Heatherwick Studio’s all-embracing design for a new retail hub, Coal Drops Yard in London’s King’s Cross
Heatherwick Studio brings retail curve appeal to London’s King’s Cross
It’s unusual to be offered chocolate first thing in the morning, especially on an uncharacteristically hot summer day in London. Yet today, visitors to Thomas Heatherwick’s HQ are greeted by an array of delicious-looking cocoa models of Coal Drops Yard – his studio’s latest project – vacuum-formed from 3D prints. ‘When I first saw the site’s existing buildings I thought they were like those Kitkat fingers, with a bite taken out of one, so it is shorter,’ Heatherwick offers in explanation. He is referring to the pair of long, 19th-century buildings in which coal was sorted as it arrived by train at London’s King’s Cross station from the north of England. Now Heatherwick Studio has transformed this piece of Victorian industrial engineering into a new retail hub.
Heatherwick, whose studio has been based in King’s Cross since 2002, has seen the area grow from a budding regeneration hotspot into a thriving – and still developing – community that is often used as an example of successful urban planning. Developer Argent has invested time, thought, energy and massive funds to rejuvenate the quarter. ‘They turned it into a great thing,’ says Heatherwick. ‘King’s Cross is this perfect storm of location, accessibility and beautiful place-making, with both modern architecture and historic fabric that creates a sense of place,’ says Craig White, Argent’s senior project director for retail. ‘It’s like a microcosm of the West End, fused with the elemental – water and sky.’
Coal Drops Yard is only one of Heatherwick’s projects for this vast site – his Google HQ, designed together with BIG, is still a work in progress – but it holds a special place in his heart. ‘Of the whole of this area, this is the point that is the most accessible to people, and it is also the last heritage site to be developed,’ he says.
When Argent approached Heatherwick, the developer’s plans featured two bridges and a viaduct level to connect the two buildings. Drawing on their own experience in retail with Hong Kong’s Pacific Place, team Heatherwick decided to make some changes. ‘Flow is absolutely key in this type of project,’ Heatherwick explains. ‘You want someone to move almost unthinkingly through the space, so finding the right shapes and connections was crucial.’ The existing buildings’ linearity was down to their old function, and the brief was adjusted to fit the new use.
‘We needed a third element to bring together the existing buildings as a new, single and coherent whole,’ continues Heatherwick. ‘We knew the roof needed rebuilding anyway, so we thought, could we use the roof to unite everything? English Heritage was very supportive of the solution.’ By designing a third level under two ‘kissing’ roofs, he killed two birds with one stone. The two structures were brought together, creating the all-important retail-friendly flow, while also maintaining the site’s duality.
The design offered a strong, signature shape that quickly became the project’s visual shorthand. Both
the developer and tenants were excited by the plan. ‘When the retailers sent us their interior designs, we didn’t have a single comment to make, they were all perfect right from the start,’ recalls White. ‘The fact that it was a Heatherwick building really inspired everybody and pushed them to raise the bar and follow the project’s inherent sense of place.’
The architects kept interventions to the existing structures to a minimum, retaining as much of the original brick-arched fabric as possible. The new level sits lightly on the old parts: ‘The engineers have interlaced the new roof structure with the old in such a way that, if you wanted, you could take it all off and revert to the old situation,’ says Heatherwick.
The sweeping roofs of the new construction brought a sense of fun to the site even before completion. ‘We needed left-handed roofers to work on the one side and right-handed ones for the other, as we needed to work on both sides at the same time,’ says the project leader, architect Tamsin Green. ‘There was a certain friendly rivalry among the slaters about which team did the best job.’ (Apparently, the right-handed team won.)
The complex includes four large units, which occupy the long buildings’ ends, and several smaller vaulted spaces in-between. On the Granary Square side, small arched shops recall little souk streets, and give way to a generous central piazza at the heart of the development. The scheme houses a variety of carefully selected retailers, including Paul Smith, Tom Dixon and Margaret Howell – as well as restaurants and bars. Samsung occupies the showstopping space under the roof, promising a ‘creative and digital playground’.
As a retail destination, ‘Coal Drops Yard is not just about the product’, says White. ‘It is about the human experience, and Thomas understands this and has done an outstanding job.’ The studio’s attention to detail went right down to fittings such as lift buttons. Seven distinct sets of door handles were commissioned, all especially designed to invite ‘incidental touch accumulation’, says Heatherwick.
The designers also wanted to ensure that Coal Drops Yard be an accessible space 24/7 and as welcoming as the nearby Granary Square and Lewis Cubitt Park, which are flooded with visitors as soon as the sun comes out. This suited the client perfectly. As White points out, the ambition is for this unique complex to become one of London’s most vibrant new destinations, whatever the time of day.
above and opposite, the gabled roof above each of two existing buildings rises up and stretches towards the other, meeting to form a new, single upper storey that gives the project a central focus. the glazed space provides a viewpoint over the development and the city
Above, clad in Welsh slate, the top-floor Addition sits As lightly As possible on the two 1850 structures
below, one of the storage spaces into Which coal WAS once dropped from Wagons on railway tracks Above. the brick And cast-iron Arches Will soon reopen, occupied by shops, cafés And restaurants