IMG 9153fi 800x425 - Coal Drops Yard: a critique

This week’s posts have invariably been about Coal Drops Yard (CDY) and yesterday’s report was one I enjoyed writing immensely, however it doesn’t belie the fact I still want to analyse the new development and discuss its pros and cons. I thought it would be prodigious to write an immediate follow up just in case people think I am giving it 100% in terms of ‘yes I love it.’ Yesterday I was impartial in my reports. Today I am not quite so impartial, also hopefully this is the last CDY post for a while as I feel somewhat stretched by having focused myself and my efforts on it for a good amount of time.

Coal Drops Yard is part of the new development all around the north side of King’s Cross with the Regent’s Canal bisecting the area. I am a regular visitor to the area, especially Granary Square. What I like about Granary Square is its nice and there is no pressure on anyone to go shopping or eat out at expensive places. Thus in the context of Granary Square I am not being made to feel completely out of context or even harbour a sense of uneasiness about class/rich/poor/affordability with myself being at the low end of these scales.

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A much older proposal for the Coal Drops Yard. This was before Argent commissioned Heatherwick.

I will pass through the expensive markets and the other more select parts of the area just to see what is going on, and the same goes for Coal Drops Yard. I will walk through and enjoy the sights and that will be sufficient. Of course I wont be able to enjoy the more salubrious aspects of it – but then do I want to? Even if I was suddenly given a huge wad of cash? I don’t think so. Its not for me.

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Cash machines at Coal Drops Yard. Barely used. Most of the clientele who use CDY wont want these.

I have known King’s Cross for decades and this is why I have kept tabs on it from time to time. However I think Coal Drops Yard is, on the surface of it, quite a let down in terms of the historical context. Of course we cant keep retaining every single bit of any old artifacts or historical device, we cant keep every single old building that has ever been put up, there wouldn’t be space for the new. We wouldn’t have progress and sadly we often expect the old to make way for the new.

In a lot of cases the need for the new and the desire to keep the old is a double edged sword. It often comes down to what can be kept and what should we throw away. Therefore the notion of history is one fraught with many inconsistencies. When we preserve something we are trying to retain something as it was in a perceived sense of time, even though it may not be history in terms of say, how the land itself looked or how humans once lived. The other question is what exactly is it we want to bring from the past into the present? The classic conundrum of whether a preserved locomotive (or other similar like veteran cars) is the paradox which comes to mind when it comes to preserving elements of our industrial ages. Practically every bit of the locomotive has been rebuilt, renewed many times over so in essence its a new locomotive. So its not really a history in the truest sense.

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Historic or not historic? You decide!

This is exactly the problem at CDY. We are told it is a historic site and this is what Heatherwick Studios has to say about the development and its history:

“…our challenge was to radically remodel this Victorian infrastructure to meet the needs of a modern urban development without losing what made them special,’ explains Lisa Finlay, group leader at Heatherwick studio, ‘to do this, we focused on understanding their original function and how they were adapted over time so we could appreciate how best to preserve and reuse the existing fabric, whilst also introducing new elements. one of which is an entirely free-standing new structure threaded through the historic buildings, from which a spectacular new third level is suspended.” Source.

Very little is actually said about the different historic elements of the site however the main intention behind the work was to interweave “contemporary design with historic Victorian structures, arches, streets and rich ironwork.” Source. So it seems primarily the idea was about making the site more modern without losing the historical fabric. Essentially it seems the area’s history was second fiddle. Consider the following statement…

“It is an extremely complex project, one that successfully unites the area’s heritage with Heatherwick Studio’s progressive architecture, creating stimulating spaces for both the brands and the people that will bring these buildings back to life.” Source.

We can see the impetus behind the redevelopment was perhaps not actually its history but the need to provide stimulating spaces for the businesses and the consumers. Therefore Coal Drops Yard isn’t really a historic project in the truest sense. In my view that is sad. Its akin to having this fantastic A4 Pacific locomotive, perhaps rebuilt several times but finally having all its steam tubes and firebox ripped out and replaced instead by a powerful electric motor.

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The yard level with its ultra modern look.

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28 October 2018: I found this statement made by Argent and cited in Vogue rather interesting, as well as others made by Heatherwick and Argent and these appear to be saying they are trying to cater for all sorts of people, and so I make some further observations including the mention of a new development that does the opposite of what has been done at Coal Drops Yard.

“There’s also a real focus on sustainable consumption, and a more careful approach to what consumers are willing to spend their money on, a shift towards quality and craftsmanship over volume and bargains. We don’t think there is anything like Coal Drops Yard in London already. Everything we have done at Kings Cross shows that if you invest in high quality architecture and public spaces – and work in partnership with brands – then people will come.”” Source.

Its an interesting statement. Clearly Argent (who own the site and the development) are saying the quality of the site is being balanced with people’s habits and spending power. (That is, if I have read it right.) I am not sure I have that impression, maybe I am looking at things the wrong way but then there are others (whom I have interviewed specially in terms of CDY) and also found on social media who also express the same sentiments as myself.

Perhaps there truly is a desire to balance what the site has to offer with what people can afford, again it depends on who the target audience actually is. I don’t think anyone has really said what the target audience is. Heatherwick himself has said the shop units are designed to procure affordability. In that he means the smaller units have been set in a low price range (in terms of rental I assume) which would allow, for example, university students to set up their first forays into the retail business. Heatherwick’s words on this are as follows:

“We wanted to make sure that we have units that are only 15 sq m [160 sq ft] – tiny – to allow a student graduating from [the nearby Central Saint Martins university] to be here and be given a space. There are [a range of sizes], so that we could give a variety of human experience and opportunity for the diversity that I think we all yearn for in places.” Source.

As a final aside (perhaps adding to the confusion) Argent’s senior project director says “Coal Drops Yard had to be rewarding for your time, because time is the luxury now. If you spend time with us, we want you to have a lovely time in return.” Source.

This is interesting! They want people to have a lovely time but in large it still needs money! In terms of the site’s history they could have done so much more and ensured people of all ranges could have a lovely time. However in my view (and others I would assume too) the way they have done it is to truncate the site’s history quite considerably so it is quite difficult for people to come and find out what the coal drops were and how they worked. I mean, let’s face it, a cathedral or church (any example will do, St. Paul’s, Notre Dame) or the British Museum for another example, people still want to learn about the building and its histories and institutions. Yes there are also shops and restaurants in these places too, everyone is being catered for there is no narrow focus.

My point is, okay, if they want everyone to come and enjoy the site why has so much of the historical fabric been taken out. No where atCoal Drops Yard does one see an information board which says, ‘this is where the rail trucks dropped their coal into carts below,’ that sort of thing, and a real coal drops bay restored to largely as it once was to show people what the site looked like before. The fact they have removed everything in part tells us they are interested only in the commercial side, and the historical side takes sixth, seventh, eighth fiddle, whatever. Let’s take a different example of commercialism/business that has taken over a large parcel of land in London, but at the same time they have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the site’s history forms a major part of the development and it is unique. This happens to be Blomberg’s and the London Mithraeum.

I dont know if I have chosen an excellent analogy with which to illustrate the differences, but clearly Blomberg’s have gone to extraordinary lengths to restore this important aspect of London’s Roman history. It’s free, extremely visual, interactive, and informative. And they’re still running a business besides that. The whole of their public site is for anyone regardless of their background or status.

If I am utterly wrong on any aspect of this please let me know. Feel free to criticise me even!

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If history was not that important why did they not just demolish the lot? So much more could have been done with the site just as they are doing over the other side of the Regent’s Canal. But they wanted to keep these important 1850s structures and present them in a new way. Fair enough. Just don’t pretend the drops yards are still historic structures. They are not. They are modern structures through and through, much like Damien Hirst’s cows or sheep. These too were once sheep or cows but not anymore.

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Nice they’ve kept this old (actually 1960s era) notice, but its not really cohesive in the grand scheme of the entire site.

The fact the site’s valuable history is frequently cited leads to a sort of confusion. What exactly are they trying to say? Is it what they see as a truly historic site or is it a way of presenting history differently? If the site’s history is indeed so important then in my opinion they could have done a lot better. They haven’t.

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In an attempt to present the site’s historic credentials, with different bricks they’ve outlined the bases of the original viaduct which was demolished to make way for their modern interpretation of the site.

I came to be of the opinion what had been done amounted to a sort of sacrilege. How could such a historic site of such a unique nature and one that was practically unheard of in the UK, especially when other railway coal drops elsewhere are frequently simple affairs and none on the scale of this, have been allowed to be demolished and re-altered to such an extent its past became nothing more than just a tiny aspect of the whole?

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Some capstans and pulleys (the only ones left on site) without any inkling as to what they were for.

I had a walk around some of the site with these people, you may remember them from the other post a few days ago. The guy on the left was explaining to me his views of the development, then I insisted they joined me for a short walk and I showed them some aspects I had concerns about and they fully agreed with me it was quite poor. We will come back to that later and especially peruse critical aspects of the retention of the site’s history.

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The one major defining element at CDY is its roofs. No-one can fail to not appreciate the way the roofs have been built and the two sides merged together. This is indeed the one totally wow factor of the site. I’m sure many cant get over that unique aspect! Let’s face it, I’m impressed too. I just wish they had thought more about the history itself too. By the way the good news for those interested is Samsung will be based within the roofs from next year so there will be three levels of shopping/consumerism to contend with and a whole floor of technology and the latest smart phones to play with 🙂

Since this is a critique let’s first start with the roof. The first afternoon of the yard’s opening had such strong sunlight that the new curved roof acted as a hugely powerful parabolic mirror. In fact each pane amplified the sun’s rays to an extent it was extremely blinding and the heat that could be felt was wow! It was just like being in an oven. I don’t know if that is the intent but if it was, I do have concerns for people who may unintentionally look at the huge power being issued from the windows and suffer possible damage to their eyes. Even when I tried to take my photographs to show the effect the light was so powerful it was almost unbearable.

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I remember the issues with the Walkie Talkie in the City. When first built it acted too like a parabolic mirror and could melt things, cook food even! In due course they had to deal with the problem because it was quite dangerous. At the Coal Drops Yard it might be a nice boon in mid winter when its cold and there’s this oasis of lovely heat coming from the sun and who can blame people for wanting to gather around the site and enjoy some lovely sun in the midst of an English winter? I do think they will have to sort it however because there will be safety concerns.

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Looking from a modern lift interior towards a modern shopping forecourt.

The lifts were an aspect I liked very much. Each lift has a distinctly styled set of exterior buttons and the floors were stylised in brick to reflect the brick courtyards. A nice touch. The approaches to at least one of the lifts and each of the stairwells were a different matter however and the lifts were sadly part of the overall complement, that muddled thinking which has considerably destroyed the site’s historic aspect.

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One of the east side lifts – with a iron column which seems quite out of context.

IMG 9062 - Coal Drops Yard: a critique  IMG 7426 - Coal Drops Yard: a critique

I liked the attempts to give each of the lifts a particular identity by way of these huge button surrounds. Whether it fully meets the accessibility requirements is another question.

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In order to proceed further with this essay, for those who do not know what the original bays beneath the railway viaducts looked like, here’s one picture I featured the other day, again embedded from source. I think its important to know this image.

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The amazing construction in these historic buildings dating back to the 1850s can be clearly seen. Its so incredibly fantastic and alluring even in its semi derelict state. One wants to know more about these and the purpose and the work they were intended for. Yet its clear they haven’t kept any aspect of the Coal Drops in their truest sense! Oh yes they do like to be proud of the fact these are the ‘Coal Drops yard!’

I did not much care for the truncated sections of cast iron lintels or columns that were presented to the public. What are they trying to say? Why don’t they just encase these historic columns within a tank of formaldehyde and have it done with?

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Is a quarter length of 1850s cast iron lintel and a pair of columns better than having none?

The sense of history or what is left of it is difficult to grasp. There are elements of the former fabric here and there that could give one a sort of sense how the buildings once looked. But its not good enough. Nowhere on the site is there any part that looks remotely as it once did. In my personal view they’ve planned it badly. This is where myself and the two guys I mentioned a bit earlier, went to examine, because I wanted a second opinion on this act of sacrilege. Both guys agreed with me it was very poor planning when I showed them these various elements. It was clear to us these historical elements had been rendered as a somewhat banal situation.

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A historic column that’s been rendered quite illogical. The point being??

If one looked inside some of the shops the full length of the historic iron lintels could be seen along with the wooden beams they were intended to support. So why was this not done in the public areas? It seems to me it was sort of like ‘well if you’re prepared to spend a bit of money we’ll show you the more sexy bits.’

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The wooden beams and full length lintels within one of the coffee shops.

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Here the old wooden beams have been taken away and the anchorage holes left. I’m not sure it really works.

Yes they have kept some of the wonderful cast iron columns with their distinctive diamond finals, and a quite small number of the splendid double arched ways, but that alone is not enough. Agreeably this sort of stylises the site but fails to give that all important context which I think should have been a prime element of the entire development. You know, I think if they had worked harder on that aspect and not demolished so much, plus perhaps kept several of the bays themselves as they were along with some industrial artifacts such as the unique capstans and winding gear, you know that sort of thing but go many steps better it would have then been a far more exciting place. That alone would attract a lot more people and more money because people love history. Isn’t that what they wanted?

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Interesting arches and decorative stone headings right at the back of one of the restaurants, well away from the public gaze.

Heatherwick Studios has an impressive number of staff, many creative brains and different ways of looking at the challenges on offer, yet sadly no-one could come up with a plan that would have made the site so much better! What they have instead done is to ensure essentially what can be construed a narrow philosophical outlook coupled with a strange historic interpretation of this once important site.

Coal Drops Yard has indeed been made for a particular clientele. People who don’t think twice about buying extraneously expensive goods. Its not really for the general public, nor the historian, those school children with a keen eye and a desire to learn something about the area’s past, or anyone else, male, female, whatever race, creed, ability etc, who might be curious about what the site once looked and might have wanted to know more about it.

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A somewhat poor representation of a historic element which I think actually shows a confused approach to the site’s history.

You know, I think in their desire to develop Coal Drops Yard the way they have, a whole swathe of potential clientele has been removed from the equation. That’s a hugely sad loss. A better utilisation of the site’s history and a more creative, level headed approach would have achieved a site which without a doubt would have been for all tastes and all ranges.

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A good try, but I feel this attempt seriously lacks any historical aspirations they may have intended.

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I don’t know why but like this because it gives a nice feel of history. I think its the mix of brick, iron, and wood that does it. Sadly it seems its soon going to be a new shop front!

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One of the parts of the site that has more of a historic feel with some brackets retained too (in spite of the intrusive modern lights.)

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As the above photograph shows, its nice to see that along this part there has been some serious effort to show some essence of the site’s history. But its not indicative of a well though out approach.

In this day and age of equality one would have thought a much wider focus of clientele was one that would have been preferred, but it seems not. Gentrification and money seem to be the only languages that are understood by some of our designers and developers. I had a conversation with Betty in the King’s Cross visitor centre a few days previously and everything was wrote down so I was clear what she was saying about the development. We were both in full agreement with regards to many elements of CDY. She told me:

“I think design-wise it’s very interesting but I’m not quite sure how necessary or useful it would be to have a shopping mall here. I also find King’s Cross is a very gentrified place.”

Some of the other points Betty made were “There are so many shops here already. Also the shops to be opened are very high-end. I wonder how many people here will actually buy?” Also that CDY is a “pastiche, a poor attempt of a Covent Garden in North London.” Exactly! What works at Covent Garden is not something that will work here.

Let’s face it, I am not the only one to express sentiments that Coal Drops Yard is for a certain clientele. There’s no doubt about that. You can see it on Twitter and other social media, in the forums, the news, on other blogs. People are suitably concerned about this with several implying they’ll never have a need to go to CDY. Diamond Geezer conveyed these sentiments exactly when he said at least CDY is a place he can go and ‘spend a penny’ and its something I fully agree with. Like a number of others it’ll be a place I pass through perhaps out of necessity or simply en route somewhere else.

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1 Comment

  1. We are living through a period when no opportunity has been missed to add in ‘shopping opportunities’ to developments designed to increase expensive accommodation and to add profit to those developments. As internet shopping has increased, so many shops about the capital have begun to be surplus to requirements and so they are now closing; likewise ‘ordinary’ pubs close because ordinary people can’t afford to use them any longer. Instead they drink at home and eat out occasionally at Nando’s as a treat. This kind of high grade development is indicative of the extent to which the long-term strategy of the current government is about re-creating class stratification, and is leading to longer-term economic structure problems. It is a form of economic cleansing: I will end badly.

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