and prints which since the 1960s have withdrawn from the edge of the canvas and paper, towards the centre.

To recognise that the concourse’s operational and geometric centre of gravity is west of the central colonnade, while acknowledging that the train shed is basically a pure rectangle, Jaray uses another device recurrent in her work: regular distortion of the grid into quasi perspectivity. Thus, just as the pattern’s colour mirrors the surrounding walls, its form recalls the lattice perspective of the glass roof above. On the floor an irreducibly simple pattern is notionally established: a regular quadrilateral lattice. This is set on the diagonal, like sugar tongs (as has been mentioned) or cloth cut on the bias, to enclose the lozenges and disengage the pattern further from the orthogonal axes of the architectural surround.

The interval of the grid is then successively diminished along just its east-west axis, roughly according to a Fibonacci series. So the lozenges themselves gradually diminish. One happy effect of the diminishing of this interval along one axis is that the straight-line segments between the lozenges combine surprisingly to describe a range of swirling spiral curves. Another is that, despite the pattern’s simplicity, among the total 23 lozenges there are 15 of distinct size and shape; Jaray hopes that passengers, consciously or not, might be drawn to stand on specific lozenges with the scale and proportion with which they feel affinity.

A third effect is only credible if, like me, you subscribe to the slightly comic theory that architectural form tends to impel people about a building like balls in a pinball machine. Because the sugar-tongs’ western lozenges have their long axis east-west, whereas the eastern ones point north-south, the pattern reflects the predominant axis of pedestrian movement: perpendicular to the platforms in the western half, parallel to them in the eastern, and static in the waiting area. The diminishment lends the pattern the illusion of increased perspective which, like those increasingly close white lines which warn the motorist to decelerate, here at Victoria slows down the eastward impetus of the passenger and deflects him away from the diagonal facade and towards the platforms. There is even some suggestion that the lattice, like a coiled spring, is charged with more energy at its eastern end as it rebounds against the diagonal.

But Jaray has wisely not pushed any metaphor too far. For instance, she derived the lozenge lattice from a series of paintings of 1983-4. One Minaret shows in its title why the grid only diminishes on one axis, not both: the pattern is imagined to be not on a plane surface but wrapped round a cylindrical one. Were the projection mathematically true, however, the illusion of a curved surface would disturb the poise of both Jaray's pictures and Victoria's commuters. Instead. Two devices are used which counter the illusion.

One is that the interval of diminishment, though based on a geometric series, is only approximate. It is chosen partly to appear intuitively right and partly to fit a convenient module: at Victoria, that of the tile. In paintings presumably that of the squaring-up grid. The second device is that although the lozenges diminish as they appear to fold round the cylinder and recede, the width of the lattice which separates them and of the inner band which frames each one does not diminish (as it would in true perspective) but instead remains constant.

The pattern thus appears firmly and respectfully parallel to the floor plan but not unequivocally part of it. In Jaray‘s pictures, as in this floor, the interlocking polygons of which they are composed float in the middle of the picture. Typically they do not directly adjoin each other but, like bricks by mortar, are separated by bands – of the same colour as the picture‘s background. Much depends on the width of these bands When they are broad relative to the enclosed polygon, the polygons appear as regularly spaced figures on the picture’s ground like motifs on a sparse wallpaper: by implication the polygons, being figures, appear to project slightly in from of the picture plane.

When in the pictures the bands are narrow, the polygons coalesce into a single crystalline motif – a single figure, usually symmetric about its short axis, on the picture’s ground, also projecting by implication slightly in front of it. But the appearance is not constant. For the single motif is so large relative to the lattice of hands that as one observes it the motif, hitherto the projecting figure, flips to become the receding ground against which is seen the projecting lattice of bands. 

As the spectator oscillates between the two or more contradictory spatial interpretations open to him the surfaces of the works appear alternately to recede or advance, inducing in them a lively vibrance. This is particularly noticeable at Victoria where the diminishing interval of a lattice, combined with its constant width means that the band/lozenge area ratio changes as the eye sweeps across the floor. The pattern shimmers, the colours dissolve, and the line, as Lady Bracknell said, is immaterial.

Victoria Arrayed, Philip Tabor