Why has London Bridge station been shortlisted for an architectural prize?

London Bridge station has been shortlisted for the Riba Stirling architects prize. The jury said its “impressive” new concourse had “significantly improved the experience of those who use it daily”. That’s nonsense, says The Spectator’s Wiki Man, Rory Sutherland:

In the shadow of the Shard, not far from Borough Market, is a £1 billion public artwork, an allegorical sculpture entitled ‘What is wrong with the world today’ by the reclusive wunderkind Netwór Krail. It was officially unveiled by the Duke of Cambridge last year.

The reason you may not have read about this monumental piece is that most of the press coverage failed to notice this structure was a landmark in experiential art. They mostly used its banal official name: the new London Bridge station.

Next time you visit this ‘station’, I urge you to appreciate this installation for what it really is — a brilliant, scathing commentary on the modern age. It artfully combines spectacular engineering and technological achievement with an overweening disregard for the everyday comforts of those who use it. Were Brian Sewell alive, it would have awakened him to the greatness of conceptual art.

Like all great artists, Krail relishes contradictions. So he has improved much of the original station and it would be churlish not to applaud the brio with which, through canny use of engineering, he has improved its banausic aspects. More trains flow through it, thanks to additional platforms and tracks. There are more and larger entrances to a huge and awe-inspiring concourse from which parallel banks of escalators whisk the viewing public heavenwards to platforms above. All this is tremendous.

But just as you are thinking maybe this is £1 billion well spent, Krail plays a masterstroke. The building exploits a spectacular wind-tunnel effect, so that in winter it is easily the coldest place west of the Urals. The near-complete absence of comfortable seating is a necessary safety measure, since any passengers who stopped moving would soon die of exposure.

Perhaps to remind passengers of the wall between Israel and Gaza, Krail has ingeniously installed a line of ticket gates arbitrarily dividing the lower concourse in two, so you can experience the alienation of apartheid by being allowed to use some shops and not others. Kafkaesque information screens supply information on departures from only some parts of the station.

And in a perfect catch-22, Krail makes you go through the ticket barrier to learn whether you have time to use the lavatories before your train leaves, only to find you are on the wrong side of the barrier to reach them. Also in evidence is the artist’s usual satirical take on early 21st-century capitalism, in the form of luxury goods retailers selling things no commuter has ever needed. (‘I know we’ve run out of X, but Oliver Bonas was closed,’ said nobody, ever.)

And good luck finding anywhere to put your £3.20 coffee. Krail’s legendary hatred of horizontal surfaces is reminiscent of Mondrian’s refusal to use green: his earlier experimental work for Thameslink — ‘Disorientation’ — involved installing wifi on the trains but then providing no seatback tables, rendering the whole thing effectively useless.

Krail’s work exhibits a kind of genius. For it shows it is possible to spend £1 billion while completely failing to achieve the most basic function of a building — to provide a pleasant and comfortable space for the people who use it. As a metaphor, it is astonishingly powerful. Especially as it would cost no more than a few million pounds to put right.

Krail continues to ensure that two trains a day unaccountably run non-stop to somewhere called High Brooms without stopping at Sevenoaks or Tonbridge. ‘Netwór believes it’s important to awaken the traveller from his bourgeois complacency,’ a publicist explains.

This article was first published in May 2018