Coal Drops Yard, London
In an era of ‘click to buy’, it takes something exciting to tempt shoppers out onto the streets. Coal Drops Yard, London’s newest retail hotspot, is it
In an era of ‘click to buy’, it takes something exciting to tempt shoppers. This new retail hotspot is it
When you step into London’s Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, you’re greeted with a rather wonderful sight. Against a backdrop of Victorian cast-iron gasholders – which now contain high-spec apartments – emerge two curved roofs, meeting in the middle of the buildings they cover, as if pulled together by an invisible force.
The force is that of architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick ( below right), and his studio, which has woven its contemporary style into the existing fabric of the properties. The two modernised coal drop structures reach out and touch each other after 168 years of separation, covering a central area around which sits a curated edit of shops – from iconic brands to emerging names – as well as enticing restaurants, cafés and bars.
‘My studio has been based in King’s Cross for nearly 20 years and I’ve lived here for almost 17 – regenerating this location was an enormous responsibility,’ Heatherwick says. With the initial brief envisaging something more akin to a shopping mall, the discussion then turned to the idea of bridges to connect the buildings. ‘ We had these two sticks like broken Kitkat fingers that didn’t necessarily have any centrality,’ he continues. ‘The challenge was to create a heart that would glue everything together.’
The buzz phrase here is ‘industrial luxury’. The redevelopment of King’s Cross is in its 18th year, led by developer Argent, which is transforming the 67 acres ( big enough to warrant a new postcode: N1C) into a hip hotspot, with a bill so far totalling £3 billion.
Built in 1851 and 1860, the original coal drops structures were the end of the line for the expanse of railway that had just started spreading across the country – trains carrying coal from the north
of England would be driven into the upper level of the buildings, dropping their cargo to ground level where it would be collected and delivered by horse and cart across the capital. ‘There’s a magic in these buildings,’ says Heatherwick. ‘ You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians – this is their version of an Ikea warehouse.’
Falling into disrepair after being used for storing goods from the late 1800s, the site became home to legendary nightclubs Bagley’s and The Cross, popular venues for ravers of the 1990s – traces of the clubs’ brightly painted interior bricks have been preserved on the new site. A big chunk of the eastern coal drop had been burned out, meaning that the roof needed to be replaced. It was this necessity that prompted the idea of using the roof itself to form a central element, as well as adding a third level.
With the eastern coal drop the same length as St Paul’s Cathedral, this was a colossal project. ‘ We put the equivalent of a stadium roof onto the existing buildings,’ says Morwenna Hall, chief operating officer and director at Argent, who has overseen the project for the past seven years. The team inserted columns through the buildings to support the weight of the enlarged roof, which was covered with 80,000 Welsh slate tiles, taken from the same quarry the originals were sourced from in the 1850s. Lefthanded slaters were employed especially to do one half of it. ‘It’s been a really unique project – hundreds of people have contributed, and the artisanal work has been extraordinary,’ continues Hall.
‘Coal Drops Yard is about enriching, delighting and uniting,’ explains Craig White, senior project director at Argent. ‘It’s not about consumption, it’s about offering a lovely experience.’ The team met more than 1,200 brands in its bid to create an innovative shopping experience, and the result is a joyous mix of old favourites and new discoveries, the luxury as well as the affordable.
Lower Stable Street, situated off the main yard, will house 11 smaller stores with shorter leases, and students from neighbouring Central Saint Martins will be encouraged to host pop-ups there. ‘It’s an incubator for young businesses,’ says Frederique Jungman, senior project manager at Argent. The starting line-up includes Honest Jon’s record store and fashion label Ally Capellino.
Far from being a sterile, enclosed shopping centre, the progressive architecture of Coal Drops Yard is a sight to behold, a bona fide new shopping district with a unique offering – the combination of which is surely the future of retail. ‘Our interest was in making an amazing space – to us the shopping was simply an excuse for that place to exist,’ admits Heatherwick. ‘It’s really the human experience that is the critical thing – to be with your fellow humans is now more precious than ever’ (coaldropsyard.com).
‘COAL DROPS YARD IS ABOUT ENRICHING, DELIGHTING AND UNITING. IT’S NOT ABOUT CONSUMPTION, IT’S ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE’